- Reviewed by
Telling how U.S. Southern talk is indirect, suggestive, and consists of stories, Margaret Jones Bolsterli says that Northern conversation contrasts, is debate and confrontation of ideas and "is why northerners are considered abrasive; their normal pattern of talking requires that they begin thinking of exceptions to every generalization the minute they hear it."
Bolsterli's wonderful autobiographical essay, Born in the Delta: Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility, is rife with generalizations, but implied generalizations, Southern style, grounded and embedded in stories. It is both a revelation and an analysis of what the U.S. South is like; and it draws on Bolsterli's bi-regional, bi-cultural, and international experience to interpret the South into which she was born and where she now lives. The book is about the particulars [End Page 495] of white family life and community life in the Mississippi River Delta in the 1930s and 1940s, and as such, is a meditation on what being a U.S. Southerner means.
Born in the Delta of the Mississippi River on a small plantation in Desha County, Arkansas, between the little towns of Watson and Dumas, but educated in St. Louis and Minneapolis all the way up to a Ph.D., and extensively traveled in the U.S. and Europe, including time spent living in England and Denmark, Bolsterli's "Northern" and outsider knowledge is first-hand as well as her South. Thus, Bolsterli's work is both that of the Southerner native-born and of the cosmopolitan richly experienced with contrasting ways of knowing.
Writing of her desire to escape the confines of the Delta in her youth, she says, "Our house was full of stories and things, but I yearned for conversation and ideas." Years later, having returned to Arkansas as a professor at its state university, she tells in her book the stories and shows with her words the things of the very house she left with such ambition; but she tells them and shows them with the voice and views she gained abroad. Choosing in her maturity to be a storyteller, she does so directly, purposefully, toward the end of elucidating ideas.
Both Southerners and students of the South with little knowledge of it, as well as general readers, will profit from Bolsterli's book. The telling of her family's stories makes good reading as tales and pleasure for everyone. Bolsterli's skillful placement of the stories in the frame of Southern cultural and historical analysis provides a savvy intellectual measure for the book's reading also to be disclosive of the culture of the South.
Besides the Southerners' peculiar way of talking, by telling stories and intimating instead of stating ideas, Bolsterli's white Southerners know violence in a particularly personal way. They have a peculiarly intimate and extensive, although condescending, pattern of interaction with black people. They have a rigid but unnamed class system among whites in which a young girl knows that she cannot frequent homes where children are pronounced "common" by her elders, even though "common" children can come to hers. "Nice" people, on the other hand, the opposite of "common"," are God-fearing churchgoers, are fastidious about the details of the correct use of grammar, read books, have good table manners, and are aware of the burdensome history of the Confederacy, the Civil War, and its legacy of segregation and racism.
Bolsterli's book has a chapter on each of these themes of the particularity of Southern white experience; and in each chapter she writes with humor, light-hearted memory, depth, and moral insight about why as well as how her Southerners are the way they are. Anecdotes precede judgments, descriptions follow assessments, and there emerges slowly, and gently but firmly, a portrait of the South. The following are some samples of her conclusions.
On grammar, "Grammatical speech was thought to separate the sheep from the goats; it denoted a position in the community and the world that people...