- Our South or Theirs?
You may recall the old song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, which begins, “It’s a long, long time from May to December, but the days grow short, when you reach September.” I did, when reading these two books together, since (in terms of their intellectual careers) Michael Kreyling might be said to have reached September, and Jennifer Greeson is still in May. The former writes as one of the South’s preeminent literary critics, a little battle-scarred, a touch elegiac, and not too bothered about loose ends. The latter seems self-confident, intellectually ambitious, and very concerned to be systematic. There is not much of a conversation between May and September, since neither mentions the other, though Kreyling is more conscious of the existence of younger voices who have challenged and changed his subject matter than Greeson seems to be of older voices, who merit a repudiation. Perhaps to her credit, Greeson writes as though all scholars agree with one another, even across generations.
At issue is the existence and pertinence of the South, though Kreyling and Greeson approach the matter from very different perspectives. The former came of age when few doubted the compelling reality of southern culture and when positivist moralists governed, and the urgent necessity was to reconceive allegiance to a South that Kreyling once [End Page 144] designated (in Inventing Southern Literature) as “a cultural product.” Greeson comes of age at a moment when, though we have moralists in abundance (and she is one), a good positivist is hard to find. No doubt Kreyling’s intellectual move carried risks. Cultures are most held together by true believers, and they have a way of flying apart when skeptics gain a respectable hearing. Still, even as a skeptic, Kreyling wrote from within the cultural product, mostly wished it well, and did not doubt its power, even while fearing that power. The South That Wasn’t There, a collection of his recent essays, offers his thoughts on the recent “postsouthern” lessening of that power, the disintegration of the cultural product, and the transition of the South from being a stark and unavoidable presence to being a memory. (As another old standard has it, “The song is ended, but the memory lingers on.”) One is tempted to write “being only a memory,” but Kreyling rightly stresses the power of memory, which may not be as great as the political and cultural power formerly wielded by John C. Calhoun or Henry Grady, but which retains a slippery viability, despite the fact that much has been forgotten. As Kreyling pithily and wistfully has it, “a South without memory . . . looks and feels a lot like a memory without a South.”
His essays roam about: how Toni Morrison’s Beloved remembers slavery; how Robert Penn Warren reconfigured the racism of his 1930 essay “The Briar Patch” in I’ll Take My Stand and awkwardly tried to adapt to the changed racial climate of the 1960s; how ideas of southern honor feature in contemporary memory of the Vietnam War; how memory of the Haitian slave rebellion works in the writings of William Faulkner and Madison Smartt Bell; and how a copyright battle over a parody of Gone With the Wind exposed the contested nature of social memory. Beyond these case studies, an introduction and a concluding chapter offer general reflections, framed by Kreyling’s interest in Pierre Nora’s work on social memory and by an ambivalent engagement with the “New Southern Studies,” to which Kreyling here seems less hostile than formerly.
On the whole, the book works exceptionally well. To my taste, most successful are the studies of Warren and The Wind Done Gone. The former essay says something fresh about Warren, who has had a fairly easy ride from southern cultural critics. (He was a nice man, oddly vulnerable, so most have been...