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Flashes of a Southern Spirit

Meanings of the Spirit in the U.S. South

Charles Reagan Wilson

Publication Year: 2011

Flashes of a Southern Spirit explores meanings of the spirit in the American South, including religious ecstasy and celebrations of regional character and distinctiveness.

Charles Reagan Wilson sees ideas of the spirit as central to understanding southern identity. The South nurtured a patriotic spirit expressed in the high emotions of Confederates going off to war, but the region also was the setting for a spiritual outpouring of prayer and song during the civil rights movement. Arguing for a spiritual grounding to southern identity, Wilson shows how identifications of the spirit are crucial to understanding what makes southerners invest so much meaning in their regional identity.

From the late nineteenth-century invention of southern tradition to early twenty-first-century folk artistic creativity, Wilson examines a wide range of cultural expression, including music, literature, folk art, media representations, and religious imagery. He finds new meanings in the works of such creative giants as William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and Elvis Presley, while at the same time closely examining little-studied figures such as the artist/revivalist McKendree Long. Wilson proposes that southern spirituality is a neglected category of analysis in the recent flourishing of interdisciplinary studies on the South—one that opens up the cultural interaction of blacks and whites in the region.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface. Spirit and a New Southern Studies

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pp. ix-xvi

The chapters in this book have all been previously published but in a diverse array of publications. Four of them were originally prepared for international southern studies conferences, and four more began at annual professional associations and symposia. ...

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pp. xvii-xx

I am grateful to the original editors and publishers of these essays for permission to reprint edited versions of them. They appeared originally as the following: "The Invention of Southern Tradition: The Writing and Ritualization of Southern History, 1880-1940,"Rewriting the South: History and Fiction, ed. Lothar Honnighausen ...

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Introduction. "The Soul-Life of the Land": Meanings of the Spirit in the U.S. South

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pp. 1-24

Soul singer Al Green was born in Arkansas, moved to Michigan, and then returned to the South in 1970, noting later that "there's something here that makes it easier for that music of the soul, that feeling sort of music, to come out." In a 1986 essay on "The Southern Soul," Green saw history as the background to a distinctive spirit in the South, ...


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One. The Invention of Southern Tradition: The Writing and Ritualization of Southern History, 1880-1930

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pp. 27-47

Like many other American small towns in the 1930s, Hazelhurst, Mississippi, presented its self-image to the world through a post office mural commissioned as one of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal cultural programs. The scene the community chose captures our attention because it presents an image intended to evoke the Old South. ...

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Two. The Burden of Southern Culture

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pp. 48-60

The South Carolina legislature voted in May 2000 to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state's capitol, an event of enormous symbolic significance in the redefinition of southern culture. The flag had once flown over several state capitols in the South. One of the last states to remove it, Alabama, did so in 1993, after a lawsuit from African Americans, ...

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Three. Saturated Southerners: The South's Poor Whites and Southern Regional Consciousness

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pp. 61-76

James Agee spent much of the summer of 1936 in rural Alabama, observing the hard life of white sharecroppers. "These children," he wrote, after visiting pupils at a local school, "both of town and country, are saturated southerners, speaking dialects not very different from the negroes. ...

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Four. Our Land, Our Country: Faulkner, the South, and the American Way of Life

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pp. 77-92

In his essay "On Privacy (The American Dream: What Happened to It?)" William Faulkner complained of the invasion of his privacy by a writer who penned a story on him despite his wishes. He blamed corporate America: the magazine company, not the writer, was really at fault. This experience led Faulkner to speculate ...

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Five. The Myth of the Biracial South

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pp. 93-114

Charles L. Black, a born- and- bred white southerner, was teaching at the Yale Law School in 1957 when he wrote an article for The New Republic in which he outlined the legal and moral appeals that might be made to sympathetic whites to promote desegregation of the South. At the end of the essay, he revealed a dream he had long had, formed from pondering ...

Visualizing the Spirit

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Six. Beyond the Sahara of the Bozart: Creativity and Southern Culture

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pp. 117-127

In One Writer's Beginnings, Eudora Welty gives a superb portrait of the creativity nurtured in her by her family and community in Mississippi. Her parents embodied a creative dialogue. The inspiration from her father came in the form of technology - the telescopes around the house to look at the moon and stars, ...

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Seven. Flashes of the Spirit: Creativity and Southern Religion

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pp. 128-145

Long ago, while driving through rural North Carolina, I came across a hand-lettered sign on rough wood, fastened to a tree. A primitive drawing portrayed a hand with a nail through it and drops of blood, painted in bright red, flowing out of the hand. Beneath this drawing were the words HE LOVED YOU SO MUCH IT HURT. ...

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Eight. The Word and the Image: Self-Taught Art, the Bible, the Spirit, and Southern Creativity

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pp. 146-162

Flannery O'Connor, the Georgia-born, Roman Catholic writer whose most acclaimed works appeared in the 1950s, saw the South through a lens of faith that would have enabled her to appreciate the region's self-taught artists. She was a storyteller and so too have been these creative visionaries. ...


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Nine. Apocalypse South: McKendree Long and Southern Evangelicalism

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pp. 204-216

In a "Sermon on St. Peter," recorded around 1950, the Reverend McKendree Robbins Long preached on the need for revival during a wicked time. "A great Southern preacher once said, 'There are plenty more Pentecosts in the sky,'" Long noted. He added, however, that while that might be true for "mere revivals," ...

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Ten. "Just a Little Talk with Jesus": Elvis Presley, Religious Music, and Southern Spirituality

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pp. 178-192

In December 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in at Sun Studios in Memphis, just as a Carl Perkins recording session was ending. Presley was now a national star, having transcended during that year his previous status as a regional rockabilly performer. But that December afternoon turned into a special day, ...

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Eleven. Richard Wright's Pagan Spain: A Southern Protestant Abroad

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pp. 193-203

When Richard Wright arrived in Seville in the spring of 1955 to observe Holy Week in the Spanish city, the first thing he commented on were shop windows filled with "tiny robed figures with tall, pointed hoods that gave [him] a creepy feeling, for these objects reminded [him] of the Ku Klux Klan of the Old American South." ...

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Twelve. A Journey to Southern Religious Studies

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pp. 204-216

My journey to the study of southern religion began as a child in Nashville, Tennessee, took me to Texas, and brought me to Mississippi. It began in the Church of Christ, led to years outside any church orbit, and has brought me now to Episcopalianism. I am a historian but easily see ways to use the theories and methods of other disciplines to illuminate the study of southern religion in context. ...

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Afterword. Constructing and Experiencing the Spirit

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pp. 217-220

This book has examined ways that "the spirit" has informed understandings of the South. We have looked at writers, musicians, vernacular artists, preachers, politicians, policy makers, journalists, and others in an attempt to capture something of the breadth of meanings of the spirit in the South. ...


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pp. 221-244


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pp. 245-249

E-ISBN-13: 9780820339566
E-ISBN-10: 0820339563
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820338293
Print-ISBN-10: 082033829X

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Southern States -- Religious life and customs.
  • Southern States -- Religion -- Social aspects.
  • Group identity -- Southern States.
  • Regionalism -- Southern States.
  • Southern States -- Civilization.
  • Spiritual life -- Social aspects -- Southern States.
  • Spirituality -- Social aspects -- Southern States.
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