The Apprehension of the South in Modern Culture

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The Apprehension of the South in Modern Culture

by Michael O'Brien
Southern Cultures, Vol. 4, No. 4: The South in the World

"Guest editor Michael O'Brien considers the South in the world."

When I went to the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1966, the South was deemed there to be a very minor part of the puzzle of American culture. American literature was Henry James, Melville, Emerson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald,but mostly Henry James. Of southern authors only Faulkner had a significant hearing, though he was seen as a steamy exoticism, a sort of Henri Rousseau with a knowledge of the sexual utility of corncobs, not as one of the foremost modernists. As for history, the South was relevant to understanding the coming of the Civil War, as a problem to be deprecated, but little more. American history was told as a succession of whiggish reform movements, of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, of Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. The South did not fit in, except as the occasional obstacle. To be interested in the South then was to be against the grain. Matters are very different now, not only in Cambridge but elsewhere in Europe, even in Japan. The existence of the Southern Studies Forum as a branch of the European Association of American Studies—as far as I know, the only affiliation of that association devoted to a component part or aspect of American culture—is testimony to a growth of interest, evidenced by four conferences and three volumes of proceedings.There are scholars in Odense who write about Walker Percy, in Berlin who concern themselves with John Esten Cooke, in Vienna who read Flannery O’Connor, in Genoa who are experts on women’s clubs in Charleston, in Newcastle who do the history of rhythm and blues, in Australia who write on southern Baptists. When I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in November of 1 997, a whole conference of Japanese scholars had descended upon the place. In the summer of 1998, there was a meeting at the University of Warwick titled “New Orleans in Europe,” with no less than thirty speakers. What is going on?