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The question propelling Tara Powell’s new book, The Intellectual in Twentieth-Century Southern Literature, is a familiar one for students [End Page 849] of southern literature and history: how should intellectuals locate themselves in a regional culture that is too often received as a cultural backwater? Or to borrow from W. J. Cash, one of the region’s most famously tortured thinkers, is there an irreconcilable gap between mind of the South and the life of the mind? Wisely enough, Powell sidesteps any attempts at providing an ultimate answer, focusing instead on the function of tropes of the intellectual in fiction and memoir. The result is a wide-ranging book that examines the work of both canonical and noncanonical southern writers and draws out the subtleties of a debate about the usefulness of intellectualism that has legacies extending into the present moment.
The book finds a productive subject in the anti-intellectual intellectual, a figure Powell identifies as typically a southern creature dating back to the gentleman scholars of the antebellum period. But the particular variety examined here rises alongside the post-World War II ascension of creative writing as an academic discipline, with the bulk of the writers Powell discusses in detail—Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tim McLaurin, Doris Betts, Gail Godwin—having a distinct relationship to the academy: they are either aligned with a university or, as Powell writes of O’Connor and Percy, deliberately produced “their best work outside of the academy” (63). Of course, Powell isn’t alone in noticing that one of the key determinants in the character of the literary intellectual in the second half of the twentieth century—southern or otherwise—is the institutionalization of creative writing within contemporary English departments. Hovering between university-paid scholars of literature and their unaffiliated peers, creative writers in the academy navigate an uneasy terrain, one that clearly informs their thinking about the complicated role of the intellectual in contemporary society. For Powell’s southern writers, however, this uneasiness relates to a broader regional discomfort with intellectualism at large and produces a regional adaptation of the campus novel, which includes titles as varied as Louis Rubin Jr.’s The Heat of the Sun (1995), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and Julien Green’s Moira (1951).
The book opens with an extended analysis of representations of the intellectual in Flannery O’Connor, a graduate of the then new Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Scanning the breadth of O’Connor’s oeuvre, Powell presents a rich taxonomy of interleckchuls: students (such as Hulga of “Good Country People”), artists (like Julian of “Everything That Rises Must Converge”), and, most dangerously, educationalists (Rayber of The Violent Bear it Away is the clearest example). The book then pivots to one of O’Connor’s intellectual allies, fellow-Catholic southerner Walker Percy, and takes up the “alienated intellectuals” (64) that so often serve as the heroes of his novels. (The interest [End Page 850] in Christian writers navigating the environment of ideas is a recurring motif in the book—Doris Betts is a practicing Christian as well.) From here the scope of the project widens, capturing a number of contemporary writers—most linked to the Chapel Hill area—and, in a chapter that includes perceptive interpretations of Alice Walker and Albert Murray, the tangled histories of literacy and intellectual labor in African American narratives.
As an installment in LSU’s “Southern Literary Studies”—a series that has recently featured some pathbreaking work—Powell’s book feels deliberately unfazed by the current dialogue in what Houston Baker has labeled the “new southern studies”: there is no global reach to her analysis, very little consideration of the construction of region, and few traces of critical theory. This is worth mentioning not to judge the book against a standard to which it never aspires but to point out that The Intellectual in Twentieth-Century Southern Literature finds its material in a different set of concerns about the South. It might also signal a newly emergent strain of southern studies where...