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Top, Cover to the Southern Literary Messenger, published in Richmond, Virginia. In the 1830s, the North argued for this sense of difference from without, through abolitionist societies and popular writing that began to flood media outlets.
The present essay stresses the organizational forms, motifs, and stylistic conventions that can delineate the shape and presentation of a text (the text's genre, in other words) but also understands these matters as inevitably representing and promoting specific versions of culture.
The claim to order that is presented here highlights selected genres indelibly associated with the South: the plantation novel, the slave narrative, southwestern humor, southern pastoral and "counter-pastoral," southern modernism, the southern grotesque, and yes, even "grit lit." Southern literature is substantially recognizable as contingent upon certain identifiers: geographic, social, cultural, political, as well as historical and linguistic contingencies that make up what is known and named as "the South." Of course history remains a core emphasis in this arrangement, but to think of southern writing in terms of its organizational forms and features instead of its chronological appearance also shifts the grounds of historical emphasis.
Heilman identified five features of the southern literary mind that made for distinctively "southern" texts based on analysis of what he considered to be the important fiction of the modern period, and these qualities directed the reading of southern literature for a generation. They invoked an ideal of communal memory in order to rebuke the disordered present, an agenda that identifies their productions as pastoral, a genre defined by its practitioners’ intention to provide social critique within clearly defined literary conventions.
The selection of southern genres outlined in this overview indicates one more key element of the genre approach: genres classify works according to similarities, but they thrive and depend upon difference, not only differences in conventions and forms, but differences in the ways that groups within the same geographical places experience history.
As differently "placed" as they might seem from the designations "Harlem" and "Southern," the literatures that are categorized within these separate concepts of "flowerings" share many of the same historical contingencies.
One has only to read John Crowe Ransom's "Antique Harvesters" and Jean Toomer's "Harvest Song," both of them key expressions of an artistic impulse embedded in southern history, to see how important it is to look across categories that separate literary studies.To claim that there are "southern" genres of literature might seem to divorce the South's writing from some larger concept of value, and indeed southern writers have chafed under the sectional or regional label, regardless of how the term "southern" was being applied to their productions.In delineating generic headings, the overview that follows is not a "historical coverage" model.From the slave South came the radically different genres of slave narrative and plantation romance.The agrarian South produced both pastoral and anti-pastoral.The ideological as well as artistic processes that identified the first southern genres continued to do so throughout the twentieth century, from the Southern Agrarians' revolt against a national urban-industrial complex in the 1930s, embodied in pastoral forms, to the anti-establishment, anti-" (2002), scholars and readers have looked for ways to differentiate southern literature from that of other places (including American literature, itself conceivably a sectional genre) by identifying these features. When the Southern Agrarians wanted to protest the excesses of the capitalistic machine and the soul-killing effects of scientific dominance, they wrote one manifesto, .If we go back fifty years, we find in Robert Heilman's essay, entitled "). However, the more productive and effective channel for their cause was their championing, in dozens of critical studies and in their own poems and novels of a mythologically, instead of a historically, ordered past.Any arrangement that a literary historian might choose results in inclusions and exclusions based on both literary and political ideologies that privilege certain values—and certain literary forms or discourses—over others.The preference that an overview of southern literature by genre asserts is that of forms, motifs, and conventions, but this preference also reflects the current theoretical argument that genres are codes constructed from, as well as speaking to, historical contingency.Yet, the South can be said to have its own literary genres — its particular sets of forms or organizing motifs — as much as it has a history and manners.An overview of southern literature based on a selection of key genres departs substantially from the program of traditional literary histories, which rely upon relatively static, periodic, historical reference points to arrange and provide nomenclatures for southern literature.