The Mere Region by Robert Jackson
A critical review of some of T.S. Eliot's narrowly ideological invocations of region encourages us to clarify and redefine the term, for Eliot's own experience of the South was of a complex regional culture in which competing and contradictory forces were "inextricably involved with one another."
Robert Jackson completed his doctorate in English at New York University in 2001, and his book The Gilded Land: Seeking The Region In American Literature And Culture will be published in 2005 as part of the Southern Literary Series of LSU Press. At present he is doing postgraduate work in southern history at the University of Virginia.
Imagine what it would be like to gather to one location a group of thinkers and then open discussion of a topic of shared interest—say, the role of region in southern literature—with the following introduction:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...
Among others who already think like we do, defining our terms is rarely a high priority. We feel at home, we feel a sense of community, among like-minded people, which explains in large measure our appreciation for gatherings like this one. Most people forget that "I know it when I see it," the infamous non-definition of pornography by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart, came as part of his concurring opinion in the landmark case of Jacobellus v. Ohio (1964). It's much easier to evade precision when we're on the winning side of an argument.
When talking about region, we all think we know what we're talking about, and we tend to use the word in scores of different ways, and that may be fine as "shorthand" within an informal group of like-minded people. But if we actually try to define our terms for academic precision or clarity, or if we find among ourselves an anarchist or perhaps even a Yankee who lacks our shared cultural understanding and doesn't already know what we're talking about, the term "region" soon finds itself surrounded by quotation marks, its meaning slipping away from beneath us like so much postmodern entropy. The result, we fear, may be exactly the feeling of displacement that our regional identification has often sought to mitigate, if not crush altogether. And so, when it comes to region, we remain vague, resentful of the demands of a fully public discourse, preferring to believe that we know region when we see it.
T. S. Eliot, delivering the 1933 Page-Barbour lecture at the University of Virginia, articulated his own regional ideal, what he envisioned as "the re-establishment of a native culture" in the South:
May I say that my first, and no doubt superficial impressions of your country — I speak as a New Englander — have strengthened my feeling of sympathy with [the Nashville Agrarians of I'll Take My Stand].... I think that the chances for the re-establishment of a native culture are perhaps better here than in New England. You are farther away from New York; you have been less industrialized and less invaded by foreign races...
A bit later in the same address Eliot clarified the best qualities of this new "native culture," in a passage that has, for obvious reasons, drawn charges of anti-Semitism. Prominent among these qualities, and inseparable from Eliot's elitism, is like-mindedness:
The population should be homogeneous…reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable…. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.
Eliot's attitude toward Jews is offensive enough in its own right. But looking across some of the events that have taken place since 1933 — not just the Holocaust but, in America and the South, civil rights and integration, and in our field of literary studies these past several decades, an assault on the canon that would have sent Eliot scurrying back to London as fast as British Airways could take him, the ongoing reconsideration of literary value that has given solid footing to African American literature and theory, and the emergence of postcolonial, transnational, and other multicultural critical discourses — in light of these events, Eliot's dream of a "homogeneous" region seems almost unbearably rigid, not just in its well-maintained hierarchies but also, and even more untenably, in the very composition of its human community. In these passages Eliot brings to mind black and white images of the lone white woman riding the bus in Montgomery in 1955, surrounded by empty seats, ignoring the boycott, and largely ignored, to our eyes today, by history itself.
With this historical consciousness in mind, it is the collective identity of this supposedly organic community —the region— that requires clarification and redefinition. This is the moment to stop simply using the "we" that carries so much meaning precisely because it leaves so much unsaid. An appropriately American way to throw off the tyranny of like-mindedness would be to speak in individual terms, of "I" rather than "we." In Eliot's case, the "I" behind his regional "we" is profoundly revealing, and, perhaps not surprisingly in light of his background, deeply American. For despite his self-identification above as a New Englander, which he made, I think, largely as a rhetorical device to contrast the industrialized Northeast with what he wanted to view as a pastoral, even Edenic, South, Eliot was in truth a Missourian, that most existentially challenging of all American identities. Like those of Samuel Clemens before him, Eliot's life and writings show deep traces of ambivalence about his early background. Did his family's New England ties qualify him, vicariously, as a Yankee? Not according to his boarding school classmates back East, who mocked him for his heavy drawl and motivated him to shed all traces of his Missouri accent and, in the long run, to adopt the Queen's English. And yet surely Eliot, who had grown up in the cosmopolitan industrial city of St. Louis, where his grandfather had been the most outspoken abolitionist in the state, could not identify himself as a southerner? Or perhaps the open spaces of the frontier West a few blocks from his home held the keys to his identity? Clemens, according to his quixotic nature, at times embraced the West; Eliot, with a lifelong determination almost worthy of Thomas Sutpen, fled from it.
The term "region," first used in the fourteenth century, derives from the Latin regere, to rule. In its medieval context, the region had well-defined geographical boundaries, and an equally fixed feudal society with a tight hierarchy of authority connecting, like a series of concentric circles, the lowliest individual to his ruler, to the pope, and through him, of course, to God. This space, the forerunner of the modern European nation-state, was nothing if not authoritative, inscribed with a political, legal, economic, and religious value that was total.
In the United States, region conspicuously lacks this authority. Legally and politically, it has neither the broad mandate of the nation nor the more narrow powers of state and city governments. Economically, every American region is tied to every other region, and indeed, all are inextricable from a global economic order that proudly brags of having no boundaries whatsoever. As for religion, even during her lifetime Flannery O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" South lacked the kind of arching, systematic, macrocosmic religious identity of the early European region; the modern South was, instead, and in an entirely American way, the setting for what she called "do-it-yourself religion." Existentially tortured, endlessly improvisational, and fiercely individualistic: southern religious experience expressed the unique properties of region in an American context perhaps as well as anything else in the twentieth century. And as for the spatial dimensions of the region in America as compared to Europe, the difference is stark. The region has no boundaries here; or at least, there are enough blurred edges to make all regional boundaries unreliable. T. S. Eliot's native state of Missouri, a slave state that stayed with the Union, a river state committed to railroads, a crossroads of North and South but also the Gateway to the West, provides as good an example of this as any. The fluidity of American culture — and I think ultimately region in the United States must be defined not politically or legally but in the most inclusive cultural terms — invests this space with both the confusion and lack of order that frightened Eliot so much, and the opportunities for cultural expression that have been brilliantly exploited, sometimes unconsciously, by American regional writers who stuck around.
The American region likes to parody anything it views as a monolithic seat of power, from the federal establishment to any other perceived threat to its individuality. The reason for this is quite simple: the region, like all of us, wants recognition and respect on its own terms. The region proceeds, as culture so often does, intuitively, asserting its identity in ways more creative and innovative than any merely legal or economic institution could. And in all the spaces of the United States, endowed as they were, and in many ways continue to be, with the ambivalent and often contradictory forces of empire and republic, slavery and freedom, community and individualism, the region's genius in responding humanistically to such schizophrenic forces makes it an invaluable unit of culture in national and even global contexts. Pejoratively and prematurely consigned to reactionary politics, religious fundamentalism, social unrest of every kind, and, in our field, the kiss-of-death designation of "local color," the mere region nevertheless harbors enormous cultural power for those who know where to look, or perhaps, how to look.
"The Ordinary Business of Living"
For lack of time, I will cite just one example to illustrate the region's cultural potential in America, expressing its creative innovation. The passage is taken from a foundational text in southern literature: the Bible. Acts 13: 46-50 (from the ubiquitously southern King James Version, of course):
46Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. 47For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. 48And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. 49And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. 50But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts.
The presence here of "free-thinking Jews" who threaten the homogeneity of the elite culture is a nice bonus, but I want to point to the way that the apostles simultaneously resist one authority ("the chief men of the city") and assert another (God's and by extension their own). Their evangelism is influenced by these powers but intuitively expresses itself in a space that is cultural, not legal or economic, ensuring a considerable payoff for everyone in that space and, to the book's readers, beyond: "And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region."
The relative sophistication of this regional model - balancing so many contradictions and competing forces while articulating its individual voice gracefully - has the side effect of making T. S. Eliot seem all the more hapless. But even the apostate Missourian seems to have sensed the need to leave other possibilities open for the region. Revising but not substantively altering his earlier views in the 1940 essay "Notes towards the Definition of Culture," Eliot concludes with the rare admission that he might not know everything about his subject. But he still leans on like-mindedness and invokes the imperial "we":
It was necessary to remind ourselves of those considerable areas of the globe, in which the problem takes a different form from ours: of those areas particularly, in which two or more distinct cultures are so inextricably involved with each other, in propinquity and in the ordinary business of living, that "regionalism," as we conceive it in Britain, would be a mockery. For such areas it is probable that a very different type of political philosophy should inspire political action, from that in terms of which we are accustomed to think and act in this part of the world.
Eliot's description of "two or more distinct cultures… inextricably involved with each other... in the ordinary business of living," strikes me as an entirely adequate summary of the American South, both during slavery and segregation and in today's postmodern, multicultural South. The "different type of… philosophy" Eliot hints at but does not attempt to define comes about as close as he ever did to imagining any culture not based on elitist, exclusionary principles. Seeking both to contribute to a more inclusive public space for cultural discourse, and to contemplate how this model might address southern literature — the most important regional literature produced in twentieth-century America — I have tried here to flesh out one possible model of region in America, one possible conception of the region Eliot did not venture to imagine.
Probably the main motivation for Eliot's comparatively humble turn of thought in 1940 was the alarming emergence of Fascism during the previous decade. But perhaps there is something else in his talk of several cultures "inextricably involved with each other," a memory of the complex regional culture he knew so innocently in his American youth, and a desire to see the promise of that culture fulfilled. In any case, my own intentions in revisiting the mere region, and in giving Eliot as much benefit of the doubt as possible in this area, are not entirely unselfish. For I, too, am a Missourian.
"Bad Politics": Old Southwestern Humor and the Southern Gothic
Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory by Edward A. Shannon
Edward A. Shannon is an Associate Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He continues writing about the life and work of Woody Guthrie and has two essays on Guthrie awaiting publication: "Talkin' World Revolution: The Subversive Humor of Woody Guthrie's Seeds of Man" in Intersecting Paths: Continuing Legacy of Old Southwestern Humor (Louisiana State University Press) and "'Vulgar Words of Language': The Sacred and Profane Hero of Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory" in On Western Subjects: Locating Autobiographical Writing in the North American West (University of Utah Press, 2005).
In his 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory, the American folksinger Woody Guthrie mythologizes himself and documents a career that never reached its full potential. Guthrie's tenure as a creative artist was rather short; he began performing in the 1930s, rose to some prominence in the 1940s, but was sidetracked by the war. By the end of the decade, many of his great songs had been written. By 1955, Huntington's Disease, the degenerative brain disorder that had killed his mother Nora, put him in the hospital. He died in 1967, after twelve more or less bed-ridden years. Although he had intended to write more, Bound for Glory was the only substantial prose volume he published during his lifetime, and as such is Guthrie's fullest statement about his life and art.
While he is usually considered a westerner, Bound for Glory shows Guthrie's indebtedness to southern traditions. In particular, Guthrie draws on Old Southwestern Humor and the Southern Gothic, two traditions steeped in irrationality and violence. Elaine Apthorp writes that the Guthrie persona was drawn from "the example of cracker-barrel comic Will Rogers and through him [ . . . ] the southwestern humorist tradition of Samuel Clemens and company" (22). Terrel Dixon also notes that Guthrie's dialect is "reminiscent of such early Southwestern humorists as [Thomas Bangs] Thorpe and Augustus Baldwin Longstreet" (Dixon 136). While Guthrie's debt to northern and western writers (notably Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck) has been well established, the southern influence has been little more than noted in passing.
But Guthrie's interest in the South goes beyond his use of dialect; there is abundant evidence of Guthrie's southern travels and affinities. Danney Goble, in "The Southern Influence on Oklahoma," observes that Guthrie's home state owes more than a little of its character to the culture of the south. Guthrie's career exemplifies this. Among his major musical influences were Mississippi's Jimmie Rodgers and Virginia's Carter Family, and he recorded songs, like "Stackolee," which "grew out of the lore of Southern African Americans" (Logsdon, Muleskinner 23). As he wrote in his song "If You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi," Guthrie was frequently concerned with the people of "beautiful Texas / Oklahoma, [ . . .] Georgia, [and] Tennessee " (Guthrie, "Do Re Mi" 231).
The Southwestern Hero
Guthrie's reinvention of himself in the role of the Old Southwestern hero in Bound for Glory blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, but crossing generic lines was part of the Old Southwestern tradition. The "Crockett Almanacs" of the 1830's "contain[ed] tall tales based mainly on legends of oral tradition, concerned with Crockett [ . . . ] Daniel Boone, and Kit Carson" ("Crockett Almanacs" 176). Guthrie was not shy about joining in the mythologizing of real-life characters, like the Dalton Gang, Belle Starr, Pretty Boy Floyd, or . . . Woody Guthrie. Where the Crockett character obviously embodies American individualism and Manifest Destiny, the Woody Guthrie of Bound for Glory exists to sing the virtues of the workingman and spur the nation on to victory in the Second World War's battle against fascism.
Guthrie's narrative should be read as part of a broader tradition of American humor that, as David Reynolds writes, "featured a dynamic rascal who flouted decency and the law and who embodied the [ . . .] view of man as a wily being who relies on cunning to survive in an unpredictable, inscrutable universe" (442-3). This tradition was rooted in the work of such "Old Southwestern humorists such as Thomas Bangs Thorpe and George Washington Harris" (442-3). Reynolds sees a distinctly political subtext to the excesses of the Old Southwestern tales, which he calls "orgies of liberty" that take "on the aspect of a grotesque democratic carnival" (448). Bound for Glory's Woody Guthrie is cut from the same mold as the Old Southwestern tale's "'screamer' or 'ring-tailed roarer,' the loud backwoods braggart who spouted streams of strange metaphors" (Reynolds 449). He is an incredulous innocent turned wryly ironic truth-telling "prophet singer" (Guthrie "Prophet Singer" 27) able to cut through corruption with a few well-chosen words.
Other qualities of the Old Southwestern tale include, as Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham have written, "fights, mock fights, reluctant fighters [ . . . ] elections and electioneering [ . . . ] the visitor in a humble home, rude accommodations for travelers [ . . . ] adventures of a rogue [ . . . ] cures, sickness and bodily discomfort " (xxiv). All are present in Bound for Glory. Guthrie's exploits, especially those of his youth, which take up a great part of the book, are somewhat less than accurate, but to a reader of the Old Southwestern tales and the works they inspired, they seem very familiar. Like Huckleberry Finn, young Woody emerges as a trickster and storyteller of great skill, and the many battles of his childhood are recounted like scenes from Twain's work, and very much in the spirit of Old Southwestern humor tale. For instance, Guthrie relates one occasion on which he is taunted into fighting a childhood friend named "Big Jim," who has himself just been taunted into beating "Little Jim." Young Woody at first wants to have nothing to do with the arranged battle, as he has no quarrel with Big Jim. Only the crowd's appeal to the reputation of Woody's rough and tumble dad can budge him. They shout, "Old man Charlie Guthrie's a fighter! Old Charlie Guthrie would come down and fight!" (Guthrie 110). As in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's stories "The Horse-Swap" and "The Fight," the crowd goads the two antagonists into confrontation.
His nascent manhood questioned, Woody acquiesces. In pitched battle, he fights to win, still questioning the circumstances that brought the fight about. Naturally seeking harmony, not battle, Guthrie describes his youthful self as particularly insightful. As he fights, he thinks, "I hated fighting my hometown kids. I was throwing my fists at Big Jim, but I was really fighting these crazy notions that folks get and keep in their heads" (111-112). As a reward for the entertainment their battle provides, Woody and Big Jim earn two dollars and seventy-five cents between them, which they spend on ice cream. They split the money fifty-fifty, of course, but that leaves an extra nickel. The problem is solved in typical socialistic fashion and they share the money with Little Jim (113). Here, as in many of his songs, Guthrie imbues the Old Southwestern braggart character with his own political views. As Guy Logsdon has written of Guthrie's music, "[h]e used the American frontier braggart traditions of folk heroes [ . . . ] to criticize those who [ . . . ] thrive on misfortunes of others" (Logsdon, Hard Travelin' 19).
In the Big Jim incident and in a later episode describing a battle between two hometown gangs, the physically slight and scrawny Guthrie improbably casts himself as a fighter of great power and renown, licking the biggest of kids. Guthrie's fighting skills in this regard remind one of Tom Sawyer, who frequently bests his classmates in battle. Over the course of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, another story of a reckless youth inspired by the Old Southwestern Humorists, Tom gets into several scrapes, from his first meeting with a new boy in town whose "citified air" (8) irks Tom, to his quarrels with his "bosom friend [ . . . ] Joe Harper" (55). Tom and Joe "were sworn friends all the week and embattled enemies on Saturdays" (55). For Twain, as for Guthrie, a willingness and ability to fight are signs of a healthy boyhood. Fighting does not keep Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper from remaining fast friends; the same is true of Woody and Big Jim. Fighting is also a demonstration of the boy hero's masculinity. For while it is true that Guthrie allows his protagonist a greater insight into the politics of fighting than Twain does, it is also true that he allows young Woody to win.
When we recall Guthrie's slight stature, we may conclude that the author's real talent lies in his prodigious powers of exaggeration rather than his fighting skills. Guthrie's excessive bragging likens him to great "yarnspinners" (Blair and Hill 205) like Jim Doggett, the boastful protagonist of Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas." In Bound for Glory, however, the point of such bragging is quite different from that of Thorpe's "Big Bear." Guthrie is respectful of the powers of nature, as Doggett is, but his focus is always explicitly and consciously political. Woody, Big Jim, and Little Jim are aware of their common interests and the power of the mob. They naturally fall to redistribution of wealth amongst the "workers" of the fight game.
Like the fight with Big Jim, the battle Guthrie describes between two rival gangs is an opportunity to comment on the inequities of capitalism. Like Twain, Guthrie both romanticizes boyhood innocence and deplores the corrupting influences of the adult world. Guthrie describes the effect of Oklahoma's boom and bust oil speculation economy on his home town, especially its children:
A new tribe of boomchasers hit town every day, families with kids, kids looking for work and play. The gang-house kids made a law that new kids coming in couldn't have any say-so in how the gang was run, so the new kids got mad and moved a little farther down the hill. I was sore at the old gang and went and hooked up with the new one. (116)
We told you why we are fighting this war. It is because of your leaders mostly. Most of us kids is new here in town and we ain't got no other place except at your gang house. You made us work but you didn't let us vote or nothing like that when it was time. (116)
Like a young Thomas Jefferson in "dirty overhauls," Woody again crafts a scenario of childhood troubles reinvented as political lesson. The battle which follows is nothing less than the American Revolution recast as a socialist revolt, freeing the young workers of Okemah, Oklahoma, from the tyranny of a ten-year-old King George. These exaggerated exploits not only further Guthrie's socialist ideals; they elevate the character of young Woody into an idealized home-spun hero, a model of American virtue. The incident speaks to Guthrie's socialist politics, his respect for the workingman, and his innate faith in democracy and equality. However, as in the fight with Big Jim, Guthrie wins the fight before his lofty political principals are articulated.
While Woody the fighter brings Tom Sawyer to mind, Woody the peacemaker is conversely reminiscent of Huck Finn, another Old Southwestern-inspired, youthful dialect speaker who seeks to avoid conflict. While forced to live amongst corrupt adults, Huck tries to ensure that no one is seriously harmed by the actions of himself or his companions. Always the outsider looking in, young Woody is likewise constantly taken aback at human cruelty, so much so that one can imagine him muttering under his breath, as Huck Finn did, "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another" (182--emphasis original). And while Guthrie retains his capacity for empathy with the downtrodden into adulthood, the most affecting of these episodes unfold during his youth.
One of the most disturbing and formative of these scenes occurs while Guthrie is a small child visiting his grandmother's farm. At this point, his mother has begun exhibiting signs of the illness that will eventually take her life. Nora Guthrie suffered from Huntington's Disease, but when he wrote his book, Woody Guthrie did not know what killed his mother. Unfortunately, the illness was not very well understood, and her loss of control of her body and facial expression was interpreted by her family as a descent into madness. Various causes are offered for her supposed insanity, from the trauma of giving birth to Woody to the Guthries' economic troubles to "bad politics" (Guthrie, Bound 77). As a five-year-old child on his grandmother's farm, young Woody tries to make sense of all this while his uncles (who are only a few years older than himself) treat him as an unwelcome presence and omen of ill fortune.
In one of Bound for Glory's most violent episodes, young Woody is forced to watch as his uncle slaughters a group of kittens. Woody sneaks out with the kinder of his two uncles, eight-year-old Lawrence, as he visits Lawrence's cat, "old Mother Maltese and her new little bunch of kittens" (74). Watching the cat care for the kittens, Woody elicits information about his own mother, who has come to be considered "purty bad off" and "crazy" (76). Previously, Lawrence had made little secret of his dislike of Woody, but here away from the older and crueler Warren, the boys quietly observe and care for the cats. However, we are warned that "Warren kills all th' new little baby cats that gits bor'd on th' place" (77). As this remark comes soon after Woody's comment that "[his] mama got awful bad sick when [he] was borned" (76), there can be little doubt that we are witnessing the development of Woody Guthrie's identification with the weak and powerless of this world, or that the cats are in great danger.
In short order, Warren arrives and disrupts the tranquil scene. After shoving Lawrence and Woody aside, Warren discovers their secret and destroys the cotton seed box sheltering the family of cats:
Warren put his foot on my shoulder and give me [a] shove. I went about three feet. I tried to hold onto the box, but the whole works turned over. The old mama cat jumped out and made a circle around us, meowing first at Warren, and then at me and the little baby kittens [. . . ]. Warren kicked the loose cotton seed apart. "Just like tearin' up a bird's nest!" he said. He put the sharp toe of his shoe under the belly of the first little cat, and threw it up against the rock foundation. (80)
He picked the second kitten up in the grip of his hand, and squeezed till his muscles bulged up. He swung the kitten around and around, something like a Ferris wheel, as fast as he could turn his arm, and the blood and entrails of the kitten splashed across the ground, and the side of the house. (80)
Warren then turns his attention to the mother cat, "[grabbing] the box and [splintering] it against the rocks and the mama cat's head" (80).
This scene is telling in several contexts. We have insight into the events that will eventually inform the peacemaking Woody of the "Little Jim" and "gang house" episodes. The reader also sees the growth of Woody Guthrie's very personal politics. This violent event is played against the backdrop of a conversation regarding the possible causes of his mother's decline. Amongst the candidates is Woody himself. Warren shouts, "Awwww. Whattaya know [ . . .]? You done run yore mama crazy just being born! [ . . .] You dam little insane-asylum baby!" (81). Afterwards, Woody watches the badly-beaten Mother Maltese gather her dead kittens:
I was listening to her moan and choke in the weeds, dragging her belly along the ground, with her two back legs limber behind her, pulling her body with her front feet, and throwing her head first to one side and then to the other. (81)
Either answer is telling in the development of Woody's social consciousness. If he imagines himself as the cause of his mother's madness, he seems to wish to purge his guilt by serving other victims of violence and injustice. If he is commenting on his uncle, then we can read the question as a condemnation of the "bad politics" earlier blamed for his mother's poor health. Lawrence had previously defined politics from his youthful vantage point:
[Politics is] Just a good way to make some money. But you always have troubles. Have fights. Carry two guns ever' day. Yore dad likes lots of money [ . . . ]. Yore ma didn't like yore dad ta always be pokin' guns, shootin', fightin', an' so, well, she ust worried an' worried, till she got sick at it--an' that was when you was borned a baby not much bigger'n one of these here little cats [ . . . ]. (76)
Lawrence's comments identify Woody with the cats, remind us of the Old Southwestern sketch's focus on "fights [ . . . ] and electioneering" (xxiv), and personalize political violence, transforming the comic violence of the sketches to the social commentary of Bound for Glory.
Southern Gothic Meets the Old Southwest
The grotesque description of Warren's violence also takes on the aspect of Southern Gothic. Especially significant is the fact that the animals Warren kills are his brother's pet cats. In "Slavery and the Gothic Horror of Poe's 'The Black Cat,'" Leslie Ginsberg makes a compelling argument that Poe's short story is a very conscious comment on slavery, using familiar nineteenth-century imagery of animal cruelty. She refers to the "scene[s] of pet abuse so familiar to antebellum child-rearing guides" (106). She goes on to mention an episode from Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Home, in which a boy "[i]n a fit of anger [ . . . ] plunges his sister's kitten into a vat of hot water" (106). Ginsberg observes that such violent scenes had political implications; this violence confirmed, as "abolitionists argued, the intoxication of absolute power bred in the intemperate abuses for which slavery was infamous" (106).
Similarly, Guthrie's description of the brutalization of innocent cats is framed in language of "bad politics," Nora Guthrie's physical and emotional decline, maternal love, and Woody's evolving personal and political identity. The bad politics of Woody's father Charley are reflected in Warren's brutal abuse of "absolute power," just as slavery was represented in the pet mutilations of nineteenth-century southern literature.
Charley Guthrie, Woody's father, was very active in Oklahoma's Democratic party, and his "bad politics" are specifically southern. The increase of the Democratic party's power demonstrated the extent of the southern influence on Oklahoman identity. Danney Goble writes, "Oklahoma [joined] the ranks of the one-party 'Solid South'" (289). Before the killing of the cats, young Woody says, "[i]f every single [member of the family] would all git together an' get rid of them ol' mean, bad politics, they'd all feel lots better, an' wouldn't fight each other so much an' that'd make my mama feel better" (77). Warren's violent outburst represents an extension of the frustration and rage that Guthrie believed was killing his mother. And while this frustration has personal effects, it is political in origin.
In broader terms, violence perpetrated against animals in the context of class and power relationships is also a staple of the Old Southwestern sketch. Longstreet's "The Horse-Swap" describes a trade between a ring-tailed roarer called "The Yallow Blossom from Jasper" and a man named Peter Ketch. For most of the story, the two banter back and forth before closing the horse swap, each displaying his wit and ability to outsmart the other. Each man is clearly more interested in his reputation as a trader than in the actual value (or well-being) of the horses. Eventually the trade is sealed, and Yallow Blossom's horse, Bullet, is stripped of its blanket only to reveal the painful and grotesque injuries that have made the horse appear so lively. The narrator recalls in horror:
The removal of the blanket disclosed a sore on Bullet's back-bone that seemed to have defied all medical skill. It measured six full inches in length and four in breadth, and had as many features as Bullet had motions. My heart sickened at the sight; and I felt that the brute who had been riding him in that situation deserved the halter. (237)
While the narrator may be disgusted at such cruelty, he notes that among the gathered crowd, "[t]he prevailing feeling [ . . . ] was that of mirth" (237). As with the torture of pet cats in Guthrie's Bound for Glory, Sedgwick's Home, and Poe's "The Black Cat," cruelty toward animals is presented here as a reflection of human social relationships. While Longstreet allows his unnamed narrator to criticize such behavior, the author clearly wishes the reader to share in "[t]he prevailing feeling [ . . . ] of mirth." Guthrie, Sedgwick, and Poe offer their readers no such comfort.
Guthrie adapts the motifs of frontier humor, the tall tale, and Old Southwestern humor to suit his radical views regarding labor and his more mainstream patriotic views regarding the war. By becoming the familiar rough backwoods hero, Guthrie and his radical politics become as wholesome as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Huck Finn. The traditions of the frontier and Old Southwest exploit difference, but Guthrie uses these same traditions to seek unity in his family, among workers, and between his socialist ideals and his unabashedly patriotic response to the war. The influence of the Southern Gothic, however, not only brings to the book the undeniable truth of violence and oppression but also allows Guthrie to document his political genesis.
Bound for Glory is a fascinating look at an America gripped by war, witnessed by an unlikely American hero: the socialist patriot, part Thomas Jefferson and part Eugene Debs. In Bound for Glory Guthrie, by then a resident of New York City, returned to his western and southern roots to create his paradoxical legend. Thus, Guthrie at once became and immortalized the "lonesome traveler [and] great historical bum" (Guthrie, "Biggest Thing") still revered and imitated today.
From Upper Hogthief, Georgia, to “Fait,” Alabama
Regionalism in Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes and Hooper’s Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
Two of the best works of Southwest humor, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes and Johnson Jones Hooper's Some Adventurers of Captain Simon Suggs, provide a revealing glimpse into the dynamics connecting American regionalism, antebellum politics, and southern intellectual life.
Adam Tate looks at ways in which the regionalism of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Johnson Jones Hooper "embodied not only spatial categories but also specific cultural and social characteristics." Yet Tate also applies the argument of historians Peter Onuf and Edward Ayers to the case of these two well-known antebellum southwestern humorists in order to demonstrate that they shaped their ideal of regionalism within nationalistic contexts. While their humor incorporated "different social visions," they finally formulated a similar southern regionalism "conceived, at least in part, on racial terms" and predicated on a need for social order that grew out of their participation in a "national public sphere."
The self-conscious sectional perspectives of antebellum writers make the literature of the antebellum South a rich source for the study of southern regionalism. The genre of Southwest humor has received well-deserved attention in the past thirty years for its revealing look at life in the antebellum South. Two of the best works of Southwest humor, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes and Johnson Jones Hooper's Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, provide a glimpse into the interplay among American regionalism, antebellum politics, and southern intellectual life. Their uses of regionalism reveal their politics: Longstreet's states' rights conservatism and Hooper's southern Whiggery. Even though their political allegiances differed, both men ended up as secessionists in the late 1850s. Political issues certainly played roles in their decisions, but their specific views of region and society, apparent in their literary works, led them to support the cause of southern nationalism in the winter of 1860-1861.
Historians Peter Onuf and Edward Ayers argued recently that southern independence did not occur because of the weakness of American nationalism, as is often assumed by scholars. Rather, southerners learned their regionalism because of their participation in American nationalism. A region, after all, is part of a greater whole. American nationalism and the creation of a national public sphere made southerners aware of their regional particularities. Southerners constructed a regional identity to define themselves against perceived "foreign" adversaries.1
Both Longstreet and Hooper participated in national platforms. As a young man, Longstreet studied at Yale where he apparently loved to "play the southerner," indulging the curiosity of his Yankee classmates by telling stories of home in his Georgia drawl. Longstreet scholar James Scafidel has shown that Longstreet's political awakening occurred in 1813 while he studied law in Connecticut. He became appalled at New England's opposition to the War of 1812 and developed a lifelong prejudice against Yankees. Longstreet, then, became aware of his regional identity as a southerner in a national context. By the time he wrote the sketches published in 1835 as Georgia Scenes, Longstreet strongly supported John C. Calhoun and the nullification movement in South Carolina. Hooper's regional identity was more complicated. He was a southerner in a national context and a southwesterner in a southern context. Hooper moved from North Carolina to the Alabama frontier in 1835. The experience of the frontier led him to consider American identity in spatial terms.2 Hooper's southern identity hardened during his participation in Whig Party politics, especially as a newspaper editor, a task that combined both national and regional interests. Hooper and Longstreet both gained national reputations after New York publishers ran their southern stories in national papers. The national public sphere, therefore, reinforced their southern regional identities.
For Longstreet and Hooper regionalism embodied not only spatial categories but also specific cultural and social characteristics. The most important element of antebellum southern intellectual life, as Longstreet's and Hooper's writings witness, concerned determining the best southern social order. Southern intellectuals wrote continuously about the subject and literature allowed them to animate their theories. Longstreet and Hooper had different social visions, as evidenced by brief perusals of their works.
The predominant regional awareness in Georgia Scenes is southern. As certain critics have argued, Georgia Scenes is not primarily a work of Southwest humor because the Georgia about which Longstreet wrote was simply neither the west of its day nor the frontier. Georgia Scenes, through humor, "realism," and satire, presented Longstreet's vision of the good southern society. His ideal southern society recognizes a natural hierarchy, practices a healthy deference, rewards merit, and protects itself through vigilant awareness of the social decline introduced by alien cultural forms. Two of the sketches in Georgia Scenes especially reveal Longstreet's views, "The Mother and Her Child" and "The Shooting Match."3
In "The Mother and Her Child" Longstreet, through the narrator Baldwin, argued for a patriarchal household in which women and blacks know their place. The story begins with Baldwin's visit to the house of Mr. Slang. Slang's eight-month-old child is crying inconsolably. Mrs. Slang orders her slave Rose to quiet the child. Rose is unable to do so, which brings a torrent of verbal abuse from her mistress. Mrs. Slang then takes the baby in her arms and despite speaking gibberish — which resembles the black vernacular of Rose — to the infant cannot quiet the child. After further failed attempts to stop the wailing, Mr. Slang asserts his authority. Instead of speaking gibberish, Slang takes the child, examines it carefully, removes "a small feather" from its ear, and thus transforms the child's "tears to smiles." The patriarch has saved the day. The hierarchy of the home is re-established. The white male father leads his wife, child, and slave to peace.4
"The Shooting Match" concerns political deference and the possibility for unity among cultured gentlemen and Georgia crackers. In the first two lines of the story, Longstreet indicated that the sketch is a regional tale concerning the South, not the frontier:
Shooting matches are probably nearly coeval with the colonization of Georgia. They are still common throughout the southern states though they are not as common as they were twenty-five or thirty years ago.
The scene is distinctly southern. The narrator of the tale, Lyman Hall, is a gentleman who has in previous sketches observed and described various elements of cracker culture, including a horrific fight and the blood sport of gander pulling. In "The Shooting Match," Hall participates in the cracker contest. The humor of the sketch relies on the ambiguity of Hall's skills. Hall shoots well, winning second place to the amazement of his new cracker compatriots. Although Hall as narrator claims that he was lucky, the fact that he had "won beef" as a boy at another cracker shooting match makes his claim suspicious. The Georgia crackers, duly impressed with Hall, whom they had earlier scorned as an outsider, gentleman, and dandy, ask him if he is running for office and pledge their support if by chance he is. Hall's cracker companion Billy Curlew even calls him by his first name, "If ever you come out for any thing, Lyman, jist let the boys of Upper Hogthief know it, and they'll go for you . . . ." The crackers promise deference to their social betters, not because of any faith in aristocracy, but out of a healthy Jeffersonian respect for individual ability. Hall merits their respect and deference. The fact that he is a gentleman makes their deference all the sweeter in Longstreet's mind.5
A third major theme of Georgia Scenes, one that explicitly invokes regionalism, is Longstreet's concern that Georgia culture be protected from alien influences. Hostility to European cultural fashions runs throughout the sketches. The trickster and confidence man Ned Brace needles a bewildered Frenchman in "The Character of a Native Georgian." The narrator Baldwin cringes through the performances of "the instrumental music of France and Italy" by Miss Amelia Emma Theodosia Augusta Crump. Not only did Miss Crump perform foreign music poorly but she also learned her repertoire from Madam Piggisqueake in Philadelphia. Baldwin hates the European and northern influences brought to the South by Miss Crump and her ilk. Southern culture, which in "The Song" Longstreet linked to Scotland and Ireland, must be preserved from the cultures of the North and continental Europe. Faced with the diversity of cultural influences in the South, Longstreet opted for unity. The conservative message of Georgia Scenes was the same one Longstreet preached in the late 1850s. The South had to secede — culturally in the 1830s and politically in the 1850s — to preserve a unified social order. Longstreet's regionalism became southern nationalism.6
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
The predominant regional awareness in Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs is southwestern. The book begins with a set of sketches in which young Simon Suggs assumes his role of trickster and confidence man, swindling his father, a slave, and his mother. Hooper presented his case for southern Whiggery and individualism through the nihilistic exploits of Suggs. His ideal southern society was ordered through the strength of individual character and social institutions that, while respecting the freedom of American society, provided a basis for social unity. By the late 1850s, Hooper endorsed secession, hoping that a southern nation could unify southern culture on a racial and cultural basis. The scenes "Simon Plays the 'Snatch' Game" and "Simon Gets a 'Soft Snap' out of His Daddy" reveal Hooper's social ideology.
Hooper portrayed the fallacy of attempting to order society solely on the basis of liberal individualism. The liberal emphasis on rational self-interest was inadequate to keep order because it distorted the nature of man. Hooper believed that the passions primarily drove human action. Many were either too ignorant to realize their own self-interest or too vicious to act rationally and morally. For Hooper, a society based completely on self-interest was anarchic. Unless human nature could be contained or directed in some way, freedom degenerated into license. Hooper noted of Suggs: "His whole ethical system lies snugly in his favourite aphorism — 'IT IS GOOD TO BE SHIFTY IN A NEW COUNTRY' — which means that it is right and proper that one should live as merrily and as comfortably as possible at the expense of others."7 Hooper remarked that Suggs' whole life illustrated his shiftiness. Suggs, therefore, personifies self-interest, which Hooper depicts as utter selfishness. Suggs as the confidence man teaches in a negative fashion that trust, not self-interest, is the basis of social relations.
Hooper's distrust of self-interest as the basis of social order did not make him a traditionalist by any means. He doubted that the traditional order could contain freedom any better than liberalism. Hooper's portrait of traditional society was the opposite of Longstreet's. Whereas Longstreet saw virtue in traditional social leaders, Simon Suggs constantly exposes scions of the traditional order — religious leaders, legislators, and military leaders — as hypocrites who take advantage of those willing to trust in the efficacy of traditional order. The fact that Suggs escapes his scams largely unscathed or unpunished reveals Hooper's doubts about traditional conservatism's answers to the problems of modern freedom.
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs begins as a satire of the traditional order. The first two chapters, "Simon Plays the 'Snatch Game'" and "Simon Gets a 'Soft Snap' out of His Daddy," tell about Suggs' move to the frontier. Hooper introduced Suggs as "a miracle of shrewdness" who possessed "that tact which enables man to detect the soft spots in his fellow, and to assimilate himself to whatever company he may fall in with." The story starts with seventeen-year-old Suggs playing cards with a black boy named Bill. Suggs' father Jedediah, "an old 'hard shell' Baptist preacher," exemplifies a traditional source of authority. Hooper noted that Jedediah Suggs," though very pious and remarkably austere, was very avaricious." He "reared his boys . . . according to the strictest requisitions of the moral law." Simon, however, adopted bad habits, like playing cards, whenever Jedediah was absent. Hooper refused to wax nostalgic in his portrayal of the traditional order. Rather, hypocrisy and corruption had tainted traditional forms of authority, a point Simon Suggs revealed.8
As Jedediah Suggs, armed with hickory switches, approaches the two boys, Simon grabs the pot, over Bill's protests, and pockets the cards. Jedediah begins to whip Bill for his laziness and then notices the jack of diamonds, which Simon had been sitting upon in an effort to cheat Bill. Jedediah realizes that the two boys had been playing cards and decides that both need a beating. The first chapter ends with traditional authority reestablished. Jedediah, though maligned by Hooper for his greed, has yet to display any weaknesses. He prepares to use coercion in order to preserve the traditional values of hard work, responsibility, and morality.
The second chapter opens with Simon trying to devise an escape while watching his father mercilessly beat Bill. Simon contemplates striking his father, but realizes that his brother Ben, who is plowing the adjoining field, would help Jedediah, leaving Simon outnumbered. Jedediah finishes with Bill and approaches Simon. Simon remonstrates with his father, telling him that a whipping would not deter him from his plan to make his living by playing cards. Jedediah replies that "all card-players, and chicken-fighters, and horse-racers go to hell," but the fear of eternal damnation does not change Simon's mind. Simon tells his father that a local man, Bob Smith, had seen Simon play cards, taught him a few tricks, and praised his deftness at cards. Jedediah, who thinks himself better and more knowledgeable than Smith, agrees to play a card game with Simon to demonstrate his own superiority and to reveal Simon's ineptness.
Simon gets Jedediah to place a bet on the game by appealing to his greed. If Simon cuts the Jack from the deck, his father will refrain from beating him and give him an Indian pony, Bunch. If Simon fails, he will give his father a sack of silver coins, which Jedediah greedily eyes in hopes of paying off his land. Simon gives the deck to his father to cut. Jedediah tries to cheat by moving some of the cards, but Simon, looking over his father's shoulder, catches the move and by sleight of hand cuts a jack anyway. His father is devastated. Simon then uses religious rhetoric to humiliate his father by saying that his victory was "predestinated." Jedediah, not realizing Simon's sarcasm, agrees, "To be sure — to be sure — all fixed aforehand." Simon obtains Bunch and is "in high spirits . . . at the idea of unrestrained license in the future." As he rides off to the frontier, Suggs "roared with delight" at the last trick he had played on his mother — before leaving he had filled her pipe with gunpowder. The anarchic Suggs, representing modern freedom, has vanquished through trickery and violence the corrupt traditional order represented by his parents.9
Suggs' success against traditional society formed part of Hooper's subversive message. William Lenz points out that while the reader cheers for Suggs in his trickery against his self-righteous, hypocritical father, Suggs' last trick on his mother turns the reader against him.10 Suggs is not Hooper's hero, but only his tool to make social points. Suggs, by attacking his parents, reveals his lack of piety. Hooper did not necessarily think that the destruction of the traditional order was always beneficial, but he believed that it fell under the weight of its own corruption. Suggs' victory and escape showed the inability of coercion and religion to order modern freedom. In the face of freedom, traditional society was incompetent. In fact, once the traditional order entertained modern ideas of freedom, it began to fall. That Hooper first attacked the traditional society in the eastern state of Georgia is significant, for the rest of the book deals with the frontier, which lacks even the rudiments of traditional society. In the first few chapters, Hooper portrayed the West as an escape from established communities. Suggs' escape to the West put traditional forms of keeping order in jeopardy, for in the face of coercion one could always flee. For Hooper the frontier represented both the home of modern freedom and the destruction of traditional society.
After refuting both liberalism and traditional conservatism through the Suggs stories, Hooper tried to find a way to preserve order in modern society without abandoning freedom or adopting the arbitrary and hypocritical authority of the traditional world. The potential for modern freedom to devolve into chaos made Hooper's task difficult. Hooper realized that the anonymity of modern society, caused by extensive social mobility, made it harder for traditional means of coercion to maintain social order. Simon Suggs often succeeded in swindling others by imitating respectable citizens such as legislators. Hooper thought that because frontier society was so fluid, personal accountability was lacking. Strong social institutions such as families, churches, and schools could solidify society and thus keep order by forming character in individuals. Ultimately, Hooper settled on the Whig solution — endorsing individual self-restraint and the role of voluntary institutions to unify men in beneficial social action.
The destruction of the national Whig Party in the early 1850s and pressing national issues of race and slavery led Hooper to embrace southern nationalism. In a February 1860 editorial, Hooper commented upon the election of the new speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. The new speaker, he charged, "is one of those who believe the African to be the equal of the Anglo-Saxon." The "unrelenting North forced him down the throats of the humble imbecile South."11 In November 1860 he predicted that Lincoln would free the slaves and force racial equality on the South. He continued: "In the struggle for maintaining the ascendancy of our race in the South — our home — we see no chance for victory but in withdrawing from the Union. To remain in the Union is to lose all that white men hold dear in Government."12 For Hooper secession was more than a constitutional question. It was also a matter of maintaining white supremacy.
Just as Longstreet had wished in "The Shooting Match," southern regional consciousness could lead to social unity. Hooper illustrated this theme in an extraordinary letter to his brother on Christmas Day 1860 about the upcoming secession convention in Alabama. Hardly in keeping with the Christmas spirit, he launched into a bitter diatribe against northern radicals. He began: "You seem to think me bitter, perhaps too bitter, toward the fanatical portion of the North. . . . I am bitter towards them and I often regret that I cannot in some way help to destroy them." Blurring the distinction between radicals and New Englanders in general by using the Puritan myth, he asserted: "I hate them instinctively — I hate the race and the blood from which they spring — from Oliver Cromwell down to Ward Beecher, I regard them as one of God's punishments for a sinful world." Almost at a frenzy, Hooper wrote: "I hate them more than I do any thing in this world, or than I can hate any thing in that which is to come; and I cannot repress my joy, when I hear that they are starving and freezing and rotting around the factories of New England." He ended the thought with a final wish for violence, "They pursue me and mine; if I could, I would visit them with fire, pestilence, famine and the sword." Secession would rid Alabama of "the accursed tyranny of these demons." In Hooper's hatred of the North as a corrupt, radical, aggressive power, he revealed that he viewed the possible war in the future to be one of purification. By separating from the demonic North, a pure southern nation could preserve order, slavery, and constitutional liberty.13
Thus Hooper and Longstreet ended up in a similar place in 1860 despite their differences in political allegiance. What united their decisions was their conception of southern regionalism. Both men desired a unified social order conceived, at least in part, on racial terms. For Longstreet secession would allow the South to stand up for the old values. For Hooper a southern nation would provide social order by removing the threat against slavery. Nationalism would unify southerners. As their humor reveals, both men conceived of regionalism as cultural unity in an ordered society. Regionalism, therefore, was part of their ideological visions of the good society.
Magical Realism and the Mississippi Delta by Art Taylor
Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle draws upon historical concerns rising from the South's experience of Civil War and Reconstruction, but magical realism provided him, as white southerner, with perhaps a most powerful way to transform the past and even to rewrite history without denying the brutality of known facts.
Art Taylor is a native of Richlands, NC. A graduate of Yale University, he also holds an M.A. in English/creative writing from N.C. State University and is currently enrolled in the M.F.A. program at George Mason University. His literary criticism has been published in The Armchair Detective, Murderous Intent, North Carolina Literary Review and The Oxford American. His short fiction has appeared in regional and national publications ranging from the Raleigh News and Observer's "Sunday Reader" section to the North American Review.
After the 1993 publication of his novel Wolf Whistle, inspired by the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, Lewis Nordan penned an essay for The Oxford American reflecting on his fictionalized treatment of the murder: "…the book I produced was a complete surprise to me," he wrote. "It was not the Emmett Till story but a phantasmagoria based upon history's broadest outlines…. Animals spoke, nature wept, dead eyes saw, monsters and angels roamed the Delta flatscape on some other planet…. I had become a magical realist, and was grateful to Latin America for making me possible" ("Making" 76).
Elsewhere in the essay, Nordan discusses his long-time obsession with the Till case — from the time of the murder itself, when he was a fifteen-year-old boy living in the same county as the killers (his family actually knew members of Roy Bryant's and J.W. Milam's family), through his time in the Navy and in college, and well into his adulthood and career as a novelist. He recognizes his own palpable sense of guilt about the crime — "I believed that by race and geography I myself was somehow implicated" — and admits to having smiled at locker room jokes about the murdered boy and then to envying the one classmate brave enough to say, "I'm for the nigger. It ain't right. Kill a boy for that. I don't care what color he is." Assessing himself in the wake of those memories, Nordan recognizes: "For thirty-eight years I have wished I had been the boy who spoke those courageous words" (75-76).
In the midst of these facts, then, and given Nordan's own statement elsewhere that "I grew up in Mississippi, wrote all my books about Mississippi" (Personal), one might reasonably ask why Nordan credited "Latin America" with making him "possible."
Here just past the turn of the millennium, the term "magical realism" has long since exceeded original boundaries geographic, chronological and even generic. In its most conservative definition, however, magical realism is firmly rooted in Latin American traditions, dating back to Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier's first use of the term as a literary technique in his preface to the 1949 book The Kingdom of This World, in which he refers to the practice of melding everyday realism indistinguishably with elements of magic and myth, the latter often arising from the intersection of culturally and racially different peoples in the New World. Importantly, Carpentier stresses that "the extraordinary is not necessarily lovely or beautiful. It is neither beautiful or ugly; rather it is amazing because it is strange" ("Baroque" 101). But whether beautiful or not, the goal of magical realism was a new encounter with and understanding of a reality which steadfastly resisted expression in conventional terms; as critic Luis Leal has written, in magical realism "the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts" (121) and ultimately to discover "the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances" (122).
In the wake of the Latin American Boom, works incorporating magical realism can be found around the world, and the American South as well boasts works tinged with the element of magical realism. In the words of one critic, "the southern United States comes naturally upon magic realism, for the root of its writing is vision sprung from ruin, one as ornery and mytho-magical as its exemplars who follow in the great tradition of Faulkner, Welty and O'Connor" (Gingher 468).
Many of the regional themes explored in Nordan's book trace back to literary concerns rising in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction: a preoccupation with class hierarchy as a cornerstone of social order and with an evolution of race relations that has proven challenging for both sides of the "color line"; an insistence on the proscribed roles of women as a second cornerstone, coupled with anxiety if they veer from those roles; the use of local color to build a portrait of region, matched with a resentment of how others from outside the South define the same region; and an idealization of the land, paired with a nostalgia for what has been lost and a respect for what has been endured.
But even if the persistence of these themes clearly connects Nordan's book to the southern tradition, does the "vision sprung from ruin" explain the reliance on magical realism? especially as it's understood from the earliest Spanish American perspectives? In many ways, yes and implicit in that answer is the assertion that a writer such as Nordan is not simply mimicking a curious literary trick or appropriating a style that he found appealing. Instead, for Nordan, magical realism provides a way — and perhaps the only way — for a white southerner in his circumstances to confront the amazements of his own region and the injustice of his own people, to transform a past and even to rewrite history without denying the brutality of known facts, and to glean from a despair both personal and persistently historical some glimmer of hope ahead. If Carpentier understood the necessity of having "forged a language appropriate to the expression of our realities" ("Baroque" 107), then Nordan too saw the need for something extraordinary to help him express what he himself found utterly unbelievable and yet undeniably true: in 1955, two men who remained friends of Nordan's family pistol-whipped a fourteen-year-old child for whistling at a woman, shot him in the head, tied him to a gin fan and tossed him in the Tallahatchie River, and Nordan's family never talked about it once (Nordan, "Making" 75).
Magical Realism in Wolf Whistle
Throughout Wolf Whistle, magical realism appears at moments of extreme tension or outright horror. When Bobo utters his hubba-hubba to Lady Sally Anne Montberclair and pushes his own tragedy into motion, pigeons perching in the rafters begin to speak to one another, reacting with some incredulity on the action down below (36). When Bobo is shot, "the eye that Solon's bullet had knocked from its socket… saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music... saw what Bobo could not see in life, transformation, angels and devils, worlds invisible to him before death" (175). When Roy Dale finds himself ashamed of lacking the courage that Smoky Viner showed in declaring himself "for the nigger" (204), his magical arrow bears "his emptiness and loss, outward, outward, forever away from his heart" (208). And when the tension mounts to a fever pitch in a courtroom already "hot as blue blazes" (224), where a black man is just on the verge of raising his hand in accusation of a white man, a great, green African parrot soars airborne to weave a spell on the courtroom and to deliver judgment on a murderer who himself "knew nothing of magic or of metaphor" (250).
While providing a cathartic release from tension and terror, the most effective examples of magical realism in Wolf Whistle do not limit themselves to this function, but provide a greater significance and even thematic commentary. A black man raising his hand and pointing "Thar he" in accusation of a white murderer requires a summoning of courage that draws on the affirming pride of an entire race and a history that stretches back to the possibilities of a "wide, endless, hopeful, and magical canopy of the African sky" (249) — made real by the "wild and magical ascent of the African parrot, generations closer to their shared homeland than Uncle himself, brother to bright plumage and courageous heart" (250). And in a scene with more than a passing allusion to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Smoky Viner pays the price for having had the "courage to speak words that [others] had not had courage even to think" (210) — for asserting a truth that sets into motion events with the power to topple the very foundations of southern society and change the seemingly inalterable realities of everyday life:
The atmosphere rarified.
Birds fell from the air.
Cattle toppled over in a field.
Car motors stalled on the highway.
The body of the Bobo-child, dressed in a heavy garment of fish and turtles and violent death, reversed all its decay, and flesh became firm once more, eyes snapped back into sockets and became bright, bones unbroke themselves, feet became swift, laughter erupted like music, and bad manners and disrespect and a possessive disdain for a woman became mere child's play, a normal and decent testing of adolescent limits in a hopeful world. (208-209)
In chapter nine of Wolf Whistle, Bobo's "demon eye" does more than just narrate Solon Gregg's disposal of the body and its discovery by Sugar Mecklin and Sweet Austin — does more than just offer a lyrical respite from the brutality of the murder that closed chapter eight. It gives voice to the unvoiced and asserts the powers Emmett Till gained in death that he lacked in life. It projects him into a world of fantasy that ultimately, ironically, serves to ground his death more completely in the realm of historical importance.
Throughout the course of the novel, Bobo rarely speaks, and during Bobo's abduction by Solon Gregg and the drive to the spillway, Bobo's voice is completely absent from the conversation. But in chapter nine, Bobo's becomes the privileged point of view, and even more than privileged, it becomes powerful, achieving omniscience in its description of all that follows the killing — peering into the heart of Solon Gregg, into the lives of Glenn Gregg, Alice Conroy, Sugar Mecklin and Sweet Austin (people he has never personally encountered) and even into the future. Now graced with patience and full of pity, Bobo sees the world anew "through the demon eye upon his cheek, without fear or anger, or even a sense of injustice, but only with an appreciation of the dark and magical and evil world in which he had been killed" (177-178).
In scenes throughout the book, Nordan has established the white southerner as divided from the lives of the black community; for example, Runt speaks to a disembodied voice through the closed door of a house in the Belgian Congo (45-47), and later, during the parrot's courtroom ascent, Alice is unable to travel in her mind, "as the ebony-colored women and men around her may have done, to dark Africa, Kilimanjaro, and the Ivory Coast" (251). But at the same time, Nordan has also attempted to bridge this divide, with the narrative voice at times moving back and forth among standard English, southern dialect and the cadences of African American vernacular English. Elevating Bobo's voice to a place of privilege not only allows Nordan the opportunity of further bridging that divide and of speaking on Bobo's behalf, but also helps to transform the butt of a high school locker-room joke into an entity both transcendent and redemptive, in the process assuaging Nordan's admitted feelings of "guilt by association" for the killing.
But even with such a reading, there remains something disturbing about Nordan's presentation of what Bobo sees in his magical omniscience - something that may be specifically located in Nordan's use of the word appreciation when he writes of Bobo's "appreciation of the dark and magical and evil world in which he had been killed" (178). And more troubling perhaps is the next paragraph, in which Nordan describes the gin fan as "both the weight to hide Bobo's body and an object of Bobo's love," and states: "In death, [Bobo's] hands reached across the Delta flatscape and touched the fan, where Solon struggled in the rain. Across the distance, Bobo helped buoy it and ease its weight as Solon lifted it into the bed of the pickup" (178).
At their basest level, these sentences represent a literal rewriting of history: The killers' confession published in Look magazine revealed that "Bryant and Big Milam stood aside while Bobo loaded the fan. Weight: 74 pounds" (Huie 240), while in Nordan's retelling, Bobo effectively chooses to aid his killer in lifting the fan after his death. Rewriting Bobo's death in the moment of his dying, Nordan imbues it with the importance that it would ultimately achieve only in years to come. His essential beatification of Bobo — both granting Bobo inner peace and elevating his status to one deserving veneration — suggests all the good that came from this horrible episode in southern history. One hundred days after Till's murder, Rosa Parks refused to rise from her seat for a white man. Soon, the Montgomery bus boycott began. Martin Luther King Jr. quickly rose to prominence. And within a year, a white southerner by the name of Robert Penn Warren would revisit his views on race in Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the South, a text punctuated repeatedly with references to the Till murder. Till's death finally spoke louder and said more — to an entire nation of African Americans and to the white population as well — than the words any fourteen-year-old boy could have simply voiced. Implicit in Nordan's beatification of Bobo is the transformation of the murder from something senseless to something which ultimately earns a purpose, the transformation of this boy from mere victim to martyr — if not even, in Nordan's revisioning of the story, an ultimately willing martyr, who understands just moments too late his place in history and who recognizes and even participates in completing his destiny by reaching out and easing the weight of that gin fan which is the object of his love: "Bobo saw a crystal ball… light up with blue light and an image of things to come. He saw a mojo waving good-bye, one tiny black finger at a time, good-bye, dear Bobo, we'll never forget you, you'll live forever in our hearts" (181).
Throughout Wolf Whistle, Nordan has used moments of magical realism to play with the contours of narrative time, to place the events of this novel within a historical continuum, and to establish them as integral to that history both by looking back toward the origins of modern southern society and by peering forward toward the region's future. The "heavy-lidded" buzzards which look down over the communities of Balance Due and the Belgian Congo are "descendents and remnants of an ancient flock" dating back to the Civil War, part of a "glorious history of the South" (67-68); they possess the "blood memories" of the "glorious Festival of Dead Rebels long ago" and are "content/ for now with roadkill" (70). Alice's several visions provide her not only with a glimpse of Bobo's impending murder (80) but also with a cascade of images from the coming civil rights movement:
She saw children holding hands with grown-ups, black and white, singing 'We Shall Overcome' in long lines and in churches. She saw a church bombed in Montgomery, dead children, marchers in Selma, freedom riders in Jackson…. Emmett Till dead, Medgar Evers dead, Martin King…. (17)
As Bobo sinks beneath the "black water," he too sees the past — "a trace of slave death from a century before" (181) — balanced against the "image of things to come" which appeared in the crystal ball. And it's ultimately that same crystal ball, magic again, which offers the final, uncertain glimpse of hope at the book's close: "Nobody but Bobo knows for sure what happened next, but maybe, behind Alice and Sally Anne, the crystal ball in Swami Don's Elegant Junk shone with the bright blue light of empty interiors and of faraway and friendly stars and all their hopeful planets and golden moons" (290).
As quoted in the opening of this paper, Lewis Nordan described Wolf Whistle as a "complete surprise" to him. As we consider his use of magical realism and his explicit indebtedness to Latin America in this regard, it's perhaps fitting to discover that Nordan's "surprise" about the book he had produced echoes the ruminations of Alejo Carpentier, the writer who first understood the potentials of magical realism as a literary device and who himself explained, decades earlier, that "our reality will appear new to our own eyes" ("Baroque" 106). More than a generation earlier and a world apart, Carpentier's words nonetheless provide a keen perspective on Nordan's ambitions and accomplishments:
But faced with strange events that await us in that world of the marvelous real....We have forged a language appropriate to the expression of our realities, and the events that await us will find that we, the novelists of Latin America, are the witnesses, historians, and interpreters of our great Latin American reality. ("Baroque" 106-107)
In the magical realism that emerged from far south of Mississippi's geographical borders, Nordan discovered a means of understanding and expressing his own history, both his personal history and his region's history. Confronted with unbelievable events to which he himself stood witness, Nordan reimagined a despairing past in a manner that preserves and even encourages some hope for the future. And if the product of that reenvisioning was indeed "a complete surprise" to him, that surprise only reinforces the extraordinary power of the magic he has struggled to master as witness, historian and interpreter of his own great southern reality.
- 1. Edward L. Ayers and Peter S. Onuf, "Introduction," in "All Over the Map": Rethinking American Regions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 1-10. See also: David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), for a similar argument regarding nationalism, the public sphere, and resulting sectional and partisan identities. Also on regionalism see: Roberto Maria Dainotto, "'All the regions do Smilingly Revolt': The Literature of Place and Region," Critical Inquiry 22 (Spring 1996): 486-505.
- 2. Onuf, "Federalism, Republicanism, and the Origins of American Sectionalism," in All Over the Map , 14. John Donald Wade, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet: A Study of the Development of Culture in the South, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1969), (originally published in 1924). Kimball King, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984). James R. Scafidel, "A Georgian in Connecticut: A.B. Longstreet's Legal Education," Georgia Historical Quarterly 61 (1977): 222-232. David Rachels, "Introduction" to Georgia Scenes Completed, ed. David Rachels (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998), xi-lxvii.
- 3. The point about the classification of Georgia Scenes as a southern, rather than southwestern humor, book was made by: James B. Meriwether, "Augustus Baldwin Longstreet: Realist and Artist," Mississippi Quarterly 35 (1982): 351-364. See also: Keith Newlin, "Georgia Scenes: The Satiric Artistry of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet," Mississippi Quarterly 41 (1987-88): 21-37. Also instructive on the southern cultural context of the book is: John Mayfield, "The Theatre of Public Esteem: Ethics and Values in Longstreet's Georgia Scenes" Georgia Historical Quarterly 75.3 (1991): 566-586.
- 4. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Georgia Scenes Completed, ed. David Rachels (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 90. Further quotations from Georgia Scenes will refer to the edition edited by Rachels. My reading here is guided by: Jessica Wegmann, "'Playing in the Dark' with Longstreet's Georgia Scenes: Critical Reception and Reader Response to Treatments of Race and Gender," Southern Literary Journal 30, no. 1 (Fall 1997): 13-26.
- 5. Longstreet, Georgia Scenes Completed, 148. For similar readings of this story see: Scott Romine, "Negotiating Community in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes," Style 30 (Spring 1996): 1-27. Meriwether, "Augustus Baldwin Longstreet: Realist and Artist," 351-364. For a reading similar to Meriwether's, see: James E. Kibler, Jr., "Introduction," to Georgia Scenes (Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders & Company, 1992), vii-xxii. Kibler argues that "The Shooting Match" shows that class has been overcome. Romine is not so certain.
- 6. Longstreet, Georgia Scenes Completed, 42. My interpretation here departs from Ahmed Nimeiri, "Play in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes," Southern Literary Journal (2001): 44 –59. Nimeiri writes that Longstreet offers a "liberating sense of man and human experience" and thus transcends conservatism (46). This interpretation fails to account for Longstreet's actual conservative Jeffersonian political views, which are a recognizable part of the Georgia Scenes. Keith Newlin, "Georgia Scenes: The Satiric Artistry of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet," Mississippi Quarterly 41 (1987-88): 21-37. Newlin sees this aspect of the humor as an Addisonian attack on foppery and the corruption of the upper class. There certainly is a class element in Longstreet's attacks on the corrupt middle to upper class in Georgia towns. My regional interpretation of Longstreet's humor here does not contradict Newlin's point, but focuses on additional aspects of Longstreet's humor. See also: William Snipes, "The Humor of Longstreet's Persona Abram Baldwin in Georgia Scenes," Studies in American Humor 4.4 (1985-1986): 277-289. I depart from Kenneth Lynn's analysis of Southwestern humor and Longstreet as well. Longstreet was not a Whig and thus does not fit in well to Lynn's category of the "gentleman Whig" narrator in Southwestern humor. Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959). Southwestern humor, in the sense that it tried to be realistic, was trying to articulate concerns about American society. In its satirical and humorous aspects, the genre identifies the perspective that the authors take regarding the new individualism of American culture. For another view of Southwestern humor, one that is different than mine but supports much of what I argue, see: Scott Romine, "Texts, Types and Southwest Humor," Mississippi Quarterly 49 (1995-96): 99-108. For older views that recognize that social and political criticism were important to the humorists, see: Edd Winfield Parks, "The Intent of the Ante-Bellum Southern Humorists," Mississippi Quarterly 13 (1960): 163-175. Walter Blair, "The Popularity of Nineteenth-Century American Humorists," American Literature 3 (1931): 175-194.
- 7. Hooper, Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 12. Marion Kelley, "The Life and Writing of Johnson Jones Hooper," (Master's Thesis, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1934). Kelley also reprinted a number of Hooper's letters and editorials in the appendix. W. Stanley Hoole, Alias Simon Suggs: The Life and Times of Johnson Jones Hooper (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1952). Edgar E. Thompson, "The Literary Career of Johnson Jones Hooper: A Bibliographical Study of Primary and Secondary Material (With a Collection of Hooper's Letters)," (Master's Thesis, Mississippi State University, 1971). Paul Somers, Jr., Johnson J. Hooper. (Boston, MA, 1984). Howard Winston Smith, Johnson Jones Hooper: A Critical Study (Lexington, KY, 1963). For Hooper's literary realism see: Edd Winfield Parks, "The Three Streams of Southern Humor," The Georgia Review IX (1955): 147-159. Edd Winfield Parks, "The Intent of the Ante-Bellum Southern Humorists," Mississippi Quarterly, XIII (1960): 163-168. Harry C. West, "Simon Suggs and His Similes," North Carolina Folklore, 16 (May 1968), 53-57. For a stress on the subversive character of Southwestern Humor, see: Arlin Turner, "Seeds of Literary Revolt in the Humor of the Old Southwest," Louisiana Historical Quarterly XXXIX (1956): 143-151. Eugene Current-Garcia, "Alabama Writers in the Spirit," Alabama Review (October 1957): 243-269. Willard Thorp, "Suggs and Sut in Modern Dress: The Latest Chapter in Southern Humor," Mississippi Quarterly, XIII (1960): 169-175. William E. Lenz, Fast Talk and Flush Times: The Confidence Man as a Literary Convention (Columbia, MO, 1985). David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. (New York, 1988). For Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs as a burlesque campaign biography, see: Robert Hopkins, "Simon Suggs: A Burlesque Campaign Biography," American Quarterly, 15 (Fall 1963), 459-463. Howard Winston Smith, "An Annotated Edition of Hooper's Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs," (PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1965). See also Smith's, Johnson Jones Hooper: A Critical Study. Joseph O'Beirne Milner, "The Social, Religious, Economic, and Political Implications of the Southwestern Humor of Baldwin, Longstreet, Hooper, and G.W. Harris" (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1971). Milner challenged Kenneth Lynn's argument that the purpose of Southwestern humor was to convert the community to Whiggery. Milner shows that Hooper was not an aristocratic snob who sought to control the lower class, but sympathized and admired certain aspects of the freedom the yeoman experienced on the frontier. Kenneth Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston, MA, 1959). Johanna Nicol Shields, "A Sadder Simon Suggs: Slavery and Freedom in the Humor of Johnson Hooper," Journal of Southern History (November 1990): 641-664. Johanna Nicol Shields, "Introduction," Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with "Taking the Census" and Other Alabama Sketches (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1993). I derive my views of Whiggery primarily from: Lawrence Frederick Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
- 8. Hooper, Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, 12-14.
- 9. Ibid., 28-30.
- 10. Lenz, Fast Talk and Flush Times, 72-73.
- 11. Montgomery (Alabama) Daily Mail, 3 February 1860. See Shields, "A Sadder Simon Suggs" and Shields, Introduction to Johnson Jones Hooper, Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, xix, xliv-xlvii, for Hooper's racism.
- 12. Montgomery (Alabama) Mail, 8 November 1860.
- 13. Johnson Jones Hooper to John DeBerniere Hooper, December 25, 1860, reprinted in Edgar E. Thompson, "The Literary Career of Johnson Jones Hooper," 96-97. For southern views of the Civil War as an agent of purification see: Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998). Some northern intellectuals had a similar view of the purifying nature of the war. See: George Frederickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1965).