"Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." So demands the Canadian Shreve McCannon of his roommate, the Mississippian Quentin Compson, in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom. Readers' urge to know about the South and writers' compulsion to explain it have engendered a vast subfield of American letters over the past century and a half. Even leaving aside the southern novelists, poets, and storywriters, since the 1850s not five years have passed without a major work seeking to explore, explain, justify, or condemn a region that the historian David Potter called "a kind of sphinx on the American land."
Meditating on the region has also become a thriving academic industry, with specialized journals such as Southern Cultures, Southern Studies, Southern Quarterly,href> and the venerable Journal of Southern History. Louisiana State University Press and the presses of the Universities of North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia have developed long lists of titles in the fields of southern culture, literature and literary criticism, and history. (Trade publishers, especially Knopf, have over the years also published a surprising number of studies of the South.) There are the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, and the Encyclopedia of Southern History. There are two Institutes for Southern Studies, along with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Center for the Study of Southern History and Culture. The South also claims a group of outstanding literary and cultural quarterlies -- the Southern Review, the Sewanee Review,href> the Georgia Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review -- that, although national in scope, pay particular attention to the region.
The three recent books under review, then, cover well-traveled ground and follow familiar forms. The Oxford Book of the American South, edited by the historian Edward Ayers (whose Promise of the New South,published in 1992, is one of the broadest and most original interpretations of southern history of the past twenty years) and the writer and political consultant Bradley Mittendorf, is an anthology of southern writing about the South from the eighteenth century to the present. Surprisingly, it is the most novel of the three books, even though more than twenty-five anthologies of southern literature have been published since the Civil War. Ayers and Mittendorf have taken a new approach, in that they haven't assembled a simple historical anthology.