The Southern Literary Journal 38.2 (2006) 131-137
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Toward a New Southern Regionality
Defining the U.S. South, often in the service of constructing surveys, overviews, critiques and new canons of southern literature, is an old and still thriving enterprise. One long established approach to "What is the South?" has been to formulate definitions in terms of "region" and "regionalism." But, of course, one gets trapped in tautological definitions of these terms, forced to fall back upon stipulated meanings of regionality, with exclusions and inclusions that are often more ideological than evidential. In his Southern Aberrations (2000), Richard Gray directly took on the "problems of regionalism" by studying writers who were not only "aberrant" (northern) Americans by virtue of their southernness, but also outsiders in many respects to the southern regional mainstream. There have long been many Souths, all of them owing to human narratives arising from the need to "place" the self in some stable reality. What Gray concludes is that the fictiveness of "South," the South created by language and communal ritual, operates to give us "an imagined community made up of a multiplicity of communities, similarly imagined."
Gray's conclusion composes the foreword to South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture, a collection of essays that offers a "critical and [End Page 131] creative remapping" of the U.S. South. Taking Albert Murray's South to a Very Old Place (1971) as a starting point, editors Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith write that "the blues metaphor and the jazz form are key to our collection, which surveys representations of the South within a postmodern, diverse, inclusive, and international context." Monteith, a senior lecturer at the University of Nottingham, and Gray, professor at the University of Essex, along with other essayists from England, Germany and Denmark, lend a decidedly international viewpoint to the volume.
South to a New Place offers a rich assembly of provocative essays about the South—the new, old, multiple and various Souths. Scott Romine ably summarizes southern literary historiography and, of recent scholarship, finds that "microcommunities based on race, class, gender, and ethnicity have largely supplanted the holistic concept of community." The fragmentation (and the fictiveness) of the South as community are read by Romine and Barbara Ladd as the "problems of regionalism." Ladd writes that "the experience of place remains dynamic and vital. It is the theorizing of place that is problematic." For Ladd, place/region/South are ideas that are always in transition, needing continual redefinition informed by "experience over time."
The special topic essays range widely—on Albert Murray, Larry Brown, Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Tom Wolfe; a survey by Jon Smith of the wide pool of culture from which southern identity is constructed; Suzanne Jones's fine piece on Madison Smartt Bell and Ellen Douglas; and a fascinating reading by Amy J. Elias of Southern Living magazine and the way in which its vacation advertising has shaped a late twentieth-century sense of "southernness." The international/global inflections that mark new ways of thinking about the South are well represented by Maureen Ryan's reading of Vietnamese narratives, Michael Kreyling's comparison of regions in Italy and the United States, Helen Taylor on the South and Britain, and Christine Gerhardt on the American South and East Germany. There are overall a number of fresh, interesting voices here that rightly claim the attention of South watchers. Doubtless Diane Roberts accurately notes in her afterword that occasions of revisiting the problematical South, of declaring the old ways of seeing in need of revision, are acts "designed to insist on the South's distinctiveness, to shore it up, then to recast it." But of course all memories—all imaginings—of people and places are recastings. We start from...