In his introduction to The Future of Southern Letters, John Lowe notes that “most of today’s southern narratives . . . aspire to mirror a culture in the throes of dynamic and dramatic change” (6), which he feels has always been at the core of southern storytelling and, one is tempted to add, at the center of southern life. This idea of a mirror is also present, but from a different perspective, in Howard Zinn’s The Southern Mystique (1970) where it is suggested that “The South . . . far from being utterly different, is really the essence of the nation. […] It contains, in concentrated and dangerous form, a set of characteristics which mark the country as a whole” (218). Zinn’s analysis presents the region as the embodiment of a specifically American way of life. He feels that “with this approach, the South becomes not damnable, but marvelously useful, as a mirror in which the nation can see its blemishes magnified, so that it will hurry to correct them” (263). Such an idea is reminiscent of the theories according to which the South is becoming more and more like the rest of the nation, that the South, as Josephine Humphreys puts it, is a “disappearing subject,” which implies that it has not completely vanished though Byron E. Shafer and Richard Johnson, in their study of the economic and political situation, have suggested that “the end of southern exceptionalism” has come. Their focus is on convergence with the national plan rather than divergence though southern culture remains distinctly regional in terms of race, class, religion and the communal spirit. The “backward glance” Allen Tate was referring to in his 1945 essay “The New Provincialism” can certainly be applied to most, if not all historic, literary and artistic productions as the development of trauma studies shows but it is not solely a southern concern.
Changes have occurred. Introducing South to the Future, Fred Hobson asserts that “the reality—and, even more, the mythology—of the poor, failed, defeated, backward-looking South has long since been replaced by the mythology of what in the 1970s came to be called the Sun Belt—prosperous, optimistic, forward-looking, air-conditioned, self-congratulatory, and guilt-free” (4). Contemporary writing seems more inclined to look at the remains of the past in the present—Kaye Gibbons went back to the Civil War, Josephine Humphreys searched for the Lumbees in South Carolina during that same period, Ron Rash and Terry Roberts explored World War I, Reynolds Price reflected on 9/11 through the prism of southern culture… African-American writers also contribute to the current face of southern literature and again they seem to be picturing the present with a backward glance that nonetheless informs it—they are, as Thadious M. Davis puts it, “reclaiming the South” by “both literally and imaginatively returning to the region and its past, assuming regional identification for self and group definition” (Bridging Southern Cultures 66). There are many more voicing the South as Michael P. Bibler shows in a 2016 section of PMLA devoted to that peculiar region and his affirmation that “exceptionalism would segregate the South from the nation, while pure antiexceptionalism would make the South disappear completely” (154) raises numerous questions that strongly contrast with Zinn’s aforementioned take on the matter.
New ways of looking at the South have appeared in recent years, gender and LGBT studies, ethnic approaches, urban/rural explorations… Jay Watson suggests another path which could be extended to the field of nature writing: “if southern studies and environmental studies are to emerge from nostalgia and defeatism as reinvigorated and relevant disciplines, the two fields will need to learn from each other” (“The Other Matter of the South,” PMLA 131.1  159). He also invites scholars to deepen “consideration of which pasts to claim and which forms of change to interrogate or contest in the field’s ongoing work of negociating tradition” (159). Television and the movies give equally thought-provoking ideas on the South making the region different from any other while questioning such singularity. We could thus argue with Gina Caison and Amy Cluckey that “the New South” is no longer a relevant label because “Future Souths” are emerging and shaping time at the very moment it is unfolding. The aim of this Southern Studies Forum conference is to reflect upon the facets of the South that make it a distinctive region, although one which is not exempt from the changes affecting the whole nation and the world at large.
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