In this major reassessment of the American South and its literature, Richard Gray explores the idea of regionalism by focusing on those writers whose relationship with the South has been particularly problematical. Asking just what it means to belong to a place, a region—and, more specifically, what it implies for certain Americans to call themselves southerners—he analyzes conflicting notions of the South that have evolved over the past two centuries. In the process, Gray—one of the leading scholars in the field of southern studies—offers a provocative new reading of many southern writers and of the whole notion of a southern tradition.
Gray has always been interested in how southerners, and particularly, southern writers, have constructed ideas of the South through the workings of memory and myth, through talking and writing about their homes and histories. In Southern Aberrations he develops his theme in startling new ways by looking closely at southern “difficulty” and “difference.” He contemplates those authors, like Edgar Allan Poe and Ellen Glasgow, whose relationship with the South was especially difficult because of their sense of difference from local or national norms, or because of the region’s gendered and racially inflected politics. He also recounts how the Nashville Agrarians created the southern literary canon, marginalizing southern writing they thought failed as “southern literature” and obscuring any sense of the differences within the South.
Through a close examination of their lives and work, Gray reveals what these marginalized writers have to tell us about class and gender relationships and the struggle for power in the region. He brings into view southern writers whose work has suffered neglect: those who wrote about the rural poor and the dispossessed—like Erskine Caldwell, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Grace Lumpkin—or about the southern mountain areas and their inhabitants—as did Harriette Arnow, James Agee, Mildred Haun, and Jesse Stuart. Gray also provides a critical overview of contemporary southern writers—including Josephine Humphreys, Ernest Gaines, Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, and Harry Crews—as they struggle to cope with a series of changes that have called the whole idea of regionalism, and the notion of a separate South, into question.
By looking at the South through the writings of those who have viewed it aslant, Gray adds an essential chapter to the region’s still developing story. His study will prove indispensable to all students of southern culture.
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