Where Uncle Sam meets Uncle Tom

The Oxford Book of the American South - The Oxford Companion to American Literature

February 20, 1998

The Oxford Companion series is an interesting marker of the status of new literatures within the academy. It was in the 1930s that the serious infiltration of American literature into English departments in the United States took place, and the first Oxford Companion to American Literature appeared in 1941. African American literature, like Australian literature, had to wait until the late 1960s or early 1970s to come of age. Before then, PhD supervisors snorted at the idea of wasting time on James Baldwin or Christina Stead. The first Oxford Companion to Australian Literature appeared in 1985. Strangely, we had to wait until 1997 for the Oxford Companion to African American Literature.

You could argue that since African American literature is essentially American literature, it was not really necessary. True, black writers are featured in the mother volume. Some black writers. My 1983 edition has ten lines on Ralph Ellison. Listed at the back are the literary landmarks for each year, and 1952 (from a 1983 perspective) boasts John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Davis's Winds of Morning, Bernard De Voto's Course of Empire and MacLeish's Collected Poems. Not Ellison's Invisible Man.

Since this new and handsome Oxford Companion celebrates riches that were all too often ignored in the past, it represents a real landmark for African American literature. To its credit, it refrains from drum-beating; the tone is admirably balanced and fair-minded.

There are more than 350 contributors, and an interesting innovation is that the editors have chosen to name the writer of each entry. In this way, they explicitly repudiate the authoritarian stance of objectivity. The introduction tells us: "The interpretive emphases and critical judgements reflect the diverse points of view of their authors."

This seems to me a good idea, since African American literature and its cultural context is simply not neutral ground. There are significant cultural clashes between the utopian celebrators of blackness (Zora Neale Hurston, say) and the protest brigade (who, like Richard Wright, are frequently accused of airing dirty laundry), the integrationists, the Afrocentrists and so on. The editors must have had quite a time of it matching entries to contributors. Who gets to write about the provocative film director and writer Spike Lee? Or Henry Louis Gates Jr, the putative empire builder at Harvard, and most jealously criticised of all African American academics?

Several contributors (Arnold Rampersad and Gerald Early, for example) are also subjects of entries themselves. Gerald Early writes about Stanley Crouch (an Ellison man): "Crouch is often characterised as a conservative or even a race traitor." He adds: "In 1975 he (Crouch) moved to New York and began to write for the Village Voice, an association that ended in 1988 when he punched out another Voice writer in an argument over rap music." There are very real tensions within black culture.

This Oxford Companion is a wide-ranging reference book, with biographical treatment of over 400 writers, as well as other major cultural icons such as Marcus Garvey or Jackie Robinson. In addition to synopses of books and entries on literary characters, there are interesting essays on "stereotypes" (black and white) and on film, theatre and television. (How can we characterise the "Cosby moment" in television?) If you do not know - or if you wish to know more - about the Middle Passage, Pan-Africanism, Uncle Toms, the Talented Tenth, "signifying" and the "underground railroad", you will find this book most illuminating. The writing is clear and lively, each entry comes with a bibliography and the index (unlike the Norton Anthology of African American Literature) is cross-referenced. It is a wonderful resource and also marks the movement of African American literature away from the margins.

Another book to be savoured is The Oxford Book of the American South. We all know the legend of the Old South: the plantation culture, the stately mansions and the honour-bound southern gentlemen and their devoted black nannies. Tourist pamphlets romanticise this "vanished era" on your "enchanted visit" to the antebellum houses of Natchez, Mississippi. In response to the proliferating sprawl of southern cities, another legend has sprung up: that of the modernised and industrialised "New South".' If, as W. J. Cash declares in the extract from his 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, "these legends bear little relation to reality", what is the reality of the South? This anthology shows that it is difficult to see southern life without illusion.

A book like this provides invaluable insights precisely because of the multiplicity of voices. The excellent representation of blacks and whites, women and men (from different eras) makes the notion of the South a broad one. The book is divided into four historical periods, seen by eyewitnesses at the time (through fiction, memoirs, diaries and essays) and by writers who came later. In the first section, "The Old South", writing by former slaves is juxtaposed with a Thomas Jefferson essay that treats race along "scientific" lines, pointing out "the real distinctions which nature has made", and a rambling argument by Daniel Hundley, a white lawyer from Alabama: "We do not consider that Jehovah ever would have permitted the first human-freighted ship to leave the shores of Africa for the New World, had he not designed a beneficial result should flow from the introduction of the sable children of the tropics into the fruitful fields of our own temperate latitude." There is nothing like reading the voices of the time, including the self-proclaimed experts, for getting the real flavour of another epoch.

The passages from 20-year-old Sarah Morgan's diary bring home the day-to-day horror of the civil war (the subject of the second section) as it was lived on the sidelines by the women. Sarah and her father, a judge, had supported the Union until the war cut too closely into their personal loyalties. All three of Sarah's brothers were lost in the fighting. Writing 20 years after the war, Sam Watkins describes the frontlines: the terrible hunger and thirst, the sickness, exhaustion, stench of death - and the barbaric treatment of deserters. Several other pieces show the bewildering consequences of the war, for black and white southerners alike.

The Great Depression hit the South hardest of all. The 1930s also saw what has been described as a southern Renaissance, an outpouring of brilliant writing and music that brought the South a new reputation of vigour. In the third section, "Hard times", some writers celebrate the South; many hate it. The tension between the races now crackles. Erskine Caldwell's short story Kneel to the Rising Sun describes a lynching; the Ellison extract, from Invisible Man, describes the way an excited group of white males orchestrates a gruesome fight between blindfolded young black men. Other narratives remind us that poor white southerners suffered too. The final section, "The turning", portrays the tumultuous changes in the South since the second world war. A new South with faceless cities, air-conditioning, highways and fast-food chains. A South in which the civil rights movement saw great victories and frightful setbacks. A South which, these days, is in many ways more segregated than ever.

The selections in this book show a South full of contradictions and paradoxes. Behind the powerful illusions are the complex realities, and it is this book's great strength that the multi-voiced portrait does not allow the reader to simplify these realities. It makes wonderful reading.

Hazel Rowley, author of a biography of Christina Stead, is researching a biography of Richard Wright.

The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory and Fiction

Editor - L. Ayers and Bradley C. Mittendorf
ISBN - 0 19 508522 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 597

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