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Reviews Our regular review section features some of the best new books, films, and sound recordings in southern studies. From time to time you'll also find reviews of important new museum exhibitions and public-history sites, and retrospectives on classic works that continue to shape our understanding of the region and its people. Our aim is to explore the rich diversity of southern life and the methods and approaches of those who study it. Please write us to share your suggestions, or to add your name to our reviewer file. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. By Eric J. Sundquist . Harvard University Press, 1993. 705 pp. Cloth, $29.95; paper, $16.95. Reviewed by Joel Williamson, Lineberger professor in the humanities at the University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of William Faulkner and Southern History. In To Wake the Nations, Eric Sundquist argues persuasively that literary scholars have not yet fully appreciated the contribution of African American literature to American literary culture. He also makes the more fundamental argument that they have hardly begun to recognize the general impact of African American culture on mainstream American culture. Not only has the work of some black writers been undervalued but, as a consequence, work by celebrated white writers has also not received its due. We tend to see African American literature—black—and European American literature—white—as entirely separate , each contained in its own clear glass jar, within sight but hermetically sealed from one another. The value of any literary work, what makes it "worthy of attention," Sundquist asserts, "derives from its contribution to articulating and sustaining the values of a given culture, whether or not that culture is national or 'racial' in scope." With this as his criterion , Sundquist then moves with impressive sophistication and skill through some ninety years (from the 1830s to the 1920s) of American writing to select his candidates for a reformed canon of the national literature, one that begins to reflect more accurately the multiracial character of the American nation. The first of the book's three parts covers the antebellum period, in which the author sees the struggle between slavery and freedom as the "overarching" issue in American life. Sundquist would add to the canon Nat Turner's Confessions (1831), Martin Delany's Blake (1859), and Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), not because of their lit- 104Southern Cultures erary quality but because they exhibit so powerfully the deep commitment of blacks to the essential American ideal of liberty. These authors, too, are writers of the American Renaissance , insisting on a return to the founding principles of the Republic. Who better, after all, to argue for liberty and justice in midcentury America than her former slaves? If Patrick Henry could shout "Give me liberty or give me death" to the applause of his later generations , why not Nat Turner? If Henry Thoreau could call for a morality above the law of the land and justify acts of "Civil Disobedience," why could Turner, Delany, and Douglass not do the same? And, perhaps, more forcefully. Sundquist's canon would also include Herman Melville's relatively neglected novella Benito Cereño (1855), the story of a bloody and desperate rebellion on a slave ship off the coast of South America. When Benito Cereño and Nat Turner's Confessions are considered together, they fuse and gain new power. Melville, often acclaimed as the foremost American writer of his time, brings high art to the depiction of the murderous violence inherent in slavery. Furthermore, he extends those images beyond the nation's borders into the New World, into the arena of the African Diaspora. Turner's confessions establish the chilling truth that slave rebellion was far from mere imagination: in reality it included premeditated and bloody murder, sudden death by bludgeon, axe, and bullet. The second part of To Wake the Nations, dealing with the "Jim Crow Years" and titled "The Color Line," nominates Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) and the corpus of Charles W. Chesnutt's work, in particular The Marrow ofTradition (1901), for admission to the canon. It was in these turn...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 103-105
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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