The first edition of Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Robert Bain, Joseph Flora, and Louis Rubin, has been a major research tool for those of us who teach and write in the field ever since it was published in 1979. Along with Rubin’s Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Literature, published a decade earlier, it was an early sign that southern literary study had reached a kind of institutional maturity. The appearance of a new edition, meant to take account of changes in the field in recent decades, is therefore literally significant: a sign of the continuing vitality of the field, and also a mileage marker indicating its movement since 1979.
What has changed? Scope, most obviously; twenty-nine years ago only 379 southern writers, from James Rufus Agee to John Joachim Zubly, seemed to merit an entry; today the number is 604. As with most ventures in canon-making, change comes mainly as simple addition; it is easier to welcome new members than to expel old ones (which makes it, presumably, all the more ignominious to be Edwin A. Alderman, William Malone Baskerville, or any of the other five writers now cut from the team). Many of the new faces are writers whose careers got going, or gained wide recognition, after 1979. The old edition didn’t need to recognize Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, and others of their vintage. The current edition does, and in fact makes room for a handful even younger. [End Page 158]
But the most revealing additions reflect not just the passage of time but changes in the way we understand our discipline. Who counts as a southern writer nowadays? Interestingly, “southern” seems to mean pretty much what it did in 1979: white or black people from the former Confederacy, the border states, and Oklahoma. Southern writers, even in those days, didn’t have to be Agrarians or products of the plantation; Texans, urbanites, and the chroniclers of Appalachia were all welcome. So were African Americans; the first edition made room for well-known figures like William Wells Brown, Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others, and included some more obscure black writers as well. In the new edition they are joined by some writers whose absence in 1979 is hard to explain—where were Frederick Douglass and Albert Murray?—and some, like Hannah Crafts, who have only lately become well-known. But these additions do not reflect a major change in our understanding of the South or its literature.
In fact, the term whose meaning has really changed since the late 1970s is apparently “writer.” In the first edition a writer was somebody who produced serious novels, poems, plays, or criticism. But the new volume includes naturalists (William Bartram and E.O. Wilson), historians (C. Vann Woodward and John Hope Franklin) and authors of crime thrillers (John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell). There’s more room for humorists (Lewis Grizzard and Roy Blount join Mark Twain and the writers of the old Southwest), journalists (Howell Raines and Molly Ivins crowd in with H.L. Mencken and W.J. Cash) and presidents (Thomas Jefferson welcomes Jimmy Carter to the club). None of this should be surprising, since one of the most obvious developments in literary study generally in the last 30 years has been the effort to move the borders of literature outward to include more kinds of texts than just the well-wrought urns acknowledged by New Criticism. Take the new Southern Writers as one more in a spate of books—from Southern Literature and Literary Theory (1990) to Look Away!: The U.S. South in New World Studies (2004)—proving that southern studies is keeping up, or trying to, with the literary-critical times.
One of the southern writers whose presence in the canon has not changed since 1979 is Edgar Allan Poe, who is also the subject of a new biography by...