Southern Literature: Consensus and Dissensus
“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” We all know the outburst of literary definition this question ignited when it was published in 1820. A generation of American writers made sure to write something distinctively American, and to call it by its national name. Definition was no problem, then; North and South, puritan and cavalier, Cooper and Simms agreed that they wrote American literature. Their common cause did not last long, though, if indeed it was ever more than literary good feeling. “American” soon migrated northward, conscripted by an ideological conflict. American literature in the South became just plain literature in the South, and eventually “Southern Literature,” the maneuvering of adjectives being the continuation of hostilities by other means.
After the Civil War, when the unity of American literature became a symbol for the national political cause of reunification, the process of consensus building and definition became even more problematic. Certain themes and genres of southern writing (e.g., the reconciliation romance and local color) became canonical; others, like Southwestern human, were “disappeared,” officially if not actually. Both Howells and Gilder, for instance, mentioned Longstreet, Hooper, and others in retrospective reviews only to express relief that their “poison” humor had been purged from the national literary system. As American litera-
Richard Watson Gilder, “The Nationalization of Southern Literature: Part I- Before the War,” Christian Advocate (New York), 3 July 1890, pp. 425-26. William Dean Howells, “The Southern States in Recent American Literature: First Paper,” Literature (London), 10 Sept. 1898, pp. 231-32.
American Literature, Volume 60, Number 1, March 1988. Copright 1988 by the Duke University Press. CCC 0002-9831/88/$1.50