Edward L. Ayers and Bradley C. Mittendorf, eds., The Oxford Book of the American South:
Testimiony, Memory, and Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press,
1997. Pp. x + 597.
This rich anthology is part a coffee-table text for intellectuals, part a potential text for
survey courses in southern culture, and part a collage of southern voices from William Bartram,
through Nat Turner and Zora Neale Hurston, W. J. Cash and William Faulkner, to Alice Walker and
Walker Percy. The editors have compiled a one-volume collection that represents a wonderful and
striking range of southern voices from the seventeenth century to the present. Concluding the
volume is a beautiful essay by Anthony Walton (from Mississippi: An American Journey), which
provides a sort of moral to the anthology, " I wandered among some of those ghosts and bones,
[and learned] to stop trying to evade and forget what I have seen and heard and understood and
now must know, but rather to embrace the ghosts and cradle the bones and call them my own" (592).
The anthology lacks a substantial Native
voice--perhaps something from Sequoia, or from Oklahoma Indians who fought
for the Confederacy,
or from the triracial mixtures represented in the recent film "Daughters of
the Dust." Writers
in the anthology reflect on the expected themes of race, God, country, and
family, but the volume
gives little sense of a new multi-cultural South (no Cubans in Florida,
Mexicans in Houston, or
urban cowboys in Dallas). Such luminaries as W. J. Cash, William Faulkner,
Maya Angelou, Albert
Murray, Harry Crews, Richard Wright, and Peter Taylor are among those
represented with short
essays and stories. Southern folk culture is omitted. There are no blues
lyrics, no folktales,
spirituals, yard art, or humor (although the African-American writer James Alan MacPherson contr
ibutes a thoroughly enjoyable essay entitled "Why I like Country Music").
Readers will want to
keep Roy Blount's recent anthology of southern humor and the
Encyclopedia of Southern Culture
near to this volume on the bookshelf, to provide some low culture and straightforward history as
a counterpoint to the literary emphasis of the Oxford Book. The
authors defend their choices,
relating their vision of a unified work emphasizing themes such as "the
complexities of race,
the fierceness and solace of religious faith, the absurdity and hilarity of everyday life, the
temptations and consequences of violence, the entanglements of family, the distances that
separate the rich from the poor, the ambivalence toward the outside world, and the
tenaciousness of memory" (ix). They also exclude professional historical writing altogether. Yet
the influence of C. Vann Woodward's essays on the ironies of southern history so pervade the
volume that one might have expected his work to make one brief appearance.
"Religion in the South sneaks into this volume through the back
door. . . ."
Religion in the South sneaks into this volume through the back
door, through the reminiscences, essays, and stories of accomplished writers rather than
through the words (hymns, spirituals, sermons, poetry, or devotional writing) of participants.
One exception is a brief excerpt from Francis Asbury's Journal that chronicles his ceaseless
circuit riding through the not-yet-evangelical South. For the most part, "southern religion" in
this volume is, in effect, southern writers observing southern religious beliefs and practices.
Included is a typically perfect Peter Taylor story gently chronicling the foibles of upper-
crust southern Episcopalianism; an excerpt from Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain,
a participant-observer memoir about encounters with snake- handlers in the hill country; W. E. B.
Du Bois's passionate reflections on the death of his son; and an excerpt from Lillian Smith's
Killers of the Dream which reminiscences on the centrality of church ("church was our town--come
together not to kneel in worship but to see each other"), revivals (where exhorters "preached
asceticism but preached it with the libertine's words"), and the hellfire-and-brimstone world of
the small town southerner ("nowhere else, perhaps, have the rich seedbeds of Western homes found
such a growing climate for guilt as is produced in the South by the combination of a warm moist
evangelism and racial segregation"). In perhaps the single most illuminating passage about
religion in this volume, Smith notes that "Men believed in their importance by believing in
the importance of their sins and grew a pride in possessing a conscience that persecuted them"
(438). Included also is Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," a counterpoint
to the emphasis on white evangelicalism that punctuates the remainder of the volume. The most
central expression of black southern religion--the spirituals--sneak in through the back door
also, but merit no anthologizing or essay reflecting on their meaning. This would be the fine
dessert wine to finish off the rich repast this volume offers.