The south and its writers have probably captured the imaginations of Americans in a way that no other region and regional literature have. Writing about southern literature appears to pose a special problem, though, for everyone who comes to this task seems compelled to a kind of comprehensive analysis, one that tries to account for the great variety, power, and influence of this region and its literary outpouring. Ted Spivey's Revival: Southern Writers in the Modern City is one such ambitious book. Its aims, he admits, are multiple and complex. He sets out to produce simultaneously "an essay on culture," an examination of the image of "the city in its various aspects," and a study of the major modern southern writers as they have responded to a changing world. In effect, the book examines what the author terms a literary "southern urban renewal."
That multiplicity of focus is almost the work's undoing, though, for with so many tasks to carry out, it never manages to stick to any one of them long enough to explore it properly or tellingly. The book's strength is its lengthy introduction that is itself an ambitious and insightful "essay on culture." In it, Spivey examines a number of "southern pseudo-myths," such as "the great white mansion," "happy slaves," "resplendent lords and ladies" of the old South, and "slave-driving fanatics." Although he admits that such pseudo-myths have their correspondents in other parts of America, he argues that the southern ones "have a far more ridiculous quality about them" than those of other regions and suggests that such tales invariably tend to drive truth "from the intellectual and the cultural marketplace." As he dismisses various of those pseudo-myths that have skewed much thought about the south and its literature, Spivey begins outlining a view of southern culture grounded in "the continuing power of two forces," "community and hierarchy," and he establishes the southern urban center as a touchstone for these cultural concerns.
However, the city—and the university community that Spivey sees as functioning similarly to the city—ultimately proves to be only a tenuous link or unifying element, as the book shifts into a rather routine survey of modern southern writers. The bulk of the book examines the work of such figures as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy, and in each case the author tries to ground his discussion on a particular urban locale. For example, we view the Agrarians against the background afforded by Nashville and Vanderbilt University. The connections within the separate authorial discussions, though, are often vague, as in each chapter the "modern city" quickly recedes from view, generally to be replaced by a traditional survey of the subject's literary canon. When those separate discussions verge [End Page 319] on the book's original premise, as is the case with the Wolfe chapter, they do prove revealing and valuable. At other times, though, as in the Percy section, vague generalities and a dutiful review of the critical commentary take the place of a truly city-oriented analysis.
In effect, Revival is two books: one analyzing southern myths and efforts at cultural revival, and the other offering a history of modern southern literature set against a vague background of the city. Both of these are significant and potentially revealing topics for development, and Spivey's thorough knowledge of—and care for—the material he is dealing with repeatedly shows through. It may be that his editor did him a disservice by not suggesting that he rework this book as two separate studies. Spivey's strength is clearly on southern myth and culture, and he deserves to be heard at length on that topic. He is simply less at home, seems...