- The Intellectual in Twentieth-Century Southern Literature by Tara Powell
This comprehensive survey of the intellectual in southern literature begins with a title that sounds like an oxymoron. As Tara Powell writes, the stereotype of anti-intellectualism in the South persists, in spite of the many novels that, to the contrary, struggle with the myths and fragments of southern history by creating characters who are intellectuals and who wrestle with the world of books and ideas. The scope of this study includes many authors from earlier periods, but the focus rests upon modern authors, most extensively Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Doris Betts, Tim McLaurin, Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, Randall Kenan, and Gail Godwin.
Powell begins with a chapter on the origins of the southern anti-intellectual traditions prior to the 1950s. The Agrarians had consciously attempted to extol the myth of the South’s gentlemen farmers, but that effort displaced intellectual examination, according to Powell. Any text to the contrary resulted in characters who are exiled or failed intellectuals, such as those found in works as early as those by Edgar Allen Poe, and later in those by Thomas Wolfe and Ralph Ellison. Other authors adopt a satiric or ironic treatment of characters who are educated, as occurs in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
After World War II, Powell identifies the rise of the academic novel, the growth of creative writing programs in the academy, and the presence of “public intellectuals” as the new conditions that lead to writers who define and examine the intellectual life. Novels of the academy, such as those of Doris Betts and Tim McLaurin, and novels of writers who study creative writing, such as Flannery O’Connor and Gail Godwin, provide challenges to anyone who still believes that the South is an intellectual desert. [End Page 314] For example, Powell points out that O’Connor’s many college educated characters, such as Hulga in “Good Country People,” are often convinced of their superiority but limited and incomplete. Walker Percy’s characters, such as Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman and Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, may be haunted by the old South, but they are just as disconcerted by modern science, existential philosophy, and atheism (Powell 65).
African American authors, according to Powell, do not merely write but translate the parallel universes of the “black” and “white” Souths. Powell traces the strong intellectual tradition in literature from African American writers such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. This tradition, with its focus on teachers, literacy, and education, leads to novels such as Alice Walker’s Meridian in which Meridian Hill is committed to ideas, and to the actions that must result from them, often at great expense.
Powell ends the study with a discussion of how Gail Godwin’s characters embark on intellectual journeys and often get stuck along the way in cul-de-sacs of idealism, found in books, in creeds, and in narratives about the values of earlier times, often propounded by mothers and other relatives. Godwin’s women not only live their lives but study them and those of surrounding characters, including their mothers and sisters, as in A Mother and Two Daughters, and their husbands, as in The Good Wife.
Most students and scholars will find much to appreciate in this book, if only to situate a favorite author in a literary tradition that is not always associated with southernness. The book reminds the reader that southern culture is not all moonshiners and swamp people. Southerners have been particularly introspective. Powell makes the case well that southerners’ commentary on the life of the mind has always been part of southern discourse and continues to this day.
The book has extensive notes that enrich the discussions too—so much so, that some of them might more gracefully be located within the text rather than at the back. The bibliography is extensive. Overall, Powell’s study convincingly proves that the South, far...