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  • Introduction:Rethinking Southern Literary Studies
  • David McWhirter (bio)

Still simmering controversies surrounding the flying of the confederate flag over the South Carolina State House remind us that "southern culture" remains, forty years after desegregation, a highly charged and contested symbolic site. And "southern literature" has played a prominent role in successive constructions and reconstructions of "the South," both as a unique regional culture, and as a privileged locus—sometimes valorized, often castigated—for understanding the broader modern U.S. culture to which it stands in tense relation. In the 1920s and 30s, white southern writers and academics, concentrated in a handful of universities (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, LSU) in some of the poorest states in the union, successfully promoted a still-influential model for understanding southern literature as a bastion of traditional values (cultural, religious, familial, communal, agrarian)—a last line of defense, or so it was argued, against a soulless, rootless, corrupt urban industrial (hence, "northern") modernity. This model—built on an elision of, sometimes an overt complicity in, the institutions and discourses of racism, on histories that depend as much on what they forget as on what they remember, and on a rigid (if highly complex) adherence to traditional gender roles—has been under fire for two decades or more by African-Americanist and feminist critics. More recently, scholars drawing on new work in cultural and postcolonial theory, social history, and cultural geography have begun to question "southern literature's" excessively U.S.-centered approach to the history and culture of the Americas, and to challenge its neglect of the cultural, linguistic, class, and social differences that fissure a purportedly unitary "South."

One consequence of these new trends has been a long-overdue rethinking of our concepts of "region," "place," and the "imagined communities" they are said to embody. Interrogating the value of "place" as a category of cultural understanding, critics have increasingly wondered if discourses of southern regionalism—prone (like all regionalisms, it may be) to substitute, in Roberto Dainotto's words, "a latently ideological tool of analysis—history—with an allegedly natural one—place" —have not in fact served to construct "the South" as "the figure of an otherness that is, essentially, otherness from, and against, history."1 [End Page 1] Writing in 1952, Robert Heilman famously claimed "a deep suspiciousness of abstraction" as one of the hallmarks of "the southern temper."2 But nothing could be more abstract (or less historicized) than the idea of "the South" bequeathed to us by earlier generations of scholars, including Heilman. Permeated by the rhetoric of authenticity, even by a fetishization of authenticity, southern literary studies has long subscribed to a naïve logic of mimeticism in which southern writing is understood not only to represent, but actually to arise or emanate from, a "region" that pre-exists it—that is, from a southern soil or psyche or essence that is understood to exist prior to and independently of the languages and cultural forms in which it is represented. Thus subsumed into a unitary narrative so finished and airtight as to have forgotten its own status as narrative, the historical south, for all intents and purposes, vanishes, subsumed by a set of totalizing myths, maps, portraits, and abstractions ("the South") which, in promising the completedness of a foundation, have also blocked or frustrated our ability to generate enabling re-orientations. The South, we might say, has only recently, and reluctantly, been allowed to differ from itself, a shift suggested by the titles—No Place Like Home; South to a New Place; South of Tradition; Reconstructing Dixie—of several of the new scholarly books reviewed in this issue.

"'Southern Literature'/Southern Cultures" originated in November 2002 as a symposium, held at Texas A&M University, featuring the contributors and respondents included in these pages. Representing the various critical trends that are currently transforming southern literary studies, those contributors work to reexamine, reevaluate, and dislocate past constructions of southern literature. In "Toward 'A New Southern Studies,'" Michael Kreyling gives an overview of the opportunities and risks—including recent manifestations of "calculated amnesia" —attendant upon what he calls "the present, protracted shift from southern literature (now an outdated term for what we study...


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