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The Fable of the Southern Writer
By Lewis P. Simpson
Louisiana State University Press, 2003
Paperback, $16.95 (249 pages)
ISBN: 0-8071-2915-1
 
 
 

Lewis P. Simpson's Fable of the Southern Writer first appeared in hardcover in 1994.  This LSU paper brings back Simpson's eleven essays originally written during the 1980s and 1990s.  Simpson takes as theme "self-biography" within the not necessarily autobiographical texts of Allen Tate, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, Walker Percy.  This self-biography is detailed through moments when characters, including Huck Finn and Jack Burden and especially Quentin Compson, embody the figure of the writer or become an authorial figure.  The figure of the writer or the author in the novels is described in terms of History--both the history of facts that surround the figures and, more centrally to Simpson's project, history as it is created by speaking (authoring) it into existence.   

Simpson's Prologue, "John Randolph and the Inwardness of History," sets up many of the ideas that concern Simpson throughout the collection.  John Randolph early reactionary stance against what Randolph felt was the degeneration of the nation after the Revolution dramatizes for Simpson the tension always occurring between public and private spaces, political and personal discourse, and ultimately between history and the self.  Randolph is "overwhelmed by history" and descends into madness, but sets up "a southern culture of failure" as contexts of future Southern writers William Gilmore Simms, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Walker Percy. 

The narrating of history and self returns as s theme in "The Fable of the Agrarians and the Failure of the American Republic."  Here Simpson sets up the idea that the South has a "devotion to textuality" unparalleled in the nation by examples ranging from the Constitution to the Bible Belt to New Criticism.  Simpson then examines the texts of the Agrarians, particularly Allen Tate, in terms of fables they are narrating: southern reaction to industrialization, Agrarian poets as the last Europeans, reaction to progressive history, and finally pulling from these texts the Agrarians' transformation of the South into a symbol of "vital opposition" to industrial capitalism.  

"A Fable of White and Black: Jefferson, Madison, Tate" sets up the terms of Simpson's look into the idea of "self-biography" which includes the ability to look at nearly any text as a form of autobiographical expression.  This essay focuses on Allen Tate's attempts to reconcile life, history, and Southern lost cause myths in fiction and biography.  If autobiography intervened in Tate's creative process, the mark of the more abstract fascination with Berkeleian philosophy is what attracts Simpson in "History and the Will of the Artist."  Elizabeth Madox Roberts' autobiographical study of Bishop Berkeley is used to foreground the sense of time and history in her work.   

The development of an "authorial persona" informs Simpson's reading of Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in "War and Memory."  Simpson uses Twain to set up an examination of Faulkner's figure of authorial consciousness, Quentin Compson.  Faulkner returns as the subject of "Tenses of History" as Simpson explores the shift in Faulkner's awareness of "the remorseless historical demarcation in modernity of is from was" in Faulkner's poetry to the "assimilation of was to is" in Faulkner's later novels to finally the "ineffable is-was" that transcends modern fragmented time.   

Simpson reads Allen Tate's literary criticism in "The Poetry of Criticism."  In this reading, Simpson notes Tate's aborted attempt at autobiography and then reinserts Tate's autobiography in the criticism finding as a "fundamental theme" Tate's "need to subject the willful self to the authority of a culture rooted in a great moral and religious tradition."  The autobiographical impulse is revisited in Robert Penn Warren's work in the essay "The Loneliness Artist."  This essay intersperses Simpson's own autobiographical knowledge of Warren and the other actors in the events of Warren's biography into his discussion of Warren's self-imposed exile from the South.  This sense of exile, loneliness, becomes the focus of Simpon's interpretations of Warren's novels.   

The final pair of essays, "The Last Casualty of the Civil War" and "From Thoreau to Walker Percy," center on the relationship of the Civil War to the Southern Literary Renaissance.  "The Last Casualty of the Civil War" looks into the writing of Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963) as an example of the kind of poet informed by Lost Cause piety that inadvertently started the Renaissance.  The Fugitives of Vanderbilt were fleeing from just Inman's kind of sentiment.  "From Thoreau to Walker Percy" anticipates the other side of the Renaissance.  Walker Percy marks an instance of Southern writers distancing themselves from the Civil War and the concerns of the Agrarians, and thus in Simpson's eyes, marking the end of the Renaissance.   

The Fable of the Southern Writer is appropriately concluded with Simpson's own autobiographical Epilogue where he discovers his connectedness with Texas and Cherokee history. 

Simpson's interpretation of the authors he examines is still relevant ten years later, particularly for its investigation of the Agrarians' myth-making as well as of Simpson's own role creating a fictional and historical Souths. Simpson's essays are meditative and reflective but are almost totally without connection to the wide body of literary criticism on the authors and the subjects that he discusses--which is both refreshing and frustrating.  What does strike scholars of Southern letters as dated is Simpson's pardoning his exclusion of African-American Southern writers and Southern women writers from his study of autobiographical impulses in Southern letters--an impulse acutely felt and beautifully acted on by just these writers that are left out of Simpson's canon.  Despite these few shortcomings, however, Simpson's book is a valuable resource on the canonical figures of the Southern Renaissance and a useful place to start answering the question of what, exactly, was Faulkner trying to tell about the South.  

Lewis P. Simpson is Boyd Professor and William A. Read Professor of English, emeritus, at Louisiana State University.  He is the author of more than thirteen books including the influential Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes, The Brazen Face of History, and The Man of Letters in New England and the South

 

Sean Wells
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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