The Southern Literary Journal 38.2 (2006) 138-144
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The Hybrid South
In their acknowledgments to Look Away!: The U.S. South in New World Studies, editors Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn observe that "while most books are measured in pages, we prefer to measure this one in e-mails: over the course of five years, five thousand of them, chiefly between the editors." The book itself contains an introduction and twenty-one essays spread over more than five hundred pages. It is indeed expansive. It is also dense, sometimes taxing, but consistently provocative in its examination of what the editors identify as the "uncanny hybridities" that mark the U.S. South and its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors.
Smith and Cohn acknowledge an inherent danger in their project: by emphasizing the South's postcolonial status, it is possible to diminish the region's distinctive history and culture, including its own legacies of racial oppression. For this reason the editors see the South—the Deep South in particular—"not as a unified or imagined community but as a scene of the cultural conflicts that white imaginings of community seek to forget, as a locus of literally disciplined bodies in a (largely) postplantation realm still dealing with the legacy of race slavery." It is, of course, the plantation with its attendant slave trade that makes the South both exceptional within the larger nation and which links it to other "souths." But nothing is simple in postcolonial theory, and a major aim of the editors is to undermine all "essentialist narratives." Look Away! is thus a worthy successor to works such as Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson's Haunted Bodies (1997) and Suzanne Jones and Sharon Monteith's South to a New Place (2002), as well as Michael Kreyling's [End Page 138] Inventing Southern Literature (1998) and Patricia Yeager's Dirt and Desire (2000). Yaeger in fact provides a blurb that praises Look Away! for expanding "the vocabularies and national symbol systems that scholars can deploy to think comparatively about the Americas."
Smith and Cohn lead off the collection with George B. Handley's "A New World Poetics of Oblivion." Like the editors, Handley contends that United States culture has suffered from both amnesia and willful forgetfulness, but he also sees evidence of cultural awakening through writers such as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, who have found ways to embody the nation's ghostly legacies. Hardley identifies "European colonization, Amerindian genocide and displacement, and African slavery" as the three major patterns that "have served to create a region of perplexing but compelling commonality among Caribbean nations, the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America and Brazil, and the U.S. South...an area known as Plantation America." Hardley warns scholars and historians against the pursuit of "facile homogeneity." Given the absence of definitive records, "a poetics that recognizes oblivion—that is, not what is remembered but what is forgotten and therefore unsayable—offers a potentially more ethical way to give representative shape to these elusive historical patterns that link the U.S. South to other regions of slavery." Hardley cites a telling passage from Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel acceptance speech. "Language," Morrison remarked, "can never 'pin down' slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity, is in its reach toward the ineffable."
Handley's evocative essay is the first of seven that focus on the South and the Caribbean. The other essays are more text-centered, beginning with Kirsten Silva Gruesz's piece on the New Orleans newspaper La Patria, which the author identifies as the most important U.S. periodical in Spanish prior to the Civil War. Gruesz mines the politics of this publication in order to show that the Crescent City, although a genuinely hybrid cultural space, "does not unilaterally epitomize some imagined South"; rather, "to Central and...