BAAS 2023 Panel Review: 7C – Making Sense of the South
Of all the regions in the United States, perhaps none has captured the critical imagination as lastingly and powerfully as the American South. This came through at BAAS 2023, with three different sessions addressing the region at this year’s conference. The final of these South-oriented panels, Panel 7C – ‘Making Sense of the South’, demonstrated the breadth of thought-provoking research emerging from this fascinating region.
Chaired by Kate Ballantyne, a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, the panel crossed disciplines, ranging from literary studies to linguistics, anthropology, and film studies. Siân Round, a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, began the panel with a compelling look into her overall doctoral project on the ‘little magazine’—small, noncommercial literary magazines that operated outside of the traditional structures of commercial publishing—in the South between 1921 and 1945, a period known as the Southern Renaissance. In this paper, Round presented a case study focused on Lillian Smith’s novel Strange Fruit, which became a controversial national sensation when published in 1944. Smith herself responded to the mercurial reception of the text by publishing letters that she received from readers in South Today, the little magazine she edited alongside her partner, Paula Snelling. Through her choice of which letters to publish, Round argued that Smith was presenting an ideal reader for both her novel specifically and for the South in general. Then, presenting her own interpretation of the text, Round capped off her analysis of Strange Fruit with a reading of the weaving imagery that Smith uses to describe the Southern landscape and its residents’ relationship to it.
Turning to a more linguistic and anthropological view of the South, Lola Boorman, a Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of York, continued the panel with a presentation on Zora Neale Hurston’s shifting understanding of Southern culture. Hurston studied anthropology as an undergraduate and graduate student at Barnard College under the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, focusing her research on Southern culture and folklore. But Boorman argued that despite this formal education, Hurston soon shifted from an anthropological view of the South towards a more literary and social understanding of the region and its language. Over the rest of the paper, Boorman demonstrated what she argued was Hurston’s evolving understanding of Southern culture through a comparative reading of the language Hurston attributes to the Southern and Caribbean speakers in Mules and Men (1934)—a collection of folklore Hurston gathered during trips to New Orleans, Louisiana and her hometown of Eatonville, Florida—and in Tell My Horse (1938), an account of Hurston’s experiences with voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica.
The final presentation dealt with the most contemporary material, as Megan Hunt, a Teaching Fellow in American History at the University of Edinburgh, gave a close reading of the 1991 Martin Scorsese film Cape Fear. Through archival research into the papers of Robert De Niro at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Hunt retraced the extensive field research that went into the representation of the film’s antagonist, Max Cady, played by De Niro. The film takes place in North Carolina and commences as Cady, a homicidal criminal, is released from prison, commencing a violent campaign to seek revenge on the lawyer Sam Bowden (played by Nick Nolte), whom Cady considers responsible for his conviction. In analyzing the portrayal of the South in the movie, Hunt drew particular attention to the decision to represent Cady as an evangelical Christian, a choice which diverged from the source material, John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners, and the first Cape Fear film, which was released in 1962 and stars Gregory Peck as a very different version of Cady. She particularly focused on the complex context surrounding evangelical Christianity and its perception in the United States in the period leading up to the release of this film, which was marked by the public disgrace of prominent evangelical—and often Southern—preachers. Despite the depth of thought that went into constructing Cady’s character, however, Hunt drew attention to the pitfalls sometimes associated with ethnographic fieldwork, quoting one researcher who complained that it was difficult going into research ‘cold’—without an insider to guide the way and open up conversations with native Southerners. She ultimately concluded that despite the research dedicated to creating an authentic character, De Niro’s Cady remained only a crude representation of a Southerner.
Little time remained for questions after the presentations, but one audience member made the most of the limited time by tying all three papers together with a question about the role of ethnographic research in determining the American South. Boorman’s and Hunt’s papers in particular presented a comparison between the levels of access granted to cultural insiders and outsiders in the South: Boorman drew attention to Hurston’s status as a Florida native, which allowed her access to the folklore recorded in Mules and Men, and Hunt’s paper highlighted the challenges inherent in gaining that same type of access, and therefore in creating a realistic representation of the region, as a non-native. In their own papers, however, all three presenters proved that their physical distance from the region was no hindrance to producing persuasive research. All three presented compelling looks into Southern culture and how it was represented during the twentieth century, demonstrating just how much there is to uncover about this multifaceted region.