Paulliver (paulliver) wrote in bookish,

“Circling Dixie” by Helen Taylor

Reading a history book about America by a British Literature Professor is a strange experience. In the first chapter I felt like I was reading a review of stuff I already knew, until she smacked me in the face with the statistic that 75% of white Southerners at the opening of the Civil War were of Celtic descent (Irish, Welsh, Scots) not English descent like the Northerners. As she wrote about the cultural ramifications, I found myself wondering how much of the North-South cultural divide is a rehash of the English-Celtic cultural divide.

Then, as would make sense from a literature professor, her chapters revolve around literary phenomena. She writes about the British reaction to “Gone with the Wind,” including quite a lot about the publishing difficulties of writing modern sequels. Mitchell’s brother had defended his late sister’s request that no sequel be written, but after he died, his family not only sold out, but then placed so many restrictions on the sequel that the author had to move Scarlett to Ireland to avoid American racial issues. The critical retort was so harsh that the family then hired a literary writer to write book three, but were so horrified by the author returning Scarlett to America to deal with the ramifications of Book One that apparently the manuscript is in a vault someplace. The details of the publishing journey reinforced every negative stereotype you can imagine about corporate publishing.

After that, she had chapters about Alex Haley, New Orleans, Tennessee Williams, and Maya Angelou. The book was published before Hurricane Katerina, but she wrote so lovingly of the jazz scene I imagine the author was heartbroken when it hit New Orleans. Much of that chapter was actually about Anne Rice, who wrote both vampire and erotic novels and thus practically invented paranormal romance. New Orleans was a great inspiration to her work, both the erotic and tragic elements, and for most of her career she returned the favor, allowing her public persona to draw her fans to New Orleans as tourists.

Her chapter about Alex Haley taught me a lot about the context and controversy about “Roots,” some of which makes me glad I was too resistant to advertising campaigns to get caught up in the swirl. Her chapter on Williams has finally convinced me to read his plays, but the chapter on Angelou was more of a short biography as related to her books. Angelou’s travels to Europe and Africa would make her books interesting reading, as long as one accepted them in the literary tradition of what we now call creative nonfiction instead of one or the other. It rather surprises me how many classic novels are really thinly disguised autobiography, especially when I was writing a lecture for my students on Jewish-American literature. I have trouble imagining finding a kernel of my life that would be interesting to write about it, and if I did figure out what pain caused the defeats and triumphs of my life, I have trouble imagining telling the entire world something that belongs in the confidence of a priest or therapist.
Tags: subject: art, subject: history

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