Dismantling the Monolith

Southern Places – Past, Present, and Future

in Critical Survey

Most of us in southern literary studies have taken for granted the idea that southern literature is grounded in a ‘sense of place’, but questions about the meaning and significance of that sense of place have been troubling, particularly when linked in U.S. literature (as seems always to be the case) with the idea of ‘regionalism’. Is a literature ‘grounded in place’ necessarily a ‘regional’ literature? Many – including Eudora Welty – would say that it is not: ‘“Regional” is an outsider’s term’, she writes, which ‘has no meaning for the insider who is doing the writing, because as far as he knows he is simply writing about life …’ Nevertheless, for Welty, ‘Location [italics mine] is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course’.1 ‘Place’, in other words, is a matter of ‘location’, of ‘situation’, a ‘conductor’ of the currents that move and move through a literary text; and unlike ‘region’ as it has usually been understood, ‘place’ and ‘location’ are subjective, experiential, insiders’ terms. If this is so, why has the sense of place been so closely linked with regionalism in U.S. literary history? It is especially odd when one considers that the sense of place suggests something that ‘centres’ whereas regionalism evokes ideas of the periphery, so that the literatures of the periphery are often said to be ‘centred’ in that famous ‘sense of place’, whereas those literatures of the ‘centre’ are presumably unplaced. The answer probably has something to do with the fact that Americans imagine change and possibility in terms of a flight from, or liberation from, place. This has been one very powerful version of the American Dream. But change and possibility, those forces that move narrative, might be more accurately imagined as a transfiguration of – rather than as a flight or liberation from – place.