Orality and southern literature
Morton, Clay Allen
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For most if not all of its history, the South has been marked by a high degree of oral residue that has distinguished it from the rest of the United States. This study explores the influence of residual orality on Southern literature. The first chapter provides the historical background necessary to gauge the South’s resistance to the transformative powers of typographic literacy. Education, reading habits, publishing, and the literary life are discussed. Chapter Two synthesizes research on oral language with stylistic analyses of Southern literary works, specifically James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones (1927) and Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart (1954), in order to illustrate the oral bent of Southern writing. Next, two well-known short stories, William Gilmore Simms’s “Sharp Snaffles” (1870) and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930) are shown to be characterized by the strategies of folk narrative. While “Sharp Snaffles” corresponds to a well-documented and ancient oral narrative pattern, “A Rose for Emily” is an essentially typographic work that is organized according to an oral storytelling structure. Finally, the characteristically oral modes of thought and expression cataloged by Walter J. Ong are compared to certain well-known theories of Southern exceptionalism, especially those outlined in the Southern Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930) and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934). These oral Southern epistemologies are shown to be significant to Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and to the poetry of Donald Davidson. These discussions provide not only a new theory of Southern exceptionalism, but also a new theoretical framework for reading Southern texts.