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Literary Criticism Review     


Hearts of Darkness:
Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition
by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Louisiana State University Press, 2003
Hardcover, $59.95 (280 pages)
ISBN:  0807128228

A friend from London recently asked:  What constitutes “Southern” writing?  Throughout Hearts of Darkness:  Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition Bertram Wyatt-Brown appears conscious of such a question and illuminating the common threads of emotional disturbance among nineteenth and early-twentieth century southern writers.  Hearts of Darkness examines the “inner workings of the literary mind.”  The first pages of Wyatt-Brown’s book reveal his intent to examine “the ethic of honor, the tragedy of melancholy, and the personal origins of artistic imagination.”  It is the “interconnection” of these ideas that guides this thoughtful book.   

Wyatt-Brown admits in his introduction that this book crosses into “a murky realm when dealing with such elusive concepts and slippery emotional particulars.” But Wyatt-Brown handily re-tells and re-interprets, the work of such notable as well as indistinct writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, Edmund Ruffin, William Gilmore Simms, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, and Ellen Glasgow.  In a chapter on artistic creativity and southern poetry, Wyatt-Brown also investigates the poems by Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar and by Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln. 

This investigation of depression and its effects on the creativity life quietly bursts with footnotes, contemporary interjections, and plausible explanations.  While a thoroughly readable academic book, a couple factors make Hearts of Darkness appealing to a wider audience.  One is Wyatt-Brown’s presentation and skill in the depiction of his almost twenty subjects.  Even when delving into an author’s life or work, one is secure that Wyatt-Brown keeps his reader in mind.  The accounts of the lives are fascinating and become even more so as Wyatt-Brown takes writers from a particular era or genre and compares and contrasts their lives and works.  The other factor is Wyatt-Brown’s consistently steady and thorough read of his subjects’ works:  “Only through the agency of their stories did they unknowingly reveal more than they ever acknowledge.”  One trusts that Wyatt-Brown has found what no author thought revealed. 

Returning and in response to the question above:  What constitutes “Southern” writing? Wyatt-Brown’s Hearts of Darkness insures that any definition of the southern literary tradition may also include melancholy and alienation. 


Elizabeth King Humphrey
Southern Scribe Reviews

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