Commentary Magazine


The Southern Connection, by Robert B. Heilman

Paradox of Place

The Southern Connection.
by Robert B. Heilman.
Louisiana State University Press. 279 pp. $29.95.

By millions of customers of the manufacturers of labor-saving devices it is regarded as lazy. By millions of residents of states where unemployment is unknown only in wartime, it is regarded as lamentably poor. . . . By readers of the liberal press it is regarded as doctrinaire, hyperemotional, and unintelligibly satisfied with itself. By millions of readers of best-sellers and subscribers to book clubs, it is regarded as unsophisticated, at best quaint and at worst susceptible to dictators. By millions of graduates and foster children of Columbia Teachers College it is regarded as spiritually backward.

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The antecedent of “it” in this passage is the South. The passage was written by the eminent literary scholar and critic Robert Heilman in 1947, in an essay (“The South Falls In”) that deplores not only the hypocrisy of northern critics of the South but the tendency of the South itself, after long resistance to batterings from without, to bite “into the apple of conformity.”

The North, Heilman predicted in that essay, would lose as much as the South if the latter were to surrender its distinctiveness, for liberal northerners might then be deprived of the pleasure to be had in the “easy psychology of melodrama, by which all evil is across the water.” But Heilman also lamented the tendency of the South to export its best quality and bring in mediocrity. Already it was becoming as difficult to find a southern intellectual or poet at work in the South as to find choice strawberries in Louisiana or good peaches in Georgia. By the time Heilman was writing, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom had assumed residence in New Haven and Minneapolis and Ohio, part of an unplanned literary population exchange that eventually would bring northern Marxists and genderology experts to transfer their imperial enterprise to the old tobacco plantation at Duke in North Carolina.

Heilman himself brought a northern perspective and a few northern prejudices to the South when, a native Pennsylvanian and recent Harvard Ph.D., he arrived in 1935 to take up a position in the English department of Louisiana State University. On their seventh day in Baton Rouge, he and his wife went to the Capitol to look in on a meeting of the state legislature which U.S. Senator and former Governor Huey Long was scheduled to attend. The opening essay of The Southern Connection describes Heilman’s “one experience of seeing a single political leader wholly in command,” a very brief experience as it happened because Long’s exit from the chamber that day was instantly followed by his assassination. “We wondered, Is this the way they always settle political differences in Louisiana? How would it be in higher education?” But Heilman soon came to see the Long phenomenon as involving something more complicated and ambiguous than simple regional delinquency.

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The first section of this collection of seventeen essays about the South, written over four decades, describes the atmosphere in Baton Rouge and LSU shortly after Long’s death. How was it, the author asks, that Long, a populist picaro and (to some) a Machiavellian, should have brought to an obscure university in a poor southern town such extraordinary talents as Warren, Brooks, the political philosopher Eric Voegelin, and so remarkable a journal as the Southern Review? The puzzling relation between Louisiana’s populist revolution and the very highbrow literary and intellectual flowering of its state university began to be understood by Heilman only after he had returned, in 1948, to the North, where liberal virtue and the conformity of dissent pressed harder upon free spirits. “May there have been,” he asks from the perspective of decades, “a subterranean kinship between the freedom conducive to art and thought, and a statewide sociopolitical easygoingness with its obvious built-in risks of messes, rackets, and worse?”

The book’s second, longer section offers critical essays on southern writers and their works. Here Heilman deals with the relation between the southern Agrarian movement and European culture, the enduring value of Cleanth Brooks’s critical essays in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), and the fiction of Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. In the conception of the South that emerges from these essays, the principle of paradox is pervasive, just as it was in the literary considerations of the major New Critics of the South: Brooks, Warren, and Heilman himself.

One might start with the paradox of place. I have already mentioned the emigration of poets and intellectuals. Indeed, of the southern Agrarians and their advocacy of “a southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way” (in the words of their 1930 manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand), it has justly been said that although, metaphorically speaking, they would die in Dixie, they often lived in the North, whose polyglot, industrial, urban, rationalist, materialist, and capitalist character they loved to denounce. Once, at the University of Minnesota, a professor of French asked me, during a doctoral examination, why Stendhal had said that he could imagine no worse fate than being sentenced to live in Cincinnati. Before I could reply, Samuel Monk, a transplanted Alabamian professor and one of the original contributors to the Southern Review, intervened: “Because Minneapolis hadn’t been invented yet!” Heilman recalls that when a professional meeting came to its end in Chicago, Robert Penn Warren would moan: “Well, nothing to do now but go back to Minneapolis and wait for the first blizzard.”

Although he is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the symbolic force of the Agrarian movement’s belief in the ennobling influence of soil on soul, Heilman insinuates a criticism of its distance from stubborn actualities. He had himself grown up in a farming family in eastern Pennsylvania, and found the agrarian life far from ideal. Could it be that its parallel in the South possessed virtues largely absent in Pennsylvania? Or was it that most of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand really knew little of “the sheer difficulty and often hardship of farming life”?

But the central paradoxes of the South, according to Heilman, are the combination of “an almost Oriental ancestor-worship” with a love of the “modern”; a constant examination of the southern birthright combined with harking after the fleshpots; and a greater illiteracy than any other part of the country combined with “a highly disciplined literacy” that produced a literary flowering unequaled by any other American region.

Within this last paradox Heilman detects another. This is the way in which the type of literary analysis developed by southern critics who were often scorned as “reactionaries” or even “fascists” by their cruder liberal detractors had the effect of democratizing literary study. For by their stress on the analysis of concrete texts, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, and Warren created a far more competent “general reader” than the older, “historical” critics had envisioned or desired; and by adhering to Tate’s precept that “critical style ought to be as plain as the nose on one’s face,” they not only rescued criticism from the dry-as-dust manner of the historical school but also retarded its infection by the opaque pseudo-jargon of the “theorists.”

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Heilman’s elucidation of the southern critics’ idea of poetry as a means of universalizing, through the instrument of form, emotions and experiences that may originate in the self, or the culture, or the tribe, is of special value in an era as profoundly infected by determinisms of race, class, and “gender” as is ours. For many of our literary theorists, the crucial questions about a work concern its supposed origins: What are its author’s class background, his race, his politics, his sexual preferences? In place of the New Critics’ concept of a unified domain of literary excellence, we now have the racial theory of literary creativity, the ovarian-testicular theory, the class theory, and so on ad infinitum. By contrast, Heilman shows how the New Critical stress on the work itself—“not divorced from diverse genetic influences, but transcending them through formal properties, not timebound, that determine its quality”—provided a way out of the prison of relativism, “a way of distinguishing between Shakespeare and Glapthorne,” and also undermined the utilitarian conception of poetry as a servile instrument of morality, religion, or ideology.

That a universal principle of literary excellence should have arisen from so contentiously regional a school of writers is perhaps the ultimate paradox of the southern literary temper. If that temper emerges in Heilman’s portrait looking a bit more sweet and reasonable than it did in its years of trial and combat, that is partly a result of the passage of time, but still more a tribute to the eloquence, urbanity, and moral poise of the author of this book.

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