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Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Descent and Vision in the Southern Memoir

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 96-109 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0023

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Southern memoirs often follow a conventional pattern: a writer grows up in the South, experiences a crisis of identity with the cultural values, and eventually overcomes this tension by migrating North, through education, or both. A pattern typified in Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin’s The Making of a Southerner and Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, southern memoirs often depict a writer who flees to find herself, only later to emerge as a more objective critic of the South. Such memoirs by southern whites often come to terms with a moment of crisis centered on race. While these moments of racial awareness may center on pivotal childhood experiences—Lumpkin witnessing her father abusing a black servant and Smith being told that white and colored children cannot play together—they are recounted by an adult who has fled the South and metaphorically returned through the writing of the memoir. In the second paragraph of Killers of the Dream, Smith explains:

This haunted childhood belongs to every southerner of my age. We ran away from it but we came back like a hurt animal to its wound, or a murderer to the scene of his sin. The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt it most. There is a return journey to anguish that few of us are released from making.

(25–26)

While these childhood moments set such writers on a path for understanding themselves and southern culture, the literal and figurative separation from the South enables these writers to write about race in such a forthright manner. Depicting the South as antagonistic to their development, such memoirs make it imperative that the writer transcend cultural constraints in order to achieve a sense of vision.

Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia documents a spiritual journey into the heart of a marginalized religious culture, offering an inversion of this prototypical approach to southern memoirs. From the opening pages of Salvation on Sand Mountain, Covington centers on not race but religion as a key to understanding the South’s identity, and he takes great pains to present a fair and sympathetic perspective of snake handlers and rural southerners alike. Covington’s initial interest in snake handling culture begins when he is a journalist for The New York Times covering the Scottsboro, Alabama, trial of Reverend Glen Summerford, who is eventually convicted to serve ninety-nine years in prison for attempting to murder his wife with the same rattlesnakes used in the services of his church. Rather than viewing the trial as an amusing spectacle of southern freaks, Covington becomes fascinated with the earnest faith of the snake handlers. Covington’s interest is not driven by mere curiosity; he becomes charmed with the snake handling culture in what amounts to gonzo journalism at its finest. Attracted to “the passion and abandon of their worship,” Covington engages in a compassionate investigation into a culture that has been derided as grotesque (67). In what follows, I reveal how Covington employs a rhetorical approach of self-writing that is typical of southern identity memoirs while differing from their epistemology of cultural isolation. While many of these memoirs differ from Salvation on Sand Mountain in their writing about racial injustice and violence, I will show how Covington’s focus on spiritual issues enables him to grapple with the same cumbersome history and social issues that have long plagued the South. By inverting the conventional pattern of transcendence, Covington generates a vision of southern identity in memoir that comes at a price: his descent into soul and south will involve a de-centering of self, a disorientation that results from engaging in a snake-handling culture that also holds the key to his identity.

In “Open Secrets: Memory, Imagination, and the Refashioning of Southern Identity,” Jacquelyn Dowd Hall argues that Lumpkin’s The Making of a Southerner perfectly exemplifies the memoir’s dual function of self-expression and social commentary. Hall argues that Lumpkin’s “turn to home” after her Northern education functions as a redemptive mission of reconfiguring the South as both critic and citizen. Allying herself with the causes of racial and economic...



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