Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 407-408
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From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison: Ethics in Modern and Postmodern American Narrative. Jeffrey J. Folks. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Pp. x + 199. $29.95 (paper).
In a critical era dominated by theories of identity politics, cultural studies, gender and sexuality, the relationship between ethics and literature has crept quietly back into the academy. As Jeffrey Folks points out in his latest examination of Southern literature, Foucault's emphasis on "the care of the self," and Derrida's later writing on ethics signal a re-examination of the relationship between literature and ethical problems (3).
In an engaging introduction, Folks charts the growing disaffection with conventional ethical distinctions in the post-World War I era. Singling out Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, Folks argues that their suspicion and derision of religion, the non-scientific and Victorian morality produced a legacy of "ethical confusion" which effectively foreclosed ethical approaches to literature after the 1950s (2). In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, as Folks points out, poststructuralism's suspicion of humanistic approaches to literature left little space for a development of ethics.
Although Folks acknowledges the influence of Martha Nussbaum and Wayne Booth on contemporary literary ethics, he casts doubt on their assertion that "the refinement of perception based on reading novels is an effective form of moral training" (5). In contrast to the canonical authors examined by Booth and Nussbaum (James, Proust, Woolf), Folks iterates the importance of avoiding elitism and stresses the need to examine ethics through particular social communities. Booth and Nussbaum's emphasis, for example, on an ethics of "perception," is tempered by what Folks describes as the "menacing social environment and by the burden of historical legacies" that many writers in the American South have confronted (8).
From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison: Ethics in Modern and Postmodern American Narrative focuses on Southern, African-American and immigrant fictional and non-fictional writing from the 1930s to the present. In twelve concise chapters, Folks examines eleven disparate authors: Richard Wright, James Agee, Ernest J. Gaines, Henry Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Richard Ford, William Styron, Thomas Keneally, Kaye Gibbons and Toni Morrison. Although Folks draws on postcolonial criticism, his central concern is to examine the ethical value of literature: "its ability to help us think about and feel, more than we otherwise might, the consequences of choices within our own lives and those of others" (6).
Folks's sensitivity to the complexity of the American South is refreshing and well-informed. Written in a lucid and engaging style, his discussions of less well-known works are often illuminating and perceptive. Despite Folks's attunement to the history of ethics and literature, however, there is little engagement with some of the more troubling aspects of ethnicity studies. How are we to define ethics and how has our understanding of it shifted in the twentieth century? What is the relationship between ethical and humanistic readings of literature? Does Folks place too much faith in the ability of literature to communicate "shared ethical beliefs?" (6).
The strength of From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison lies in the nuanced and original readings of non-canonical writers. Opening with a discussion of Richard Wright's coverage of the Bandung Conference of African and Asian nations in 1955 (The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference), Folks examines Wright's move towards "a broadening of community and a search for cultural connection" (19). In describing Wright's attempts to search for a political model that is independent of Western and communist strategies, Folks captures the complexities of the author of Native Son. At once disillusioned with religion and colonialism, Wright remained committed to "his dream of a world governed by ideals of reason and individual dignity," [End Page 407] a side of him that is often lost (300). In his two chapters on James Agee, Folks responds to the charge that the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men "failed to present any significant...