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Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South

Jason Phillips

Publication Year: 2013

On November 5, 1968, Ralph Ellison stood up at the Southern Historical Association meeting in New Orleans and called the members gathered there “respectable liars,” thus exposing the link between “official” history and the dominant consciousness of the time. Historian Jason Phillips refers to such scholarship as “master narratives”—stories masquerading as truth that promote the interests of white patriarchy past and present. In this innovative collection, Phillips and ten other historians and literary scholars explore an enduring dynamic between history, literature, and power in the American South. Blending analysis with storytelling, and professional insights with personal experiences, they “deconstruct Dixie,” insisting that writing the South’s history means harnessing, not criticizing, the inherent power of narrative. The contributors examine white southern narratives from multiple, fresh perspectives and consider ways in which storytelling helped shape identity and mold scholarship over time. Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues that William Percy’s life and work blurred fact and fiction as he negotiated the anti-intellectual conventions of a rural, hierarchical South as a cosmopolitan and homosexual. Orville Vernon Burton and Ian Binnington investigate nationalism, local allegiances, and the imagined community of the Confederacy. Farrell O’Gorman, Jewel L. Spangler, David A. Davis, Robert Jackson, Anne Marshall, K. Stephen Prince, and Jim Downs explore diverse topics such as southern Gothic fiction and the centrality of religion, white trash autobiographies, the “professional southerner” in literature and criticism, and the “one-drop rule” of racial taxonomy in America. Like Ellison, these writers look beyond ideology and race, including how often-overlooked, basic elements of a work—such as its form, plot, aesthetics, or genre—can re- or deconstruct white southern power. Showcasing new ways of interpreting texts, they encourage historians and literary scholars to move beyond theory to engage the historical context of southern stories and storytelling while reading evidence more deeply and stories more broadly.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies


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pp. C-C


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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: The Liars at the Jung Hotel

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pp. 1-11

On November 5, 1968, the day after a tumultuous election ended with Richard Nixon as president, Ralph Ellison stood before the Southern Historical Association at the Jung Hotel, New Orleans, and called the members gathered there “respectable liars.” The time, place, and audience compelled Ellison to “be a little nasty” about how historians had obscured the “racial situation in the country.” On the subject of race,....

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Will Percy and Lanterns on the Levee Revisited

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pp. 12-42

William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (1941) remains a memorial to a long-vanished southern culture. In his preface to a paperback edition in 1973, Walker Percy begins a lively and sensitive introduction to the masterpiece written by his “fabled relative.”1 His word for his “Uncle Will,” as he called him, was appropriate. It applied not only to the author but to...

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Rewriting American Borders: The Southern Gothic, Religion, and U.S. Historical Narrative

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pp. 43-69

In approaching our common concern, I want to address what many believe to be the most potentially fruitful recent development in scholarship on the U.S. South: its turn to New World or Hemispheric American studies. Scholars working in this area are, I believe, quite right to have us looking south of the South in order to better understand the region’s history and literature alike. Nonetheless, in doing so we should...

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The Jack Burden of Southern History: Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, and Historical Practice

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pp. 70-87

In November 1968 historian C. Vann Woodward and novelist Robert Penn Warren appeared together at a symposium at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in New Orleans. Their panel was entitled “The Uses of History in Fiction” and included southern writers Ralph Ellison and William Styron, whose controversial new book, The Confessions of Nat Turner, provided the genesis for the gathering....

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Marse Chan, New Southerner: Or, Taking Thomas Nelson Page Seriously

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pp. 88-104

The years have not been kind to Thomas Nelson Page. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, Page was a darling of the American literary world. He published a string of successful novels, placed his short stories in every major literary magazine in the country, and won praise from northerners...

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Poison Stories: A Rereading of Revolutionary Virginia’s Baptist “Revolt”

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pp. 105-125

The 1792 poisoning of Virginia Baptist minister James Ireland had all the makings of a good story. There was a mystery: everyone from the victims to the district court judges was anxious to determine who put arsenic in the Ireland family’s evening tea. The story had high drama. A roomful of people were sickened and a crowd of friends, neighbors, county officials, and medical specialists rushed to the scene to...

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“And Bid Him Bear a Patriot’s Part”: National and Local Perspectives on Confederate Nationalism

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pp. 126-155

Albert Padgett, sixteen years old in 1860, opposed secession. Padgett, a native of Edgefield District, South Carolina, was attending Dickinson College in Pennsylvania when South Carolina seceded. As a college student, he wrote of the men who advocated it that they, “as Milton expresses it—‘Had rather rule in Hell, Than serve in Heaven,’”...

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Her Life, My Past: Rosina Downs and the Proliferation of Racial Categories after the American Civil War

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pp. 156-186

I want to begin with a story about a girl who traveled from New Orleans to Philadelphia in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Her story contains fractions of a broken genealogy that have passed through the historical record with scant clues detailing America’s obsession with color. For a brief moment she was a celebrity, and while many of the details of her later life remain unknown, she has over the...

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Abjection and White Trash Autobiography

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pp. 187-204

In the eyes of many people, I grew up white trash. Until I was six years old, my family lived in a trailer beside the railroad tracks in a small southern county seat. My mother’s father was the county sheriff, so her family had a claim to middle-class legitimacy, but my father was in prison, which effectively negated that claim. We were poor, below the poverty line, but we were never hungry, and we had the stuff...

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The Professional Southerner and the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 205-224

When the Dude flirts with Bunny in The Big Lebowski (1998), she tells him not to worry about the large man passed out on a raft in the nearby swimming pool. “Uli doesn’t care about anything,” she says. “He’s a nihilist.” To which the Dude responds perceptively, “Ah, that must be exhausting.” Indeed, Uli Kunkel, alias Karl Hungus, and his fellow nihilists spend an exorbitant amount of time and...


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pp. 225-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780807150351
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807150344

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies
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OCLC Number: 841229168
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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Historical fiction, American -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and history -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Postmodernism (Literature) -- Southern States.
  • Storytelling in literature.
  • Southern States -- In literature.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Autobiographical memory in literature.
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