Southern Lit 8: “Apocalypse South”
From time to time, I browse Callaloo‘s list of books that need to be reviewed to see if any look interesting, and last fall, I noticed Apocalypse South: Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance in the Regional Imaginary by Anthony Dyer Hoefer. Even though the title was imposing, and even though it was published in 2012, I requested it anyway, read it and wrote a review, but wasn’t surprised when the review was declined. It would be a little odd, after all, for a journal like Callaloo to publish a review five years after a book’s release date . . .
In Apocalypse South, Hoefer, who is an Assistant Dean at George Mason, offers a heavily academic tract on the juxtapositions of Southern religious and societal ideals as seen through the lens of four distinctly varied Southern fiction writers: William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Randall Kenan, and Dorothy Allison. Bringing together disparate texts that span the middle and late twentieth century using the intricate concept of the “apocalyptic imaginary,” Hoefer argues that we should see these writers’ narratives as examples that point to and challenge a “bivalent” world view that has and still does dominate Southern life.
Apocalypse South opens its discussion with a side-by-side analysis of the lyrics to the 1936 Carter Family song, “No Depression (In Heaven)” and a selection from a 1963 George Wallace speech that warned against race-mixing. Using these messages, Hoefer introduces the presence of the “southern apocalyptic imaginary,” which “maps the apocalyptic possibilities of cataclysm, judgment, deliverance, and even revolution on the landscape of the region.” In both this world and the next, the lines have been drawn – between good and evil, between white and black, between corrupt and pure, between saved and damned – and they are not to be crossed. And if they are, dire consequences are certain to follow.
Hoefer then begins his main argument by examining these ideas in William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August. The emphasis here is on the characters of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas, both of whom embody a violation of Southern evangelical taboos: premarital sex and race-mixing. Lena Grove is pregnant, unmarried, and walking into Mississippi from Alabama to find the man who impregnated then abandoned her. Yet, more significantly, it is the biracial Joe Christmas whose very existence is a violation of the color line; readers watch him grow from an isolated, abused child into a bitter outsider whose turbulent sexual affair with a white woman, Joanna Burden, creates the conditions for him to be lynched. According to Hoefer, for the mob in Jefferson that lynches Joe Christmas, the “ability to recognize these threats (that is, to identify and name evil) is interpreted as a sign of one’s holiness (that is, his or her exceptional status among the Elect or Chosen).” He also emphasizes the communal need to remove the threat of race-mixing through blood ritual: “Within the logic of segregation, pollution and contamination are not synonymous with blackness, but with ambiguity and miscegenation.” It is not the individual African American per se that these violent Southern evangelical whites fear, but the notion that African-American people might mix with them freely in a way that blurs the lines and disallows a defined either-or. Thus, for the whites, the lynching answers “taboo” with a “sacrifice” to avoid “apocalypse.”
Following that chapter, the argument continues with Richard Wright’s 1938 story collection Uncle Tom’s Children. Beginning this time with the lyrics to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” the critical inquiry contends with themes related to history and time in Wright’s stories, which commingle his Marxist ideals with his Southern evangelical upbringing. Wright, asserts Hoefer, did not view life in typical terms for an African American in the South. Rather than waiting on “the possibility of a rupture, of a radical break and a totalizing apocalyptic reordering or an oppressive social order,” Richard Wright’s stories show that, for a people whose lives are stagnated outside of time, taking action is a better option than waiting on Judgment Day. Hoefer comments on “the black subject’s alienation from history” and even shares with us that “[m]any Wright scholars have contended that his work fails to recognize the possibilities of black religion.” Thus, the violent episodes in Wright’s fiction are “terrifying experiences that might awaken African Americans to the necessity of active resistance,” and offer “the possibility of ruptures in time and of insights that should provoke action.” Putting Faulkner together with Wright in this first section, Hoefer compares biracial Joe Christmas’ hopeless fate as a lynching victim to Wright’s insistence that action is a viable source of hope in a black struggle against an oppressive “bivalent” social order. And it is “southern apocalyptic imaginary” that creates the conditions for both situations.
Part two of Apocalypse South jumps from the Great Depression to the late twentieth century, first with Randall Kenan then with Dorothy Allison. But before proceeding with these more recent authors, Hoefer offers some lines from the James Weldon Johnson poem “The Judgment Day” then this brief reiteration, which seems meant to keep his reader on track:
Throughout this book, I have argued that expressions of a southern “sense of place,” aiming for something just short of prophesy [sic], are inextricably bound up with the apocalyptic worldview offered by southern religion. [ . . . ] In other words, the South, in its most frequent manifestations, is brought to life out of the fear of its own inevitable disappearance. This brand of Apocalypse promises both the End of Time and the End of this World; as the events of history finally play themselves out, the geographies in which they take place are ultimately used up.
With that, he takes on the difficult themes in Kenan’s 1989 novel A Visitation of Spirits and in his 1992 short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories. Here, Hoefer adds another ingredient – homosexuality – to the already-complex concepts of “collective identity and mutual obligation” (105) into Southern racial and religious conundrums.
In the novel, the predominantly African-American community of Tims Creek, North Carolina deals with the suicide of Horace Cross, a gay sixteen-year-old. Hoefer explains,
Horace’s trials and ultimate death disrupt the romantic, idealizing veil of grief, reveal the original sins that have doomed the community, and expose the horrific consequences that will follow the continuing refusal to tell that history. The southern apocalyptic imaginary provides Kenan with the narrative and discursive space adequate for experiences that disrupt the bivalent, heteronormative ways of speaking that dominate his community.
In this chapter, the recurring themes of “pollution” and “uncleanness” present a quandary different in substance than Joe Christmas’ life as a biracial man in Mississippi. In this story, a rural black community steeped in long-standing traditions, like hog-killing as a rite of passage, must deal with its own decline. Their struggles against white oppression and their subsequent pride in earned self-determination, Hoefer writes, create the circumstances for their own isolation. As a gay black man in this community, there is nowhere for Horace Cross to turn, and “the possibility that Horace might simply leave Tims Creek is never mentioned.” Thus, “Kenan creates a space for meaningful discussion of the possibility of difference within the community,” a kind of tolerance that is not the norm in Southern culture.
Moving on to Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina, also from 1992, moves the discussion of difference from a gay black teenager to a “white trash lesbian” (131) who is abused by her stepfather. About these two characters’ predicaments, Hoefer writes that
the southern apocalyptic imaginary has been harnessed to often contradictory ends: just as it is used to regulate moments of undifferentiation and hybridity that contradict the dominant discourses of race and power in southern places and spaces, its historical vision nonetheless offers hope to repressed communities when it is needed. [ . . . ] Apocalypse signals the presence of concealed or displaced meaning [as well as] the presence of a voice that has been silenced or a history that has been expunged, and, thus, a site to be excavated.
In short, Allison’s narrative about a poor, white lesbian who suffers abuse “exposes the oppressive consequences of southern cultural practices.” For example, where black people in Tims Creek lament the decline (and possible loss) of their identity, Bone’s family, the Boatwrights, seem pleased with the burning of the courthouse that contains information about their past, according to Hoefer. Yet, unlike Horace Cross who sees no way out, Bone is “thrilled by the possibility of deliverance and salvation.” Her voice must be heard.
Apocalypse South closes out with a “Redux” that focuses on Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an event that some Southern evangelicals claimed was God’s wrath for rampant sin in the city. Surveying the tragedy through coverage in the Times-Picayune and through John Biguenet’s play Rising Water, Hoefer sees many of the same themes he lists in his subtitle: “Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance.” Ending as he began, with song lyrics, the words to “When the Saints Go Marching In” reinforce his point: “Some say this world of trouble. / Is the only one we need, / But I’m waiting for that morning, / when the new world is revealed.” Though the time setting of Faulkner and Wright’s novels – the Great Depression – may be seven decades in the past, we are not necessarily through, in the South, trying to determine where the lines are drawn.
The dilemmas explored in Apocalypse South are not new — interpreting the discord in and oppression within Southern culture caused by irreconcilable views on race, religion, difference, and tolerance — but Anthony Dyer Hoefer still presents compelling ideas to consider. His densely packed assertions weave tightly around each other as they thread through these stories and the history and ideals that underpin them. The main problem is: the book is exceptionally difficult to read. Navigating this work that is chock-full of academic language and the interconnection of complex ideas is certainly possible (with an appropriate level of education), but it is also very time-consuming— sometimes frustratingly so.
Yet, its difficult style aside, Apocalypse South articulates a strong argument for its viewpoint on the inherent difficulties (and hypocrisy) in a multicultural South. There has historically been little tolerance of lives and viewpoints that defy the rigid status quo, and Hoefer offers one possibility for answering the unanswerable question: why did/does it have to be that way? Because of a widespread irrational fear of all hell breaking loose in this world and of God damning sinners in the next. For many Southerners of an conservative ilk, the path is clear when one must choose between being castigated by a politically correct culture or risking eternal damnation by an angry God. The question that arises, which Hoefer also addresses, is: what do you think God’s reaction to violent intolerance will be? America may currently be in a culture war that pits conservative against liberal, but in the South, there is another culture war that is much older: one that pits Old Testament against New Testament, which begs the question: are we to heed the Father’s harsh lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah where sinners were wiped off the Earth, or are we to yield to the words of the Son who admonished us to love each other without judgment?