The American South, its preface tells us, came into being because the United States Information Agency asked Louis Rubin to organize a series of broadcasts on the contemporary South by various persons. For the published version Rubin was to write the introduction, a concluding essay and one of the chapters. This he has done, as well as, presumably, perparing the biographical paragraphs about the contributors at the end. Following the introduction, the book consists of two main parts: "A Changing Culture," the chapters of which, devoted to such topics as Southern Christianity, politics, childhoods white and black, hunting and fishing, stock-car racing and country music, depict the South as it appears to these writers now or within living memory; and "Literary Images," chapters on the work of Walker Percy, Mark Twain, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, the Fugitive-Agrarians, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams and James Dickey -- to name a few. This arrangement implies that to know Southern literature requires knowing ordinary Southern life outside it, and vice versa.
Richard H. King's Southern Renaissance has a similar arrangement. Its opening chapters are also concerned with Southern life at the time the "renaissance" began, though his view is limited by his attempt to explain why there was a literary renaissance at all. After summarizing the explanations of C. Vann Woodward and Lewis P. Simpson, King offers his own. That, in fact, is at least at much what his book is about as it is about the quality of Southern writing, between 1930 and 1955, that has earned the period its honorific title. What King's opinion is we shall shortly see.
Other likenesses exist between the two books. Both are richly informative and need better proofreading; both neglect women, including woman writers; both show some uncertainty about their subject matter. Otherwise the two could hardly be less alike. Naturally the style of The American South varies, in both kind and quality, since it contains two recorded conversations and the work of 19 writers. King, though his admiration for Freud, Levi-Straus and suchlike has infected his diction, consistently writes with clarity and vigor. In The American South the work of Faulkner receives little attention apart from the dense and debatable essay by Lewis P. Simpson. It dominates A Southern Renaissance because of King's interest in what he terms "the Southern family romance." This topic leads to the greatest difference between the two books; namely, their difference in tone. Without glozing over any of the faults of the South, none of the white contributors to The American South regards it with anything but affection; and J. Lee Greene, in his essay on various works by black Southern writers, argues that "a positive image of the South in southern black literature has been prevasive throughout this century" (while of course black writers distinguish "the South as a region" from its white population). The affection for the South on the part of whites, so Louis Rubin thinks, derives from the persistence there of "a social and cultural community in which membership offers form of self-definition."
An East Tennessean, Richard Kind "did not grow up with the glories of the Old South reverberating in [his] ears," nor was he affected by the Southern family romance. In this phrase, borrowed from Freud, "romance" means illusion or fantasy. The literal family became a metaphor for the plantation, with the slaves being children or considered foster-children; from the plantation the notion was extended to the neighborhood, and from the neighborhood to the South as a whole. The family was of course patriarchal, with the mother decidedly in the background, and often the grandfather rather than the father came to be considered the true patriarch. This summary is oversimplified, especially as it omits the contradictions in the "romance" that King dwells on. But it is enough to account for what he calls "the fundamental valorization of difference and hierarchy. Past was superior to present; parents to children [i.e., adult offspring]; male to female; white to black; rich to poor." A corresponding devalorization, to adopt King's ungainly term, is what King desires, and the incompleteness of the process, though well begun, mainly determines his view of contemporary Southern life.
With the Depression, he thinks, the family romance began to dissolve, as a period of extreme social instability set in. This dissolution made possible, or at least created the conditions for, the Southern Renaissance. And King's theory creates the conditions for his original, enlightening and surprisingly laudatory interpretations of several works by white male Southerners, particularly Lanterns on the Levee, The Fathers and three by Faulkner. The theory does not, as King admits, relate to the work of black writers, who were of course never victimized by the family romance, nor to that of Eudora Welty and the other woman writers, for "they did not place the region at the center of their imaginative visions"! Plainly, then, as an account of why the Southern Renaissance occurred when it did, King's approach has only limited usefulness. As the book moves on, moreover, the Southern family romance, which has bulked large in the opening chapters, seems to matter less and less. King makes little if any attempt to involve in it, for instance, the work of Thomas Wolfe, James Agee or Robert Penn Warren. By the end, indeed his interest in attributing the Southern Renaissance to this or any other cause appears to dwindle away.
By contrast with King's deliberate omission of woman writers other than Lillian Smith, the masculine atmosphere of The American South seems merely inadvertent. Only four of its 19 contributors are women; the activities depicted in "A Changing Culture" -- politics, hunting and fishing, stock-car-racing -- are not, at least as these writers present them, ones in which Southern women are deeply involved; the participants in the two dialogues, except for Eudora Welty, are men; and in the other main section of the book, Lillian Hellman along among woman writers receives detailed attention. Hugh Holman's essay, "The Southern Provincial in Metropolis," deals with "the movement of young men" from country to city. He names a series of novels, from The Red and Black to Gatsby, that embody the same theme. But what about Sister Carrie? The editor admits that the book is "idosyncratic, even eccentric." With half the Southern population almost ignored, the editors is clearly correct.
When the reader the the American South arrives at its literary section, something resembling King's change of theme plainly occurs. Since the contributors in general agree that the South, despite profound changes, has nevertheless preserved its recognizably different character, one expects to learn from the new section what Southern writing is like today and what it will probably be like in the near future. Some of these essays do this and some do not. Cleanth Brooks, for instance, concludes his essay on "the crisis in culture" in an unexpectedly hopeful way, as far as Southern writing is concerned. William Harmon, however dubious some of his chosen examples may be, writes on "Southern Poetry in the Last Quarter of the Twentieth Century." The essays about Mark Twain and Faulkner on the other hand, are simply about Mark Twain and Faulkner; the treatment of Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams leaves the impression that Southern playwriting is a closed chapter in the history of the theater.
At first glance, then, The American South and A Southern Renaissance, with their diferences in style, tone and structure appear to be pure opposites. It is ironic that in these two works, each of which will no doubt exasperate the author or authors of the other, so many similarities are to be found.