Review: Flashes of a Southern Spirit
Charles Reagan Wilson. Flashes of a Southern Spirit: Meanings of the Spirit in the U.S. South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 249 pp. ISBN 9780820338309.
This well-composed and gracefully written volume addresses the cultural history of the American South, especially in its expressions of a distinctive “southern spirit.” The essays collected here are a testament to a compelling vision of that spirit; as author of the seminal volume, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause (1980), editor of two encyclopedias on southern culture, and former director the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, no one has done more to define and promote cultural studies of the American South than Charles Reagan Wilson. The current volume reveals Wilson’s interest in religion as a powerful dynamic shaping southern literature, music, photography, and politics. It also reveals the underlying theological purpose of his approach to southern culture.
Following a succinct and useful historiography of southern cultural studies, the book opens with an essay, originally published in 1993, that locates the development of southern culture as an historical construct. In “The Invention of Southern Tradition: The Writing and Ritualization of Southern History, 1880–1930,” Wilson shows how southerners drew from lore and memory to build an anti-modern romance celebrating the spiritual values of their region over against the frost-bitten and heartless materialism of the North. As southern culture coalesced in the work of southern writers and public performers during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, “South” and “spirit” became one.
Most of the essays that follow were published between 2001 and 2007 as chapters in books establishing southern cultural studies as an academic field. Though divided into three sections—Tradition, Creativity, and Spirituality—these essays defy any clear division into separate spheres. More an expression of trinitarian unity, essays gathered under the heading of spirituality attend as much to the creative arts and biracial tradition of southern politics as they do to religion, and Wilson’s fascination with spirituality permeates the essays gathered under the headings of “Tradition” and “Creativity.” Every one of these essays is beautifully crafted and insightful, and none more so than “The Burden of Southern Culture,” in which the Christian sensibility of Wilson’s conception of southern culture is fully disclosed. Southern writers worked to maintain “the image of the South as a redemptive community” (57), Wilson explains, in which “the southern self-image has often involved the idea of spiritual superiority to northerners” (55). The presence of real evil in the South brings emotional depth to this drama of redemption, working against any sense of southern blamelessness. While slavery and white supremacy stained the region with sin, black priests of redemption lifted up the nobility of a suffering people for all the world to see, and with a righteousness that whites could not command. Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., Wilson recalls “the red hills of Georgia” in 1963, where the “gallantry, loyalty, and pride” that epitomized southern spirit “passed to the Negro demonstrators in the heat of summer’s battles” (58).
Imbuing the history of southern culture with spiritual shape and direction, Wilson’s attunement to the force of Christian redemption courses through his writing. With insight that never shies from the burdens of southern history, Wilson finds goodness nurtured in response to evil in ways that make the South the heartland of a larger story of American redemption. With a writer’s gift for evoking the sensuality of southern culture—from mockingbirds and magnolias to enervating heat and physical cruelty—Wilson embraces the spiritual materialism of southern culture as something apart from the colder materialism of empirical investigation. Inquiry into the political and economic interests served by cultural Christianity rarely intrudes.
A concluding autobiographical essay rounds out the volume, making everything personal. Wilson describes his own path from the naiveté of childhood fundamentalism through intellectual freedom and academic achievement to Episcopalian devotion and marital reconciliation. The confessional self-offering, combined with the intellectual achievement these essays represent, would make any reviewer who called for a colder judgment of southern culture seem churlish. But there is a need for studies of southern culture that are not theologically driven, and Wilson’s work lays its own burden on historians who attempt to meet that need. The grace with which Wilson envelops southern culture has an insulating effect, leaving anyone interested in sharper scrutiny with a taint of Yankee vulgarity.