Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature, by Richard Gray

Richard Gray's A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature (Athens, GA: UGA Press, 2007) argues that Southern writers, rather than being influenced by previous generations, are in a dialogue with them—that their work is a reaction to, an argument with, in ways both explicit and hidden, the writers who came before. Gray brings to bear an impressive array of modern and fairly contemporary Southern writers, ranging from Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and Wendell Berry to many younger writers. Gray is intent on demonstrating the diversity of Southern literature. He also seems wary of the Nashville agrarians, who seemed so relevant thirty years ago but who now at least in this discussion seem considerably less so.

Gray views Southern literature not in terms of a common ideology among writers but instead in terms of a fluid and sometimes homogeneous set of themes and reactions to cultural conditions. To say that writers often dwell on common themes is not to say that they make similar treatments of them. This becomes most evident in Gray's long and excellent discussion of Toni Morrison's dialogue with William Faulkner, whom Gray regards as the greatest of Southern writers. Gray resists the notion that Morrison was influenced by Faulkner (even though she wrote her MA thesis on Faulkner and Proust) and instead contends that in Morrison's work there is a dialogue with the Mississippi writer. As his two main texts in this discussion he uses Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Morrison's Beloved, which he regards as the two greatest books the literary South has produced on race and slavery. (I think the distinction between influence and dialogue here is largely semantical).

The sense of the South as a distinctive entity derives from how others perceive it as "other" and marginal and on the extreme verges of existence. Gray writes: "'Region' and 'regional' are here applied to an area that seems to exist on the extremest margins. They are terms applied by 'us,' the members of a dominant cultural group, to 'them,' some unfortunate lesser breed or area that was and is interesting precisely because it is so far from the supposed center of things" (63). "Those writers who call or see themselves as southern may have very little in common sometimes. What they do have, though, and have had in the past, is an inclination to define their 'southernness' against a national 'other'" (64). "The South, in short, any South, tends to be named and identified against the historical tide—even more against than other spaces or places construed as marginal" (65).

Gray's view of the American South is not rigid or monolithic. He sees the South as constantly involved in a process of change and development. He takes issue late in the book with a statement Walker Percy made in the early 1970s to the effect that regional writing in the South was dead. He suggests that Percy's pronouncement is based on an assumption that comes from within Southern culture, one that sees the South as fixed and defined and in danger of collapse as a result of outside forces. Southern writers, he suggests, should not be defined "from within that monolith." The "culture that, as a matter of self-identification, has defined itself as regional and southern has always been more mixed and fluid than this argument allows" (243).

Gray's final discussion centers on a group of writers who reflect the presence of a large Vietnamese population in the South. Some of these writers are white Americans—Robert Olen Butler, for instance—and others are themselves first-generation Vietnamese southerners, or more recent immigrants. Gray's identification in their work of themes he regards as Southern raises the question of what a Southern theme is—why is a particular theme—a fixation on the past, for instance--essentially Southern? Why is it not simply a human theme? Could any group of writers be picked up and plopped down in the South, with a similar group of Southern themes then emerging? To some extent such themes are basic to the human condition. The South defines the geographical region and culture in which writers explore these themes and from which they borrow elements of lifestyle, politics, religion, and place to clothe them.

The dialogue among writers that is basic to Gray's discussion may well be a dialogue that occurs as much in the minds of readers as within the works and minds of the authors. The more we as readers absorb, the more readily able we are to recognize links and disjunctions between and among the writers we read. Our construction of those links creates the cognitive context in which we read.

In addition to the discussions of Berry, Faulkner, Morrison, there are excellent discussions as well of Eudora Welty, Bobby Ann Mason's In Country, Yusef Komunyakaa, The Bondswoman's Narrative (written some time between 1855 and 1869 by a woman who may or may not have been named Hannah Craft), as well as African American and Native American writers in the South.

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