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Where they Lie: Resting Places of Southern Writers in Fact and in Recent Criticism

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 641-647 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0107

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Canonization or the lack thereof—the ongoing arrivals and departures of those works and/or authors, which in some ambiguous manner are collectively deemed unique, representative, or inherently lasting—remains a slippery proposition as various political, aesthetic, and theoretical movements (themselves doomed to finite relevance) vie to push up or cast down their chosen literary champions and ne'er-do-wells. Canonization in southern literature is no exception, privy to its own "literary stock market"—as George Garrett once labeled it—in which works and authors break into and tumble out of anthologies, literary histories, critical studies, and course syllabi with the passing of the decades.

By its very nature canonization invites many largely baseless abstractions and subjectivities, which in part is what makes the relative concreteness of John Soward Bayne's Gravely Concerned: Southern Writers' Graves a refreshing book to read. Interpretation is mostly left to others as Bayne chronologically provides brief summaries and engaging photographs of 157 regional literary graves. Yet the factuality of his undertaking does not entirely spare Bayne the specter of canonization—of inclusion and exclusion. Since there exists no definitive universal measure by which to defend his choices, Bayne perhaps may be excused for sidestepping the quandary: "The selection is based on the authors' popular or critical reputations and the appeal and accessibility of their gravesites. Some may dispute whether these subjects were sufficiently Southern, and whether they were truly writers, but this is certain: they're all dead." With regard to Bayne's final item of qualification no counterargument may arise. While perhaps overly macabre if perused in one sitting, his book makes for a useful work of reference; and, as Ron Rash notes in his blurb, it is "also uplifting in its ability to bring the dead back into the light of the living."

Daniel Cross Turner's critical study of modernist and contemporary southern poetry, Southern Crossings, echoes symbolically the factuality of Bayne's book in its focus on memory. As Natasha Trethewey notes on the dust jacket, "The way we remember has as much to say about our present as our past: memory is living, shifting, culturally formed, and framed." Among those writers Turner must recall and deal with are the Fugitives, whose motifs he describes as, even now, "important, if not dominant," and as "casting a wide shadow" on the southern poets who have followed them. Likewise in her scholarly study The Intellectual in Twentieth-Century Southern Literature Tara Powell must first look back—all the way to William Byrd ii, in fact—before proceeding forward and eventually concluding in the present. Powell maintains that southern writers of the twentieth century, including the Fugitives, wrote "in a tradition characterized from its beginnings by deference to provincialism over intellect, while at the same time part of a national culture in which creative writing [was and still is] firmly located in the academy." As a result, she maintains, "today's southern writers by definition play at being anti-intellectual." By "anti-intellectual recreation" Powell does not suggest a posture of willful illiteracy or redneck barbarism, but instead a refreshing bridge from a sometimes bafflingly remote and inarticulate academy to the verisimilitude of everyday life. Does "it not behoove us," she inquires, "to remain responsible to the world we study, not to mention its inhabitants? Is it not vital for us, if we believe we are human beings wholly and intellectuals only in part, to be able to articulate how our work helps anyone to live in the world?" Whatever one's position on books such as I'll Take My Stand or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, central questions such as those Powell poses did lead to their composition.

Since this consideration of Bayne's, Powell's, and Turner's books cannot cover all of the southern writers they summon or ignore, I have chosen to focus on those who possessed a significant connection to the Sewanee Review, and, by extension, the larger world of southern literature as a whole.

Given, to use Turner's phrase, the continuing "wide shadow" the Fugitives cast over southern poetry and (anti-)intellectualism alike, it is fitting to begin with some of the group...

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