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Reviewed by:
  • Capturing the South: Imagining America's Most Documented Region by Scott L. Matthews
  • Bernard L. Herman
Capturing the South: Imagining America's Most Documented Region. By Scott L. Matthews (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2018) 328 pp. $90.00 cloth $29.95 paper

At its core, Matthews' Capturing the South speaks to the asymmetries of documentary power around histories of well-meaning (often selfserving) intentions, cultural exploitation, and subject resistance. Matthews states his overarching goal: "I try to bring to life the 'interactional history' of the documentary process, including the negotiations and concessions each side often made, and the forms of resistance the documented often used against the power of the documentarian" (7). To accomplish his goal, Matthews presents a succession of case studies built around the ideologies of key documentarians—Howard Odum, Jack Delano, John Cohen, and Danny Lyon—and their subjects, some named and others not, who pushed back—John Wesley Gordon, Tony Thompson, Roscoe Holcomb, and Robert Moses.

Matthews sequences his examination along a historical arc that spans the twentieth century, framing each of his chapters around the documentary ideologies of a critical moment, ranging from the recuperative to the redemptive. Overall, Matthews' arguments are meticulously researched and thoughtfully considered. His narrative, however, bends toward formulaic explorations of the South as the most documented [End Page 619] region in the United States, assumes the form of a linear narrative that constructs and traces the frailties of documentary politics that leads eventually, through various forms of social and cultural blindness, to enlightened understanding. The fact of the matter, however, is that documentary methodologies are always in flux and that the very idea of documentary is confounded by an underlying dialog between ethnography, journalism, and art.

The provocation underpinning Matthews' work orbits around the core question of the extent to which documentarians trade in clichés and stereotypes through a reification of alterity in image, text, and sound. Matthews not only exposes and explores this dilemma in its historic contexts; he also implicitly challenges the practices of contemporary documentary and ethnographic work in ways that speak to the larger question of who gets to choose and tell the story and to what purpose. Concerns with self-reflexivity and subject position are nothing new in these fields, but Matthews helps us to see the broader contexts in which they unfold. Those concerns rely on an engagement with shifting southern imaginaries understood and experienced around factors of race, class, gender, ideology, intention, and circumstance. Those concerns also touch on other forms of cultural exchange in a larger universe of descriptive and ascriptive practices, represented, for example, in the contemporary connoisseurship, interpretation, and valuation of vernacular foodways and outsider art.

Matthews' tracing of the documentary arc achieves its most compelling iteration in his penultimate chapter about Hale County, Alabama, the setting of James Agee and Walker Evans' Let us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston, 1939). Reprising both the prequels and sequels to that iconic work, Matthews gives voice to the documented people and their descendants. What emerges from the inheritors of Agee and Evans' work is the subjects' almost palpable expression of frustration, resentment, and even rage. Positioned as the capstone to Matthews' chronicle, the Hale County chapter would be more effective if read first. The energy of Matthews' argument establishes the ethical ambitions of his study in ways that persuasively invite the reader into a consideration about the historical arc and the fieldwork ethics that arguably render the South the most documented American region.

Bernard L. Herman
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


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pp. 619-620
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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