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135 South Unbound A Case Study in Ron Rash’s Appalachian Fiction daniel cross turner In the green world of my early graduate school days, I’d begin my conference presentations—like so many of my fellow trainees in literary studies—with a rote disclaimer about how my paper would make only a tentative, provisional start on covering the topic at hand. The implication was that such inchoate ideas, given world enough and time, would gather and grow perforce into a fully formed, nigh irrefutable thesis that could explain all or nearly all. With sufficient intellectual labor clocked in, the promised day of closure would surely arrive. Back then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It has taken me six long, often dark years of graduate study and another ten longer, often darker years out on the tenure ladder to correct my vision. Such sought-­ for comple‑ tion is false fire: beautiful, perhaps, but not so useful for warmth or protection. The bright and shining pride of a young firebrand scholar has met with a very real humility, some of my own making, some beyond my will. I’ve been hum‑ bled, humiliated at times, by thudding up against the rock ceiling of the theo‑ retical monolith I’d so fool-­heartedly—if full-­heartedly—hoped to scale. And, like so many other young literary scholars, I’ve been simultaneously humbled, humiliated at times, by another strain of down- and black-­ heartedness: the vicissitudes, idiosyncrasies, and even the calculated, petty spite concomitant with the academic job market and with department, college, and university politics. I know now the Great Thesis lingers always just out of reach. I know now too, more acutely than ever before, that it’s worth seeking, even if one never finds it completely. The day of closure never comes. May it never ar‑ rive, Lord, may it never arrive. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. This means, fortunately, that our work as scholars is never done, even as we turn our critical gaze toward labor issues and institutional practices that impact academe, conditioning, if not controlling, our daily profession as professors. What I imagined would be my version of the Great Thesis—my scholarly tome on contemporary southern poetics and cultural memory, eventually published as Southern Crossings: Poetry, Memory, and the Transcultural South 136 turner (2012)—begins with a passage from Appalachian poet and recent U.S. poet laureate Charles Wright’s “The Southern Cross” (1981). My analysis played on various resonances of the controlling motif in his poem. The title of Wright’s poem most obviously cites the navigational constella‑ tion of the southern hemisphere as well as the Christian iconography of the Bible Belt, the poet’s native territory. But it also suggests the famous and infa‑ mous battle flag of the Confederate States of America and the darker impulses of southern history in the use of the Southern Cross as a symbol for white supremacy and opposition to the civil rights movement. Thus, history returns obliquely to the evanescent surface of Wright’s work, which gestures toward other forms of southern crossings, other indications of a time and region in flux, careful to note that absence, like the silences between musical notes, can be as revealing as the remembered presence of the past: “It’s what we forget that defines us, and stays in the same place, / And waits to be rediscovered.”1 My analysis was a mostly aesthetic appraisal of an image pattern in Wright’s poetry, trimmed with broad strokes of historical, sociological, and political contexts. Although I was born in South Carolina and have lived most of my days here, the image of the so‑called Confederate flag mostly served as a colorful backdrop for poetic analysis. Things changed. On June 17, 2015, nine black citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, were shot to death during a Bible study and prayer session at Eman‑ uel African Methodist Episcopal ame Church, one of the most historically sig‑ nificant African American churches in the South. The Emanuel Nine, several of whom, including state senator Clem Pinckney, were exemplary civic and religious leaders, were murdered by a twenty-­one-­year-­old white supremacist under the sign of the Confederate battle flag on the anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s failed slave rebellion in 1822 in the same city. (Vesey had been one of the founders of Emanuel ame.) As a number of historians duly reiterated to popular media in the...


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