Why Southern writers have a tough row to hoe « Southern Athenaeum

Every now and then I come across something interesting in my WordPress Tag Surfer, something I want to bookmark, think about, and return to.  This week, I found the following:

Why Southern writers have a tough row to hoe on Southern Athenaeum, a blog I’ve never visited before.  The writer blogs another writer’s meditation on the place of southern writers in the American canon, which reveals an attitude towards “Southern” literature that is more than familiar to me.  Chinua Achebe wrote about it long ago, in Morning Yet on Creation Day, where he talked about the general critical reception of his novel Things Fall Apart, which was published originally in 1958.  Back then, he was awarded what was apparently believed to be the highest critical praise — the fact that the novel was “universal” in its theme.  His response to the praise was scorn — the praise itself revealed an attitude on the part of the critics that was imperialistic, superior, and (at bottom) racist.  You can’t get the essay online, but this article is the one that paraphrases it most completely.

The point is that literary production and critical reception are not removed from hierarchies of power.  As the so-called “Third World” is to the “First” (even the names put us in our places), so the southern USA is to the north.

So to quote from Southern Athenaeum, and then from its inspiration:

Author David Payne writes an engaging article about perceptions of the South from other parts of the country and why the stereotypical view of the South, perpetuated by Larry the Cable guy et al, contributes to keeping Southern writers out of the elite literary circles in New York and elsewhere.



The shadow, psychologists tell us, is the repository of what we hate and fear as well as of urges difficult to reconcile with self-regard. Thrusting these down into the unconscious, we then project them outward onto others. This psychological mechanism underlies America’s most odious and destructive stereotype—the “Nigger.” That white America—and, particularly, the white South—projected, and still projects, its shadow on African Americans is widely understood. But it took a Civil War, and another century and a half of struggle, to force white America—and particularly the South—to recognize the stereotype as a distortion—for white males, for example, to see the violence and hypersexuality that they attributed to black men as distorted versions of their own repressed, conflicted urges. The healthy end stage of the process involves the reintegration of the shadow; to reach it, the projector has to look at what he hates or fears and ask the question, How is this like me? (Quoth Prospero: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”)

What the “Nigger” represents to African Americans, the Redneck is to white Southerners—the distorted form the North’s projected shadow takes. The Redneck’s qualities are widely known: stupidity from inbreeding; ignorance (saw a book once but lit the stove with it to make his hoecake); lack of sophistication (been to the Opry, but not the opera); affinity for weaponry (packs Paw’s ol’ Army carbine on the pickup window rack); musicality (the banjo on his knee); and sentimentality (tears up when he thinks of Momma and the homeplace in the holler).

Brothers, welcome to the club.


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