Tell About the South

Reviewed by Idris Knox

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 27-28

The Southern Writer in the Post-Modern World, by Fred Hobson. (University of Georgia Press, 1991, $17.95.).

Fred Hobson's book is full of ideas and examples without being pedantic--light and serious all you haven't read any of the authors he talks about, then attend to that before settling back to enjoy how he places them, where they fit in. How do we consider these writers who have gained national prominence since the 1960s? How do they differ from their predecessors? How are they inspiring and how do they disappoint? As Professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill, Hobson is qualified to explore, follow hunches and state a few

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verities. These ideas grew from the Lamar Memorial Lectures he gave at Mercer University.

The title comes from the first lecture of the series. It had been used by unwavering agrarian Donald Davidson of Vanderbilt. He titled his lectures "Southern Writers in the Modem World," meaning then the world of the 1920s. Since Hobson's is a sketch of authors publishing now, the title satisfies by placing them in relation to their immediate predecessors. Who knows how the critic and scholar will define and locate these current writers in another thirty years?

First of all, there will then as now be the mass culture that none of us escapes, whose influence has to be reckoned. Hobson values a southern penchant for being concrete, not abstract. So he states the importance of mass culture in America and moves to consider three authors: Bobbie Ann Mason, Lee Smith, and Barry Hannah. I am familiar with the first two, and I will soon know the writing of Hannah--as a result of Hobson's comments. All three deal with the vapid content and style of mass culture: TV, radio, Rock, and best-sellers that have little connection to excellence, however defined.

In speaking of Mason's work, Hobson warns us that the reader must supply the background or context for her tales of common people who struggle with integrity to understand their world. This is the big demand of all minimalist fiction: you've got to know our world and the implications of events, to fill in the story's gaps and silences.

Smith combines fine craft with a sense of values. She calls to my mind Vera Brittain, in showing the difference of perception that results in gender interpretations of history.

Hobson tells us that Hannah values history because it teaches us to feel. Violence and madness and a love of rhetoric in his work stem from an outrageous comic vision that is in a direct line from earlier southern writers. Read Geronimo Rex, he says.

Then, Hobson moves on to sketches of Richard Ford and Josephine Humphreys, showing how their work fits into our southern world. Ford is the uncommon one, with but a single work located in the South. Raised here, he left to live elsewhere and has only recently returned to New Orleans, twenty-five years later. He shows no devotion to place, a southern tenet, but does feel the magnet's pull. Hobson refers to John Crowe Ransom, saying Ford is modern with a southern accent. Hobson also shows us the connections between Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and Ford's The Sportswriter, an echo in the ways of perceiving and truth-telling.

Humphreys represents the Agrarian tradition. She comes from Charleston, and attended Duke. Along with Styron, Chappell, Tyler, and Price, Humphreys studied at Duke in the school of Blackburn and, later, Reynolds Price himself. She writes social commentary, but also about dreams. Hobson shows how she replies to the gender pressures of these times, and to alienation from family and past.

Now Hobson makes a "preliminary estimate": what about the heirs of Welty and Faulkner? Hobson feels there is a merging and overlapping, although it is not easy to distinguish the patterns. Certainly there is a direct line in family and community concerns of all kinds. In humor, Hannah, Edgerton, and Wilcox carry on.

What about all the authors who are mentioned only in passing? Initially. I kept saying to myself, "Yes, but what about . . ." and then remembered that a few strokes are best for sketching. Still, listing those authors named in passing will caution the reader: this is an impressive group. The footnotes give valuable referrals to works and commentary. Listen to this list and then read: Padgett Powell, Kay Gibbons (a new book just out), Clyde Edgerton. Anne Tyler. Jayne Ann Phillips, Ellen Gilchrist, Gail Godwin.

Reynolds Price. Cormac McCarthy, and Walker Percy are accepted as established writers, models for the younger ones, and as teachers.

Community, a sense of place, love of nature and reverence for the past: these values Hobson discusses in the work of Fred Chappell and Ernest Gaines. The former comes from southern Appalachia, the latter from a Cajun and African-American world around Baton Rouge. Thus, at the end of his sketch Professor Hobson provides the reader with even more variety, and depth. Who is the quintessential southern writer? You'll have a much better idea after reading these comments. Hobson's reasoning and examples will provoke thought, and then satisfaction in your own conclusions.

Idris Knox lives and writes in Durham.