By Nicholas Alahverdian
Literary genius knows no formulaic bounds. Throughout the laborious writing process, writers have been nourished by the fruits of their predecessors, whose greatness budding authors may aspire to attain. Method and theory are imperative elements of successful writing, and many inspiring works of literary art are formed by fusing multiple methods and strategies. This mosaic of styles provides a unique insight into the inventiveness of the writer, and is often gratefully received by the reader.
Cleverness, however, cannot exist in a vacuum. Converging methods and approaches to writing often accelerates the materialization of new or advanced literary movements. Schools of thought produce profound works; blended schools of thought spark the desire for an advanced state of ingenuity. Literary movements amenable to unconventional strategies and styles often provoke the most creativity. Contemporary occurrences (whether they are crises; a search for meaning; or a search for justice) only strengthen the impact of themes and experiences of the movement. National catastrophes such as the Civil War generally serve as wellsprings of profound literary achievements. The Southern Renaissance is a cornerstone of the American literary canon; its impresarios now among Shakespeare and Dickens.
Perhaps no author has captured the Southern aspiration for excellence better than Allen Tate. Considered by many to be an important voice of the Southern Renaissance, he was known as a poet, social commentator, and essayist, Tate served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the United States Congress from 1943 until 1944. Throughout his illustrious career, Tate published prose and poetry. Writing, to Tate, was the South’s way out of what he characterized as “backwardness” in his 1959 essay “A Southern Mode of the Imagination.” “The very backwardness of Mississippi,” he says, “and of the South as a whole, might partially explain the rise of a new literature which has won the attention not only of Americans, but of the Western world.”
While the world was watching Southerners produce great literature, Tate still sought further distinction. In his proverbial humble manner, he recognized the glorification of the South by the Southern author, yet also acknowledged that the great writers of the movement, the Fugitive Poets, were not so blatantly bold. This difference in style was the beginning of Southern literary prestige.
Tate’s explicit criticism, though, is exhibited later in the essay. Revering the auspicious dialectical method of the North, he downgrades the oratorical and self-interested literary style of the recovering South. Persuasive yet meaningless dialogue was a failed marriage of two elements frequently utilized by Southern authors. Great literature, according to Tate, was to be found in the Northern method of dialectic – the relentless pursuit of a dialogue to generate ideas and prove or disprove theories.
Considering the traumatic events that shaped the composition of the Southern Renaissance, Fred Hobson offers a distinct judgment, which qualifies the synthesis of dialectical and rhetorical writing styles. We read:
“During the years of the renaissance, it was assumed – and accepted by all, friend and foe – that the South was the defeated, failed, poor, unprogressive part of the United States. But an irony of Southern literary history, to go along with all the other Southern ironies, is that this legacy of defeat and failure served well the writer in the South. Like Quentin Compson at Harvard, the Southern writer wore his heritage of failure and defeat – and often guilt – as his badge of honor. The Southerner, alone among Americans, as C. Vann Woodward has pointed out, had known defeat, had known what it was not succeed, not to prosper.”
Despite Tate’s rigid view that Southern self-absorption defined inferior literature, many Southern authors have elected to juxtapose dialectical and rhetorical styles of writing. Thomas Wolfe, author and Southerner, offers countless convincing instances of combining rhetoric and dialectic styles. Many of these are to be found in “The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe” where patterns of juxtaposition and fusion occur throughout Wolfe’s writing, especially in “Boom Town” and “The Child by Tiger.”
However, the most poignant example is offered in “Angel on the Porch,” whereby a mother, “Queen” Elizabeth, has experienced the death of daughter and needs a gravestone. She stops by the shop of a stone cutter, Gant. Seeing an angel sculpture on the porch, she asks Gant if she can purchase it for her daughter’s grave site. Unbeknownst to her, Gant had a turbulent yet cherished relationship with the statue. Integrating rhetorical and dialectical styles, Wolfe demonstrates that Gant begins to remember how he cursed the statue, yet named and had discussions with it, and formed a bond with the statue. When Elizabeth expressed a desire for the statue, he became embellished in a state of existential dismay. However, this provoked Gant to not only introspectively and rhetorically question his future, but also dialectically assess existence in a search for ideas to find meaning.
Tate, Allen, Essays of Four Decades (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968) 585.
Vann Woodward, “The Irony of Southern History” in Southern Renaissance: The Literature of the Modern South, ed. Louis D. Rubin Jr. and Robert D. Jacobs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1953) 63-79.
Wolfe, Thomas. “The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe” edited by Francis Skipp. (Estate of Thomas Wolfe, 1987).
Hobson, Fred C. “The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World.” (U. of Georgia Press 1991) 2.