Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Lewis Simpson--The Fable of the Southern Writer (1994)

(I'm still reading while I'm plugging away at my exams.  I lost almost a week between anxiety over the storm and a migraine--but I'm back at it!)

Simpson opens this work by connecting the history of the South with the larger history of the United States—particularly its textual history with regard to both government documents as well as the Protestant Bible—and concludes that “southerners, more than the generality of American citizens, have been people who live and die by the text” (17).  In fact, Simpson emphasizes the literary nature of history itself, observing that “all compelling interpretations of history are verbal or rhetorical artifices resulting from an imaginative critique—a literary criticism—of the possibilities, mundane and fantastic, of history” (21).  The South is such a textual region, in fact, that Simpson points out that “the African slave, having been placed in the context of a society that had been invented in the written texts energized by the dynamic idea of the sovereignty of the whit (Anglo-Saxon) democratic self, needed only to attain literacy in the language of his master (sufficient reading and writing skills in English) in order to become a Frederick Douglass and assert the presence of a black selfhood in American history” (47).  Simpson links this textuality to the Enlightenment ideal of “the awareness of mind as the creating source and model of American history” (56).
Simpson’s focus is primarily on the Agrarian understanding of the Southern Renascence; he has two chapters on Faulkner, one on Allen Tate, and a couple on Robert Penn Warren.  In his occasional jabs at the growing ubiquity of theory and multiculturalism, it seems a bit dated now—especially the odd epilogue titled “A Personal Fable: Living with Indians,” in which he details several generations of his family and the surprising revelation that he has Cherokee blood in his family.  I think the purpose of this epilogue was to emphasize the Faulkner truism that the past is never past, but it seemed an odd way to end the text.  Just before the fable is his chapter on Walker Percy, where he finally discusses an author who asks, “What happens when you find yourself in the second half of the twentieth century with all this history behind you?  And then you have to figure out how to live in the here and now?” (197).  Interestingly, Simpson ties Percy’s South back to Tate’s South, one in which the South is the last real Europe.  However, he also hears warning bells in Percy’s work, as he sees that Percy “brings to the relationship between Is and Was the sense—intimated in Warren and Tate, yet more strongly intimated in Percy than in either—not only that this relationship is losing its meaning in the South but that this loss symbolizes the general loss in Western civilization” (206). 
Oddly enough, I finished this the same day that I looked over the brand new Grit Lit anthology which recently arrived in the mail, and I’m curious what Simpson would make of it.  Certainly, it draws upon the kind of multicultural work which Simpson was so suspicious of (even expanding its boundaries-would Simpson consider Missouri part of the South?).  There’s a different kind of historical inheritance in that collection—more the kind of Red Neck Manifesto inheritance than the Quentin Compson kind of inheritance that more monolithic understandings of southern literature seem to only be able to see.  What happens when our inheritances are class-based, or race-based, or money-based?  Those are different kinds of ghosts than Quentin’s, and yet we act as though all ghosts are the same.

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