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Book Review – The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, William Ferris

[By Jerry Ward, Jr.]
Ferris, William. The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.  $ 35.00 
ISBN  978-1-4696-0754-2
Fred Hobson suggested in Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (1983) that Southerners have, or may be possessed by, a
compulsion to explain, to apologize for, to defend, or to celebrate the history
of a region which non-Southerners “have long been fascinated with…as
spectacle, as land of extremes in the most innocent part of America in one
respect and the guiltiest in another….”(9).  Hobson’s speculation cuts both ways.  While many Southerners do have a gift for
drawling in ways that fascinate, a significant number of them can be as
taciturn as stereotyped New Englanders. 
Hobson’s hyperbole confirmed the very oddity he intended to place in an
objective perspective regarding habits. 
He exercised due diligence in borrowing his main title from William
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as he explored selected works by people who were
neither novelists nor scholars.  He also
used predictable Southern diligence in excluding black writers  (notably Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison) on
the grounds that “it would be impossible to do them justice” (13) in
the scope of his study.  Thus, Hobson
self-fashioned himself as a quintessential Southern apologist.
Thirty-three years later, it is instructive to contrast Tell About the South with William Ferris’s The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists (2013),
which incorporates self-fashioning with minimal apology.  Ferris acknowledges that Hobson and many
other of his University of North Carolina colleagues gave him encouragement in
every step of writing this book, a worthy companion to his earlier Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009).  One might argue that Hobson’s work was a
prelude to Ferris’s explaining increasingly complex functions of narrative in
the South.  Less an overt apologist than
Hobson, Ferris tells us about his own “intellectual and artistic growth
through friendships with” seven writers, five scholars, two musicians,
three photographers, and nine painters.  Ferris relies primarily on interviews
to create a species of oral history.  The absence of question and answer
markers, however, foregrounds shared
authority in the making of historical explanation.  By exercising his autobiographical voice in
prefaces for the stories the writers and artists tell, Ferris demonstrates that
subjective artistry can enliven scholarship which focuses on difference in a
region of the United States.


To be
sure, his method of presentation enables selected voices to expose or to
demythologize  problems of credibility
that arise in contemporary studies of geographical regions.  By virtue of its celebratory, non-defensive aura, The
Storied South
 alerts readers to aspects
of a story always untold in interdisciplinary investigations of Southern
cultures.  In that sense, the book has an inevitable relationship to a provocative
series of manifestos about the future of Southern Studies in PMLA 131.1
(2016).  That relationship is defined, in
part, by Ferris’s rationale and folkloric methodological choices, items crucial
for understanding the rewards of Southern storytelling.  This book is a remarkable self-portrait of
Ferris as a white, male scholar who is a native son of Mississippi, a former
chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joel R.
Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the
Center for the Study of the American South at the University of NorthCarolina-Chapel Hill.  It is
simultaneously a documentation of how twentieth-century Southern writers,
musicians, photographers, scholars, and painters “created a body of work
that defined both their regions and their nation” (2).  Ferris’s manipulation of interviews exposes
how oral traditions give compelling forms to “the contested memory of
black and white southerners who offer opposing views of the region’s history”
(3).
The
adequacy of this kind of binary narration (spinning of tales) and history-making is itself contestable and
open to passionate, rigorous scrutiny by a new generation of scholars who
embrace motives and values quite unlike those espoused by Hobson and
Ferris.  Younger scholars may believe, as Jay Watson does, that “we need the combined conceptual resources of
southern and environmental studies to unpack the thick layers of meaning that
accrue when southerners write ecologically and environmental thinkers write
about the South” (PMLA 131.1: 159). 
Just as Ferris refines Hobson’s penchant for the rage to tell, recent
developments in southern studies help us to identify the charming limitations
of Ferris’s traditional approach to the implications of story without
diminishing the considerable value of how Ferris seeks to recuperate time past
and to display it to its best advantage. 
His intervention is a Faulknerian reminder that some Southern
imperatives defy being wished into oblivion.  They haunt the South and our
entire nation; if they cannot be resolved, they can be addressed in ways that
serve the commonweal.  Indeed, the rage
of younger scholars to theorize the multiple facets of the South, to tell a new
story, only amplifies the humanistic civility of Ferris’s work.
As an
esteemed scholar of all things Southern, Ferris is keenly aware that the
spatial and temporal dimensions of a Southern story must assume combative
configurations in the Zeitgeist of now. 
Our history-laden ideas about Old
South and New South cultures are being
rapidly relocated in scholarship by new fields of interpretation which draw
attention to the dramatic clashes of
remembering and forgetting the centrality of story.  Meaning and significance are recast in
discussions of the global South; the deep, down, and dirty South; the South as
a racially and ecologically challenged locus of cognition and imagination.  The voices of the South retrofit themselves
in concert with revisionist historiographies, emerging digital humanities and
revitalized empiricism.  Thus, Ferris
wisely includes a generous and timely selected bibliography, discography, and
filmography in The Storied South and appends CD (interview sound recordings)
and DVD (archival films) companion discs as special resources or paratextual
supplements.

From the vantage of a probable future, The Storied South is
an excellent, authoritative record of how William Ferris at once mediates
and meditates on Southern
exceptionalism.  It is a valuable
foundational text for American and international scholars who are existentially
obligated to tell explanatory stories which supersede regional
boundedness.  If their stories prove to
be as principled and good as the one Ferris tells, we shall indeed be fortunate
and better prepared to avoid delusions that disguise themselves as
contributions to knowledge.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of English at Dillard University, Honorary Professor at Central China Normal University, and HBW Board Member (Emeritus).