Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review – The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, William Ferris

[By Jerry Ward, Jr.]

Ferris, William. The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.  $ 35.00  ISBN  978-1-4696-0754-2

Fred Hobson suggested in Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (1983) that Southerners have, or may be possessed by, a compulsion to explain, to apologize for, to defend, or to celebrate the history of a region which non-Southerners "have long been fascinated with…as spectacle, as land of extremes in the most innocent part of America in one respect and the guiltiest in another…."(9).  Hobson's speculation cuts both ways.  While many Southerners do have a gift for drawling in ways that fascinate, a significant number of them can be as taciturn as stereotyped New Englanders.  Hobson's hyperbole confirmed the very oddity he intended to place in an objective perspective regarding habits.  He exercised due diligence in borrowing his main title from William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as he explored selected works by people who were neither novelists nor scholars.  He also used predictable Southern diligence in excluding black writers  (notably Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison) on the grounds that "it would be impossible to do them justice" (13) in the scope of his study.  Thus, Hobson self-fashioned himself as a quintessential Southern apologist.

Thirty-three years later, it is instructive to contrast Tell About the South with William Ferris's The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists (2013), which incorporates self-fashioning with minimal apology.  Ferris acknowledges that Hobson and many other of his University of North Carolina colleagues gave him encouragement in every step of writing this book, a worthy companion to his earlier Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009).  One might argue that Hobson's work was a prelude to Ferris's explaining increasingly complex functions of narrative in the South.  Less an overt apologist than Hobson, Ferris tells us about his own "intellectual and artistic growth through friendships with" seven writers, five scholars, two musicians, three photographers, and nine painters.  Ferris relies primarily on interviews to create a species of oral history.  The absence of question and answer markers, however, foregrounds shared authority in the making of historical explanation.  By exercising his autobiographical voice in prefaces for the stories the writers and artists tell, Ferris demonstrates that subjective artistry can enliven scholarship which focuses on difference in a region of the United States.

To be sure, his method of presentation enables selected voices to expose or to demythologize  problems of credibility that arise in contemporary studies of geographical regions.  By virtue of its celebratory, non-defensive aura, The Storied South alerts readers to aspects of a story always untold in interdisciplinary investigations of Southern cultures.  In that sense, the book has an inevitable relationship to a provocative series of manifestos about the future of Southern Studies in PMLA 131.1 (2016).  That relationship is defined, in part, by Ferris's rationale and folkloric methodological choices, items crucial for understanding the rewards of Southern storytelling.  This book is a remarkable self-portrait of Ferris as a white, male scholar who is a native son of Mississippi, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of NorthCarolina-Chapel Hill.  It is simultaneously a documentation of how twentieth-century Southern writers, musicians, photographers, scholars, and painters "created a body of work that defined both their regions and their nation" (2).  Ferris's manipulation of interviews exposes how oral traditions give compelling forms to "the contested memory of black and white southerners who offer opposing views of the region's history" (3).

The adequacy of this kind of binary narration (spinning of tales) and history-making is itself contestable and open to passionate, rigorous scrutiny by a new generation of scholars who embrace motives and values quite unlike those espoused by Hobson and Ferris.  Younger scholars may believe, as Jay Watson does, that "we need the combined conceptual resources of southern and environmental studies to unpack the thick layers of meaning that accrue when southerners write ecologically and environmental thinkers write about the South" (PMLA 131.1: 159).  Just as Ferris refines Hobson's penchant for the rage to tell, recent developments in southern studies help us to identify the charming limitations of Ferris's traditional approach to the implications of story without diminishing the considerable value of how Ferris seeks to recuperate time past and to display it to its best advantage.  His intervention is a Faulknerian reminder that some Southern imperatives defy being wished into oblivion.  They haunt the South and our entire nation; if they cannot be resolved, they can be addressed in ways that serve the commonweal.  Indeed, the rage of younger scholars to theorize the multiple facets of the South, to tell a new story, only amplifies the humanistic civility of Ferris's work.

As an esteemed scholar of all things Southern, Ferris is keenly aware that the spatial and temporal dimensions of a Southern story must assume combative configurations in the Zeitgeist of now.  Our history-laden ideas about Old South and New South cultures are being rapidly relocated in scholarship by new fields of interpretation which draw attention to the dramatic clashes of remembering and forgetting the centrality of story.  Meaning and significance are recast in discussions of the global South; the deep, down, and dirty South; the South as a racially and ecologically challenged locus of cognition and imagination.  The voices of the South retrofit themselves in concert with revisionist historiographies, emerging digital humanities and revitalized empiricism.  Thus, Ferris wisely includes a generous and timely selected bibliography, discography, and filmography in The Storied South and appends CD (interview sound recordings) and DVD (archival films) companion discs as special resources or paratextual supplements.

From the vantage of a probable future, The Storied South is an excellent, authoritative record of how William Ferris at once mediates and meditates on Southern exceptionalism.  It is a valuable foundational text for American and international scholars who are existentially obligated to tell explanatory stories which supersede regional boundedness.  If their stories prove to be as principled and good as the one Ferris tells, we shall indeed be fortunate and better prepared to avoid delusions that disguise themselves as contributions to knowledge.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of English at Dillard University, Honorary Professor at Central China Normal University, and HBW Board Member (Emeritus).

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