The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 163-166
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A Telling Labor
Edward J. Dupuy
Students of southern literature have no trouble recalling the familiar words of Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom! As he reconstructs the history of Thomas Sutpen with Quentin Compson in the cold, tomblike darkness of their Harvard dorm room, Shreve says: "tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all?" Shreve, the practical Canadian, and Quentin, the time-haunted Southerner, reconstruct not only the life and events of Thomas Sutpen, but also a history of the South—and even, one might say, a history of history. The past is present, as Faulkner says in Light in August and elsewhere, and the burden of the past is no more apparent than in the tortured protestations of the quintessential southerner, Quentin Compson. After their labored telling of the Sutpen story, Shreve asks his companion: "Why do you hate the South?" Quentin's response is: "I dont hate it . . . I dont. I dont!"
Fred Hobson has taken these brief exchanges from Absalom, Absalom! to develop his own frame for the study of southern literature, what he has called the "southern rage to explain." In Tell About the South, Hobson argues that the history of the impulse toward telling in the South divides roughly into two camps: the "school of remembrance" (those writers who defend the South) and the "party of shame and guilt" (those writers who are most aware of and critical of the South's racial burden). Quentin embodies both strains, and therein lies his tortured telling. He can neither entirely renounce nor embrace his homeland. Nor can he tell the story entirely on his own. He has Shreve to goad him.
Like Quentin and Shreve—I will not venture to draw any direct correspondences—Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda H. MacKethan proffer a [End Page 163] labored telling of their own in the magisterial The Companion of Southern Literature. The volume can be seen in the tradition of the southern rage to explain as it "tells about the South" from A to Z, or at least from "abolition" to "Yoknapatawpha." And yet the editors acknowledge that even if their volume is comprehensive, it is not necessarily exhaustive:
The Companion is not a survey of masterpieces or a biographical sourcebook. Nor is it a travelogue. Place entries were chosen with an eye to their centrality in the development of themes, movements, literary landscapes. Historical events and figures—and there are many, for here is a region deeply, if ambivalently, protective of its historical identity—have been chosen for their enactment within and their impact upon the literature.
And so the editors include entries on only fourteen authors—among them Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Flannery O'Connor—twenty cities or towns, and three scholars—Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Lewis P. Simpson, and C. Vann Woodward. About the latter three, the editors write: "We have dared to select three major scholarly voices in the field of southern literary study—giants whose decades of engagement have been of supreme benefit to all who have followed." As one who has benefited and followed, I cannot argue with the editors' assessment.
Editorial acuity is one of the book's major attractions. Both Flora and MacKethan are well-known in southern literary circles, and if they are too modest to canonize themselves as giants, they nevertheless have the wherewithal to put together a gargantuan and engaging volume—and thus secure for themselves a place among the titans. Comparisons to the popular Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published in 1989, are inevitable, and the editors are aware of this: "We wished for something that would do for southern literature what The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture had done for southern culture." And so they put together, they say, a companion in the "old-fashioned sense of a fellow traveler...