- World War I and Southern Modernism by David A. Davis
David A. Davis's World War I and Southern Modernism examines the role of the Great War on the period known as the Southern Renaissance, arguing that the war and its effects on the region were considerably more significant to the development of southern modernism than has been generally recognized. Much of the book's analysis centers on the distinction between "proximal modernism"—work produced by writers located in cosmopolitan sites of modernity such as New York and major European cities—and "distal modernism"—work produced by writers located outside these centers of modernity and whose contact with modernity was secondary or attenuated, which Davis calls "modernism without modernity" (pp. 6, 7). World War I brought an understanding of modernity to a region that had yet to actually experience any significant modernizing forces, and the resulting literary production was a modernism that was often (though far from always) conservative in nature and skeptical about the disruptiveness of modernity to southern tradition. Davis argues that those figures who had the most experience with proximal modernity—such as soldiers who spent time in Europe and African Americans who relocated to Harlem—were more likely to see modernity as a positive force and to produce work that more closely resembled the fragmentation and disillusionment associated with the modernism of the Lost Generation.
World War I and Southern Modernism surveys a range of southern writers and considers the experiences of southerners who fought in the war, those who remained in the South, and those who migrated away from the South as a result of the war's economic effects on the region. Davis examines works by black and white writers; the chapter on southern women's fiction addresses works by black and white southern women and traces the ways race affected southern women's experience of the war, while a chapter on the experience of black southern soldiers functions as a counterpoint to the preceding chapter about the tension between sectionalism and nationalism in writings by white southern soldiers. This broadly inclusive understanding of southern writing—which also attends to class tensions in the region—introduces considerably more nuance into the discussion of a war that had significantly varied effects on different groups of southerners. [End Page 213]
While the book draws from a range of sources—both well- and lesser-known southern texts, as well as authors' letters and memoirs—the most extensive discussion of the formal characteristics of southern modernism is confined to the first chapter, which explores the relationship between the contact with modernity that emerged from the war and the forms of modernism produced by southern writers. The subsequent chapters are light on extended close reading, instead pairing a historical overview with a synthesis of critical perspectives before transitioning into a discussion of the literary figures and works. Chapter 2, for instance, surveys historical and literary-critical scholarship on the tensions between sectionalism and nationalism in the transition from the post-Reconstruction heyday of the Lost Cause to the unifying patriotism of the war, before exploring the ways that William Alexander Percy, Paul Green, and Donald Davidson negotiated their sectional and national identities in their writings about the war.
World War I and Southern Modernism provides a valuable and multidisciplinary reassessment of the history of southern modernism and the ways modernity unevenly permeated the region, contributing to the scholarly conversation that reevaluates the role of modernity and the relationship between region and nation in the literature and history of the South.