Letters Archive
Spring 1995, Vol. 3, No. 2
  • Visual Representation and Material Culture in the Early Modern Period
  • Gender and Theoretical Thinking
  • The South as an American Problem
  • The South as an American Problem

    Next fall, the University of Georgia Press will publish The South as an American Problem, an edited volume that grew directly from the Warren Center's 1992/93 Fellows Program of the same name. Two Vanderbilt faculty members, Larry J. Griffin (Professor of Sociology) and Don H. Doyle (Professor of History), co-edit the book. Each of the editors and seven other Vanderbilt faculty members in academic disciplines ranging from English to economics and law contribute essays, as do three other scholars of the U.S. South. The timing of the volume's publication fortuitously coincides with the inauguration of Vanderbilt's new graduate program in Southern Studies and augurs well for the program's success.

    The essays move debate and discussion about the U.S. South from the issue that has preoccupied scholars in recent years—the waning cultural distinctiveness of the South—to a new and potentially more fertile area, the often troubled relationship between the South and the rest of the nation. Each contribution, in particular, attempts to understand why the South, at particular times and in many ways, became defined as an American problem. The unifying theme of The South as an American Problem is that the American South, more than any other region of the United States, has often been defined—occasionally by Southerners, but most often by those outside the region—as being at odds with the mainstream of American values or behavior, and therefore has been constructed as a special problem. Because the fate of the nation was and remains unalterable bound to the fate of the region, however, "the problem of the South" has also always been America's problem, understood most often as a blight on the broader cultural and political landscape and something that must somehow be addressed and solved.

    Each contributor to the volume addresses a significant aspect of America's Southern problem: how it has been perceived, defined and constructed; the remedies offered in response to each characterization of the problem and some of the consequences of those solutions; how the problem was experienced by those closest to it and how that experience, in turn, became the basis of a strong and vibrant culture; and the possible end of the South as an American problem. What the volume calls America's Southern problem can be seen in the bitter tone and argumentative content of exchanges between nation and region and in every institutional and interpersonal expression of Southern life. It has shown itself through the painful autobiographical explorations of Southerners, black and white, who have searched for their identity and their place, striving all the while to "explain" and "tell about" the South. The "Problem South" has been both created in and perceived through disparate cultural prisms—ranging from mediocre Hollywood movies and television programs to some of the most profound fiction written in the twentieth century—that refract contradictory images and stereotypes, some seemingly favoring or justifying the South, others damning or ridiculing it. America's Southern problem can be seen in the region's religious expressions and intellectual routines, its economic and political institutions, its migration patterns, and most starkly and tragically in its racial practices and struggles. The editors and several authors are quick to acknowledge, however, that just as the South is conceived to be distinct from, and opposite to, the rest of America, so, too, has the nation used the South to help expose and modify some of the darker impulses of American culture. Because thc book is rcally about the U.S., at least as much as it dwells on thc South, the essays should also prove significant for those with an interest in American history and culture.

    Comprehending and making sense of all of this was clearly beyond the ability of any one acadcmic specialty. Thus from its very inception, the volume was designed to welcome and embrace insights from a wide range of disciplines. Each of the authors brought to this collection their personal experiences and the insights and viewpoints of their academic disciplines, and each specific topic they explored—slavery, for example, or the South's late economic development, or its portrayal in literature—was examined from a number of scholarly traditions and with dissimilar re search tools. Wrestling with a theme whose origins and ramifications are as pervasive as "The South as an American Problem" virtually mandated that the contributors integrate historical and contemporary questions, fact and interpretation, and social science and humanistic analyses. Each of them, moreover, had to transcend the rather narrow limitations of their respective academic disciplines and to learn from one another and from intellectual perspectives other than their own.

    It is exactly this interdisciplinary character that fueled the original 1992/93 Fellows Program. The majority of the authors, in fact, were participants in the faculty seminar that included Robert A. Margo (Department of Economics), Michael Kreyling (Department of English), Eric J. Sundquist (Department of English, now at U.C.L.A.), David L. Carlton, Joyce E. Chaplin, and Don H. Doyle (Department of History), James W. Ely (the Law School), and Larry Griffin (Department of Sociology). In addition to these Fellows Program participants, the book includes es says from historians James Oakes (Northwestern) and Hugh Davis Graham (Vanderbilt) and from John Egerton, a well-known Nashville writer who has analyzed the South for a quarter of a century.

    Few do not know that in 1930 another group of Vanderbilt scholars produced a belatedly influential analysis of Southern culture, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, a book often regarded as the origin of Southern Studies. The essays that constitute what has become known as the "Agrarian Manifesto" were written to advance the notion of the rural, agrarian South and to defend that construction against the forces of "industrialism" and modernity in the North. Contributors to I'll Take My Stand included Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren, all of whom would later become leading figures in Southern literature and literary criticism. The South as an American Problem has, as one might expect, already been compared to I'll Take My Stand by referees commissioned to evaluate the more recent volume for the University of Georgia Press. But in their editorial introduction to The South as an American Problem, Griffin and Doyle state that their contributors had no intention of either echoing or answering their predecessors and that in motivatlon, political sentimellt, and execution, the recent project is in many ways the opposite of that of the Agrarians'.

    The South as an American Problem is due to be released on the eve of the seventieth amniversary of the Scopes trial and is expected to be the topic of a panel discussion at the Tennessee Humanities Council's next "Southern Festival of Books" in October 1995. These factors, as well as the merits of The South as an American Problem, place the book squarely at the center of the emerging Southern Studies movement and represents an important symbol of Vanderbilt's continued nurturing of the study of Southern culture.

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