Overdue Reviews–Part 1 Southern Life and Lit

Southern life, literature, religion, folkways, music, and culture evokes images.  But there is no one image that captures it all.  So, run down old buildings, farms, cotton fields, front porches, rockers on front porches, banjos, picnics, lazy rivers, huge arching trees, plantation houses, Confederate battle flags, jam sessions with white men playing guitars and banjos, jam sessions with black men playing guitars and banjos, country churches, signs telling folks that Jesus saves, and William Faulkner all characterize the South.

Southern literature is rich.  It is rich in its roots.  Consider Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris (who wrote the B’rer Rabbit stories).  It is rich in the history of what Southerners called “the Wah.”  Consider Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Caroline Gordon’s None Shall Look Back.  It is rich in complexity.  Consider everything that William Faulkner wrote.  It is rich in comedy.  The B’rer rabbit stories again come to mind.  It is rich in tragedy.  Consider every Southern story connected with the War.  It is rich in the community and disharmony among the races.  Consider Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Faulkner’s Go Down Moses (and almost everything else he wrote).

I love it.  I have lived it.  Or at least I have read about it.  My own Southern boyhood was more boring and more mythical than I care to admit.  Tom Sawyer’s most boring day was far more exciting than my life.  Every time I read and teach Hie to the Hunters by Jesse Stuart, I want to be a young boy living with the Sparks in rural Kentucky. But, life can be lived, or at least supplemented, by books.

Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South by Paul Harvey caught my attention about a year ago when I was taking my son Nick back to Wheaton College.  I came home and contacted the University of Georgia Press and asked for a review copy.  And I got it, read it, but never posted a review.

This is the first of a series of Overdue Reviews.  I get lots of review books.  I also buy books that I review.  I read or attempt to read all review books.  But life overwhelms reading.  Sometimes, I read and like a book, but just cannot gather a coherent line of thoughts about it.

I read and enjoyed this book, but could not organize a review.  Let’s look at it like this:  Professor Paul Harvey of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and I have lots of common interests.  Southern history, literature, and religion are consuming passions for both of us.  But we see things differently.

Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South informed me even where it did not convince me.  It provoked me even where it did not change me.  It challenged me even when it did not instruct me.  Meaning, I really like this book.  If I were in Dr. Harvey’s classes, I would really like him as a teacher.  And yet, I would, at many points, not agree.  Good reading and thinking is a contact sport.  If your reading doesn’t body slam you on occasion, you are not reading enough of the right things.  (Here is a presentation by Dr. Harvey on his book.)

Quick summary points on the book:

1.  The contents are from the Mercer University Lamar Lectures, Number 52.  That lecture series has spawned a whole category of great literary and cultural studies of the South.  I have a volume or two (by Donald Davidson and Cleanth Brooks) from past lectures and wish I had all the volumes.  Since these are lectures, they are not as heavily footnoted and a complete survey of the topics is not in the purview.

2.  White Southerners and Black Southerners viewed Moses and Jesus in different ways, according to their historic circumstances.  Harvey is not writing theology, but this book is a good reminder that we often interpret our Faith in terms of our culture.  I suspect it is impossible to not do so to some extent, but we need to read beyond, before, and above our own cultural imprintings.

3.  This book examines, in part, William Faulkner’s complex novel Absalom, Absalom, along with works from Toni Morrison.  There is not much Southern literature that is clearly Christian like the British works by Chesterton, Waugh, Tolkien, and Lewis, but Southern literature is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s term, Christ Haunted.

4.  The book explores Southern music ranging from Johnny Cash to the blues to Gospel music.

5.  It also explores the fact that the South is both heavily religious and the most violent part of the country.

Fascinating.  Controversial.  Engaging.  Revealing about the South.

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