Review by Willard Manus

Just about everything you ever wanted to know about southern writers and writing is contained in LSU Press' brand-new 1000-page reference book, THE COMPANION TO SOUTHERN LITERATURE: THEMES, GENRES, PLACES, PEOPLE, MOVEMENTS AND MOTIFS. More than 250 scholars and authors contributed 500 concise, knowledgable articles on topics ranging from Abolition to Yonapatawpha.

Edited by Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda H. MacKethan, THE COMPANION can also be read as a history text. As the editors say in their introduction, "Historical events and figures--and there are many, for here is a region deeply, if ambivalently, protective of its historical identity--have been chosen for their enactment within and their impact upon the literature."

Explored are the literary embodiments of the Old South, New South, Solid South, Savage South, Lazy South and "Sahara of the Bozart." The entries delve into every conceivable topic found in southern writing from the pre-Columbian era to the present. LSU Press bills the book as "the equivalent of 9 hours of college credit."

THE COMPANION does not shy away from controversial subjects, either.
The entry on Chattel Slavery, for example, covers four pages and was written by Randall M. Miller, an African-American scholar who teaches at Saint Joseph University. He concludes his entry with this statement: "By the 1990s, southern writers had stripped any romantic gloss from the plantation legend and revealed the base metal of chattel slavery below. The reliance on African American oral traditions, and even a return to dialect, ensured a black voice in the literature, and stories of physical flight from bondage while remaining trapped by the possibility of betrayal, as in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), reiterated African American themes dating back to the days of chattel slavery. Nobility was inverted from the old days, too, with black heroines and heroes leading the way to freedom and truth and white masters crippled by racism and their own past. In serious literary representations anyway, chattel slavery had been turned upside down."

THE COMPANION is the kind of book one can dip into in random fashion
and still enjoy. I went right to the section on Tennessee Williams, learning from Robert Bray that "as a dramatist, Williams's immortality rests firmly on his exquisite grasp of language and cadence. Although one should probably resist this classification, Eugene O'Neill is remembered as the dramatist of the soul, Arthur Miller of the head--and Williams of the heart. Wordsowrth's definition of poetry as 'the imaginativce expression of strong feelings' is precisely the impression that theatregoers take with them as they leave the aisles after a Williams play, departing with the knowledge that they have been made privileged to secrets of the heart, however painful those interior
glimpses may be."

Next I peeked in on The Blues section. ""Because blues music is part of the African American vernacular tradition, its influence can be seen in the literary works of writersa who emulate African American oral expression, such as Richard Wright, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Sterlking A. Brown, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston....More often the blues is manifested in southern literature through use of the blues aesthetic. The blues as a set of uniquely American aesthetic principles and values was formedmulated and articulated by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Ellison's description of the blues in 'Richard Wright's Blues' has been cited in numerous critical readings as perhaps the definitive statement on the blues;
Ellison claims that the blues 'fingers the jagged grain' of a painful experience in order to transcend it through an artistic expression that is both tragic and comic."