Tag Archives: William Faulkner

The American South, a History

As an English literature major and history minor, I was introduced to the American South’s turbulent history as well as its great fiction writers (such as William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, and Flannery O’Connor). With this post, the fourth in my ongoing series of recommended historical non-fiction, I highlight five intriguing books that evoke the South’s values, rich cultural history, and distinctly unique take on things.

 Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and  Reputation in Jefferson’s America by Cynthia Kierner. In 1792 rural Virginia, a small party of young adults traveled to a plantation for an extended visit. Once there, one of the women, Nancy Randolph, suffered what appeared, at first, to be a miscarriage. The “scandal” was that Nancy was unmarried and the suspected father was her brother-in-law, Richard Randolph (her sister’s husband). Was the infant murdered? Did Nancy and Richard have an affair? Richard was charged with the crime but the stigma of the “fallen woman” status clung to Nancy for the rest of her life. The book reads like fiction but it’s a true story. The Randolph family was distantly related to Thomas Jefferson, his mother’s surname was Randolph.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.  And now for some humor. Journalist Horwitz travels to the deep South to collect stories and views from a people still deeply entrenched with the ghosts of “the War of Northern Aggression.” Along the way he meets “super hardcore” Civil War re-enactors, a black woman selling baskets in a market stall abutting another selling Confederate flags and trinkets, and attends boisterous Klan rallies. It’s a wild ride in a whole ‘nother country.

 Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed. In this highly readable and revealing book, historian, professor, and legal scholar Gordon-Reed proceeds to cut down every argument and conclusion that has been made about Jefferson and his sexual relationship with his slave throughout its long and controversial history. She takes apart every single argument and debunks each with solid research, revealing blind acceptance in the historical study of Jefferson scholarship. This book ties in nicely with

  The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed.  The winner of numerous book awards (including the Pulitzer for history), this is a thorough and exhaustive account of the Hemings family which has achieved notoriety due to the acknowledged relationship between slave Sally Hemings and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. She brings alive a family, a woman, and a legacy amid the backdrop of the slave South. Impeccably researched and written, this book is just one of the reasons why I love history.

 A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 by Stephen Ash. Finally, this selection is a poignant and diverse collection revealing the private diaries and lives of four southerners in a single year: a war widow, a newly-freed slave, a former Confederate soldier, and a lost young man trying to find himself in a changed country. Ash is a history professor and each personal story draws you in; it’s a wonderful snapshot in time.



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Toni Morrison – A Mercy

The recent brouhaha over American literature and the Nobel Prize, ignited by Horace Engdahl of the Nobel Prize jury, has stirred up lots of emotion parochial and patriotic but thankfully, at least not yet, patriarchal. No matter what one thinks of the fact that America was characterized as “too isolated, too insular,” one thing can be said for the Nobel committee: they got it absolutely right when they selected Toni Morrison in 1993.

Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, is a lyrical revelation, a book that solidifies her reputation as one of our finest writers, living or otherwise, and is one of the best, most powerful novels of 2008. Some of Morrison’s hallmark characteristics are in evidence: the plot moves forward in non-chronological fits and starts, with events being revealed from multiple, not always meshing, points of view, a story that centers on slavery and race in America from an historical perspective, and a narrative style, language and execution that challenges the reader to be at her/his very best.

Set in late seventeenth century colonial America, this is the story of Florens, a young slave, who is reluctantly accepted as compensation in a bad business deal by Dutch trader Jacob Vaark, and the life she comes to live on Vaark’s small New York estate. The lives of the women, both fellow slaves, Lina and Sorrow, and Vaark’s wife, are minutely recounted in all their burdensome drudgery, replete with sorrow and despair nearly beyond human endurance. The sheer brutality of their lives is immense, emphatically underscored by a devastating small pox epidemic.

In this video, Morrison herself briefly discusses the main character and how the plot comes together.

In a novel this brief, it would be telling in the worst way to give away important plot details. Suffice it to say that the story builds inexorably, with almost spiral-like undulations, to a conclusion that is as powerful as it is devastating. In her portrayal of characters, masterful manipulation of time, and head-on confrontation with race in America, there are echoes of that other American Nobel laureate, William Faulkner. The ultimate ambivalence of the title itself, in its final revelation by Florens’ mother, brings to mind another award winning major American novel of the 1970’s.

The criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature are open to interpretation and analysis. From a quick glance at the list of American Nobel laureates – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Morrison – one might glean a certain commonality of concern particular to the human condition as a whole, often as seen through the lens of oppressed peoples. Whatever the criteria, in theory or execution, 10 Americans of the 108 laureates is nothing to sneeze at. This is a large world and it must be shared, virtually and otherwise.

And that, of course, is exactly the point of said commonality and no one illustrates that better, with more force, beauty, and resonance, than Toni Morrison. A Mercy builds upon a legacy that can make us all proud, Americans and Nobel jury members alike.


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