- The South That Wasn't There: Postsouthern Memory and History
Michael Kreyling, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, tackles the immense and controversial subject of representations and depictions of the American South in his book, The South That Wasn't There: Postsouthern Memory and History. The text utilizes the deep analysis of prominent literary texts (and some films) to examine the phenomenon of how cultural artifacts and works of "memory" affect our understanding of Southern "history." While it might be too easy to regard "history" as what happened and "memory" as what people remember, Kreyling delves into the troublesome nuances of such distinctions. Using examples such as Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Mitchell's novel (and its subsequent film adaptation) Gone With the Wind, Kreyling contrasts popularized images and conceptions of "remembered" Southern pasts with hard to attain truths about actual complex realities of the South, a region full of contradictions and of efforts to disguise or manufacture public understanding. Kreyling leads the reader toward and finally lands upon a discussion of a term in his subtitle, "Postsouthern," referring to an assessment that the South—the physical, geographical location and its people—is no longer the South of myth, but stands as a confused culture trying to comprehend the disparate remains of its own past.
The South That Wasn't There begins by building a philosophical foundation, based on the differences between "history" and "memory." Then, it proceeds in the initial two chapters to explore two Southern literary matters: Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved, which she claims is a work of memory, and Robert Penn Warren's discussions of the "hypothetical Negro" in his 1920s-era essay, "The Briar Patch." Within his "Introduction," Kreyling's theoretical basis for exploring the identity of the South through media, including books and film, holds importance, "because who we are depends on what we remember" (5). Yet, he writes, memory (as it is received by later generations from those who were present) is dependent on who is sharing the recollection, how that recollection is shared, and what social/political/cultural boundaries may prevent a truly well-rounded cross-section of narratives and ideas from being shared, and thus entered into the cultural continuum from past to present. Essentially, he acknowledges that who is telling the story makes all the difference in what story is told. With that in mind, amidst the dominant Southern historical [End Page 818] narratives, Beloved stands out as a female, African American centered narrative of slavery. This point of view affects all people involved, including white men, who appear as brutal and vicious tyrants capable of rape and even stealing breast milk, and African American men who appear in places committing bestiality out of loneliness and suffering homosexual abuse when incarcerated. Standing in contrast to a novel from the 1980s by an African American woman, Robert Penn Warren, a canonical giant in Southern literature, prompts examination into the question, "Who Speaks for the Negro?" with his idea of the "hypothetical Negro," an attempt at defining or creating a unified single-minded cardboard stereotype of early-twentieth-century African Americans for political and rhetorical purposes. Although the entire study that Kreyling undertakes does not focus wholly on the subject of race, the above-mentioned works that constitute the subjects of his first two chapters do root mainly in that subject.
The middle of The South That Wasn't There strays from heavily discussed Southern controversies involved in slavery and post-Emancipation race relations into other arenas of "phantom memory." For the author, the contexts of the Vietnam War and the island nation of Haiti provide scenarios where Southerners "remember" what may not have been present at all. He connects the Southern concept of the "honorable warrior" to, among other conflicts, the war in Vietnam, and comments on the "monolithic inertia of communal belief in the face of official lies and evasions" (77, 81). Going to war to fight for one's "honor" creates in the South a rush of willingness to idealize the endeavor, rather...