- Old-time Religions Revisited:Two New Volumes in Southern Studies
The last time I reviewed titles for The Southern Literary Journal I considered two books with a shared interest in Catholic intellectuals and southern writers. This time I turn to two more books that examine facets of southern religious experience and identity under the rubric of "representation." Both explore southern ambivalence towards supposedly alien religious traditions (Judaism and Roman Catholicism, respectively), and both come from the dissertations of Vanderbilt graduates.
Eliza McGraw's book is an overdue and welcome addition to southern literary studies, which has not always been very keenly attuned to southern subcultures within the so-called WASP's nest, or the region's longstanding Jewish presence. Two Covenants marks a valuable entry in a largely empty field, and we can be grateful for any work that begins the difficult process of discerning the tropes of southern Jewish representation. For example, McGraw invigorates the notion of racial passing by applying it to Lillian Hellman's writing. The opening chapter, the first of seven, chronicles the strange career of the Levy brothers' ownership [End Page 157] of Monticello, providing an engaging point of departure for exploring the contested place of Jews within southern culture.
One gleans from her introduction that McGraw's critical apparatus applies a postcolonial framework to southern literature through theories derived from Homi K. Bhabha and whiteness studies. This leads to her main argument, which is that southern Jewishness does not consist merely of a doubling of difference; rather, "it is represented as a culturally hybridized identity in which the existence of more than one culture within one individual or representation becomes productive of identity rather than insubordinate to it." Among those who might disagree with this notion, apparently, we find Louis D. Rubin, Jr., a southern Jew who shaped southern literary studies into a recognizable academic discipline. McGraw's sensitive treatment of Rubin's work is one of the strengths of her book, for she looks deeply into Rubin's declaration that, as a southerner and a Jew, he is "one with a foot in each camp."
Because this study appears in the Southern Literary Studies series, and given the relatively small field of southern Jewish writers available for McGraw's study—a field that grows even smaller when one removes contemporary writers—one might wish that it offered a comprehensive survey of the set. McGraw makes a deft comparison in offering David Cohn's Where I Was Born and Raised (1948) as an important Jewish counterpart to William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee (1941). She identifies both writers within a paternalistic tradition (one thinks also patrician) and insightfully shows Cohn in dialogue with black southern experience. Yet she passes on the opportunity to "go to the roots" and consider Edwin and Thomas Cooper De Leon, two remarkably cosmopolitan brothers from South Carolina whose several writings comment extensively on slavery. Their contributions to literature include projects as various as Confederate apologetics, southern magazines, and a large body of plantation novels. If there were to be two volumes to these Two Covenants, one might also nominate for further consideration Isaac Harby, the early Charlestonian editor, and Henry Clay Lewis [Madison Tensas], whose work in the southwestern humor tradition provides a veritable catalogue of racial stereotypes. And Lauren Winner's recent entry, Girl Meets God, is a ready-made and bracing exploration of the complexity of southern Jewish religious identity.
In fairness, these omissions owe to McGraw's primary design, which is to treat, broadly, representations of southern Jewishness. The difficulty of this prescription consists in setting up two books in one (sorry, hybridity!); certainly an entire volume could be devoted to the ways that [End Page 158] outsiders depicted southern Jews, and this approach might offer advantage in terms of space for analysis. But I suspect that many readers will be more interested, on balance, in...