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Southern Literature and Literary Theory, Jefferson Humphries claims in his introduction, marks a new beginning in Southern literary scholarship, an opening up of the canon to the theoretical developments of the last few decades. It also, Humphries suggests, signals the passing of one generation of Southern critics ("the Rubin generation," he terms it for Louis D. Rubin, Jr.) and the emergence of another ("the Humphries generation," he doesn't call it but might just as well have). This new group, Humphries argues, has rooted its vision, as the former group did, in the wrenching paradoxes of Southern history, but those of the Civil Rights movement rather than those of the Civil War. And they've done away with the New Criticism's worship of the literary object to embrace a critical skepticism that bares for all to see the unreconstructed ideology of the old guard.
Obviously, the state of affairs in Southern letters is not so simple: the generation of critics Humphries identifies as Rubin's is not so homogeneous and monolithic as he proposes nor is his revisionist enterprise ideology-free, a claim that Humphries astoundingly makes when he says the purpose of his book is to cross a threshold of literary criticism "beyond ideology."
Maybe Humphries here means no totalizing ideology (which he ascribes to the New Critics) since he brings together a collection of essays by critics whose allegiances are relatively diverse. But Humphries's ideological bias is nonetheless clear, with his book having a preponderance of essays decidedly deconstructionist, with a good number of contributors either French or teachers of French. Given the heterodoxy for which Humphries pleads, one wonders where the rest of the world is.
There is some fine new work in this collection, most notably essays by William Andrews on New South writing, Michael Kreyling on The Fathers, John Mathews on Pylon, and Craig Werner on Chesnutt. (Harold Bloom and [End Page 375] Henry Louis Gates have widely-known essays reprinted here.) But there is some chaff too, and Humphries does not appear to have wielded a strong editorial hand either in shaping the overall book or the individual entries. One wonders, for instance, why we need four essays (out of 20) on Faulkner, the one Southern author who has for years already attracted myriad theoretical readings. And what's really gained by eschewing any attempt at meaningful order for the essays by organizing them alphabetically by author? And why, given the thrust of this enterprise to play up the new generation of Southern writers and critics, is there so little discussion of the vanguard of contemporary Southern writers, such as Barry Hannah, Frederick Barthelme, or Josephine Humphreys, to name only a few?
So amidst all this book's talk about the gap between signifier and signified, one finds just such a gap in the book's title and content. There's a great deal of promise here, but the groundedness that one at times finds keeps slip sliding away.