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REVIEW-ESSAY KATHRYN B. McKEE University of Mississippi Living in “Jax-Space” WHATEVER “DOING” SOUTHERN LITERARY STUDIES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST century means, TheOxfordHandbookoftheLiteratureoftheU.S.South exemplifies it, both in terms of its wild successes and its warty contradictions. The Handbook is a massive text, coming in at 563 pages with twenty-seven individually-authored chapters, a wide-ranging project edited by Fred Hobson and Barbara Ladd. The lineup of participants is impressive, and the volume’s usefulness to readers at all stages of academic life is immediately apparent. From its careful designation of itself as about the “U.S. South,” this volume situates its subject simultaneously within the nation and against a transnational backdrop, rendering “south” anything but a stable directional marker. The Handbook is not, of course, the first to do so. Southern studies has been experiencing an identity crisis for some time now, caught between a scholarly certainty that “the South” has long been a harmful construction and a conviction that tracking its power across postcolonial landscapes yields new insight into configurations of space and place in the nation, throughout the hemisphere, and across the globe. Stir in an affective attachment to all of the elements of “southernness” that continue to resonate with popular audiences, and you can see how Scott Romine concludes in his essay that just because “southern identity doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make meaning” (171). Of the scholarly pursuit of that meaning, Michael Kreyling observes some chapters later: “it is difficult to imagine any age as intent . . . upon reinventing itself as the present in southern studies. We are stretched between the accomplishments of our predecessors, and the imperative not to repeat them” (414). The volume’s introduction does not, however, enumerate those “accomplishments,” instead concentrating on recent paradigm shifts in the field. Southern literary scholarship has moved from what the editors characterize as a relative confidence in the boundaries of “the South” and definitions of a “southerner” to a fluidity that shades once glibly applied terms, including “place” and “identity,” with suspicion. Long associated 400 Kathryn B. McKee with a conservative mind-set of shared whiteness and privilege, the study of southern literature and culture has recently become “one of the most exciting projects in American literary studies” (2) because “Today we no longer study southern literature but southern literatures, no longer southern culture but southern cultures, indeed, no longer the South but many Souths” (9). As opposed to the bid for exceptionality characterizingsomuchofthetwentiethcentury,HobsonandLaddassert that “literary nationalism . . . is now profoundly problematized” (13); as a result, regionalism is both fractured and foundational to a productive tension between the local and the global. Thus the Handbook throws open the doors to the messy imprecision of studying any designated “place” in the twenty-first century. That is not to say that the volume is disorganized. Structurally it resorts to the most common apparatus for a comprehensive study: a historical chronology in four parts that begins with “Contact to the Civil War,” and proceeds through “The Civil War and Beyond,” “Southern Modernisms,” and “After Southern Modernisms: Writing in the Late-Twentieth-Century and Contemporary South.” Readers can examine the table of contents for themselves. I have classified the essays by the strategies authors use to, in Romine’s terms, “approach a monolithic South in which we no longer believe” (169), because doing so reveals not only what we study in southern studies today, but also how we do our work. For example, many entries turn to the skills we have all honed professionally: that is, they carefully examine texts, and where those texts land in some broader discussion of southernness is unresolved. This approach in no way diminishes their usefulness; in fact, a textual focus means these contributions may have the most immediate impact on syllabi. Three essays, for instance, have the potential to ground the intersection of sexuality studies with region. In his wide-ranging “Masculine Sentiment, Racial Fetishism, and Same-Sex Desire in Antebellum Southern Literature,” Michael P. Bibler draws from the work of eight authors to suggest that “male homoeroticism was clearly permissible—even expected—in the slaveholding South” (140), viewed as “central, not oppositional, to the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 399-406
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-28
Open Access
No
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