Rhett Butler on the Couch

The Southern Renaissance: A Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955 By Richard H. King Oxford University Press, $15.95

PSYCHOHISTORIANS HAVE YET to earn respect from academic quarters. Their attempts to attribute historical catastrophes to the toilet-training mishaps of world leaders neither convinces nor satisfies. Bruce Mazlich's analysis of little Dick Nixon's fecal obsessions and revealing crayon drawings in Search of Nixonsickly fascinates most of us voyeurs, as does Walter C. Langer's secret wartime report on Hitler (eventually published as The Mind of Adolf Hitler) which heaps much blame on mummy for six million deaths. But childhood curiosity sketches, in the end, serve no greater historical purpose; Mazlich does not explain Watergate, Langer predicts Hitler's suicide but not Germany's.

Richard H. King's A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955, levels psychoanalysis at new territory. Armed with his limited supply of Freudian buzzwords, King heaves his therapy-grenades at the stereotypified mind of the South. When the smoke clears, neither the South nor the onlookers are better for King's onslaught.

King recognizes three stages of "historical consciousness"--a term poorly defined by him and most others who overuse it--in the Southern Renaissance, an intellectual outburst after World War I that includes William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Thomas Wolfe, Lillian Smith, W.J. Cash, C. Vann Woodward, and Robert Penn Warren. King observes that these three historical stages leading up to the Southern Renaissance--repitition, recollection, reassimilation--parallel exactly the process of psychoanalysis. The writer and historians of this era, climaxing in Woodward, struggled to reassess the Southern burden, the Gone With the Wind fantasy of hoopskirts and grace, the centerpiece of the Southern family romance. In a few cases--Woodward is one--King compliments these intellectuals for accomplishing his vaguely defined goal of transcendence.

IN MOST INSTANCES, though, King arrives at the not-so-surprising conclusion that few authors can untangle themselves from the bewildering signals of a misunderstood past. Psychoanalysis occasionally helps individual patients but offers small counsel to an emotionally troubled culture. King concludes, rightly, that even Faulkner's "transcendent" achievement in his much admired short story "The Bear" leads nowhere. Isaac, the fatherless heir, who analyzes his past by plodding through his grandfather's ledgers and talking it out--shrink/client style--with his uncle, recollects his past and so avoids repeating its mistakes. He renounces his slave and plantation holdings and becomes, with Faulkner's sledgehammer Christian symbolist touches, a carpenter. But Isaac is childless and lacks collective vision anyway, as King observes, "to become the founder himself and to pass on this moral (or aesthetic) vision to anyone else."

When King is busy explicating text, as he does in his chapter on "The Bear," or reviewing the main themes of Southern Renaissance authors or historians, his observations are mostly on target, some quite perceptive. But his perceptions often are not his own. His examination of The Sound and The Fury relies heavily, as he admits, on Faulkner critic John Irwin's thesis of repetition in Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge. His discussions of the intellectuals themselves amounts to no more than a rehash of other authors' already well-articulated opinions.

When King does attempt his own thesis, applying not only Freud, but Hegel, Weber, Neitzshe, Levi-Strauss, and Marx to the Southern burden, his grandiose designs appear pretentious at best, silly at worst. Almost randomly, King inserts short paragraphs alluding to Levi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship to back up his thesis on incest as repetition. King is not afraid, unfortunately, to make sweeping one-line statements about Freud's memory theories or characterize, without explaining, Cash as the "Weberian ideal type." King incessantly refers to these sociological and psychological giants with college freshman zeal: proud of his discovery that Freud applies to everything, King vows to include a key passage in every chapter. This irritating intention begins in the introductory chapter, where King announces self-importantly his summation:

Put succintly, I see in this period an emerging self-consciousness in Southern culture, a quasi-Hegelian process as it were.

THE MOST PREVELENT self-consciousness is King's own. He word-drops and name-drops, carrying on about "the fundamental valorization of difference and hierarchy" or "the exogamous injunction" of incest. If anything is new about King's book, it's his word choice, not his ideas. He hails the Renaissance writers for trying to "demystify" their heritage, then clouds the issues himself with his convoluted vocabulary.

Finally, like many others before him, King declines to deal with Black and women Renaissance writers (excepting Lillian Smith) because "they were not concerned primarily with the larger, cultural, racial and political themes that I take as my focus." His attitude is chillingly condescending. By choosing to contemplate solely the father-son tradition in Southern psychology rather than the equally rich area of Black-white and mother-daughter relationships, King selects a narrow perspective sadly similar to his predecessors'. Repetition, not recollection, is King's game.