- Rethinking Regionalism and the Southern Imagination
The three books under review here, in broad terms, explore two significant issues concerning the South and its literary heritage: first, the ways that the South, as both a real place and as a cultural construct, has been tagged by the rest of the nation as backward and unsightly in order to highlight America as forward and beautiful; and second, the ways that southern writers have responded to this tagging. While sharing the same basic intent, the three works nonetheless differ widely in terms of the nature of the scholarship, from the fairly traditional and competent work of Mary Weaks-Baxter, to the more theoretical but deeply flawed work of Robert Jackson, to the thoroughly sophisticated and immensely rewarding work of Leigh Anne Duck.
Weaks-Baxter’s Reclaiming the American Farmer focuses on images of the yeoman farmer and of common country folk in twentieth-century [End Page 139] southern literature, arguing that southern writers used these images to discover “a usable past for the South . . . that stood for the democratic values of the American farmer.” Standing opposed to these images and to this imagined past were “the aristocratic greed and licentiousness of planter society,” together with the crushing power and dehumanization of modern industrial society. In other words, according to Weaks-Baxter, southern writers of all stripes—both black and white, men and women, left and right—looked to Jeffersonian ideals for grounding their resistance to the unmaking of America’s democratic values in the turbulent twentieth century. While of course there were differences in these writers’ emphases and final visions, she argues that a shared Jeffersonian agrarianism underpins their work, giving modern southern literature a profound significance in the cultural dialogues concerning not just the South’s but also America’s vision of itself.
While there is little startling in Weaks-Baxter’s book—for the most part, it is good, solid scholarship, particularly on some southern writers who are typically overlooked, such as Jesse Stuart—there are some significant omissions. Perhaps most troubling is Weaks-Baxter’s failure to address southern representations of the dark underside of farming life, as seen, for instance, in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Richard Wright’s American Hunger (in which, in an extended passage describing his father’s enchainment to the land, Wright gives one of the most damning portraits ever written of life in the rural South). For Wright and numerous other writers of the rural poor, both black and white, the significance of “place” is associated less with putting down roots than with being prohibited from leaving—that is, being kept “in place.” Almost as troubling in Weaks-Baxter’s study is her failure to take on in any depth the problem that Allen Tate identifies in his essay in I’ ll Take My Stand: how can modern southerners, cut off from tradition, intellectually embrace traditional life without voiding the power of tradition (since traditional life must be accepted without thought, without choice)? Tate’s fraught and charged argument in this essay, which both affirms and undercuts the significance of traditional life for modern southerners, echoes throughout twentieth-century southern literature—but few of these echoes are heard in Weaks-Baxter’s book.
More ambitious, but more problematic in its conclusions, is Robert Jackson’s Seeking the Region in American Literature and Culture. Jackson begins promisingly enough, establishing his central idea that in the United States regional writing (and regionalism in general) has been, and continues to be, a force of resistance to the overwhelming power of [End Page 140] hegemonic nationalism that has largely shaped America’s destiny. Jackson builds a case that American...