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ESSAY The Apprehension ofthe South in Modern Culture by Michael O'Brien hen I went to the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1 966, the South was deemed there to be a very minor part of the puzzle of American culture. American literature Wa H^^^H was HenryJames,Melville, Emerson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, ^M ^HibbbbH but mostiy HenryJames. Ofsouthern authors only Faulkner had a significant hearing, though he was seen as a steamy exoticism, a sort of Henri Rousseau with a knowledge ofthe sexual utility of corncobs, not as one of the foremost modernists. As for history, the South was relevant to understanding the coming ofthe CivilWar, as a problem to be deprecated, but litde more. American history was told as a succession of whiggish reform movements, ofJeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, of Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. The South did not fit in, except as die occasional obstacle. To be interested in the South then was to be against the grain. Matters are very different now, not only in Cambridge but elsewhere in Europe, even in Japan. The existence of the Southern Studies Forum as a branch of the European Association of American Studies—as far as I know, the only affiliation of that association devoted to a component part or aspect ofAmerican culture—is testimony to a growth ofinterest , evidenced by four conferences and three volumes of proceedings.1 There are scholars in Odense who write about Walker Percy, in Berlin who concern themselves with John Esten Cooke, in Vienna who read Flannery O'Connor, in Genoa who are experts on women's clubs in Charleston, in Newcasde who do the history ofrhythm and blues, in Australia who write on southern Baptists. When I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in November of 1997, a whole conference of Japanese scholars had descended upon the place. In the summer of 1998, there was a meeting at the University ofWarwick tided "New Orleans in Europe," with no less than thirty speakers. What is going on? Of course, much is explicable by the powerful cultural position of the United States in the postwar world, the more so since the collapse of the Soviet alternative . Self-evidendy, the world grows crowded widi American popular and high culture. Coca-Cola, Levi jeans, baseball caps, T-shirts, cnn, Elvis, Duke Elling3 ton, Bill Gates, all these are familiar almost everywhere. This influence has deepened in the last twenty years. In 1973 my wife and I caught a bus in the eastern part ofCrete, in the Lasithi region beyond Sitia and towards Kato Zakros. Behind us a small girl sat down, evidendy on her way to school. She looked on us widi wonder, as though we had come from another world, as indeed we had. Widi kindness towards strangers, she offered a part of the food she had for her lunch, and we, awkwardly and mutely, accepted it. I find it hard to imagine such a scene happening now, for the child would probably be wearing an outfit emblazoned with a Chicago Bulls logo. The ancient condescensions of European culture have perceptibly weakened. I do not mean that Parisian intellectuals have swapped their Haut-Médoc for Dr Pepper. I do mean that die presence of American culture in the formative years of European intellectuals has made it natural to take seriously interpreters of America who make that culture intelligible because they help to explain not only what America is, butwhat Europe is. For American culture is part ofthe fabric of European culture in ways that it was not in the nineteenth century, or far less so. That intermingling is, no doubt, deeply contentious, but it is at least arguable that American culture is now very close to being central to world culture and many— whether scientists, philosophers, historians, musicians, or literary critics—whether they admit to it or not, behave as though the United States were pivotal. And this occurs despite the fact that both sides are somewhat in denial about the phenomenon : die world for its old anti-American instincts, America because so much ofits eschatology is founded upon a sense ofbeing at the end ofthings, of time and space, not in...


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