Copenhagen as part of US southern literature – University of Copenhagen

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04 September 2018

Copenhagen as part of US southern literature

Literary Studies

US Southern literature? Isn’t that something to do with Huck Finn, rocking chairs on the porch, mint juleps and evil plantation owners? Not necessarily. Literary scholar Martyn Bone from the University of Copenhagen redefines the genre in a new book that traces literary routes to Denmark.

Southern literature has a special place in the American literary tradition. It appears on most reading lists in English or American literary studies, in US universities as well as across the rest of the world. Southern literature is defined traditionally as writing that takes place within the US South and/or is written by (white) writers from the region; according to the critical tradition, its usual subjects include race, religion, class, the meaning of family and community, and regional history.

- During the last 15-20 years, there’s been a distinct break from these established understandings of southern literature. Researchers associated with the ‘New Southern Studies’ have taken revisionist approaches that also go beyond a narrow focus on the geographical South itself, explains Martyn Bone, associate professor of American literature at the University of Copenhagen and a specialist in US southern and African American writing. He has recently published a book, Where the New World Is: Literature about the US South at Global Scales (University of Georgia Press), in which he challenges and expands upon the usual categories of US southern literature.

From the established canon to contemporary relevance

- In the book I try to situate US southern literature in broader, transnational contexts, and to look beyond the familiar regional canon that revolves around figures like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. For that reason, I focus on texts that are written by authors who were not themselves born in the South, or that take place only partly in the region. I believe that allows different approaches to thinking about ‘southern literature’, explains Martyn Bone.

- I’d insist too that in order to understand the US today, one must examine what happens – and has happened – in the US South. Problems with issues like racism and immigration in the United States now often eerily recall earlier ‘southern’ conflicts over slavery, segregation, and xenophobia. One could say that in the book I use the U.S. South as a case study to consider broader issues in the US over the last eighty years or so – not least as they also involve today’s globalized world.

Echoes of slavery

Bone’s book pays particular attention to the significant rise in immigration since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which transformed the US generally and the US South in particular. Can one continue to talk about a distinctive US southern literary canon when the region is being reshaped and influenced by all that is happening not only nationally but also globally, and when its population is being transformed by immigration from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia?

Martyn Bone at a book talk at The University of Alabama in March 2018.
Photo: Linnéa Havsfjord Lindgren


- The South is being reshaped so much by immigration and related issues that I don’t think one can continue to talk complacently about a distinctive regional literature. ‘Southern literature’ – or as I rephrase it in my book’s subtitle, ‘literature about the US South’—is also about Vietnam, the Caribbean, Australia, California, and even Denmark. One of my former colleagues at the University of Mississippi, Leigh Anne Duck, has coined the phrase ‘Southern studies without ”the South”’ as a way to signal the imperative for scholars to move beyond clichéd ideas of the region.

Martyn Bone’s work also tries to challenge traditional or stereotypical associations of southern literature as old-fashioned and bound up with tradition:

- In academia and especially in American Studies, literature about the US South has for many years not been seen as especially fashionable or ‘sexy.’ Yet this literature is overflowing with important, interesting, and relevant subjects such as immigration, globalization, and racism. In contemporary writing about the South, we see not only the familiar Jim Crow racism that we think we know, but also the forms of discrimination and prejudice experienced by, for example, Asian immigrants. This includes encounters and tensions between immigrants and the traditional victims of racism, African Americans. That the novels I discuss in my book take place only partly in the US South, and that they also encompass other countries and states within the US, is central to challenging tired assumptions that ‘southern literature’ is regional and backward looking. Of course, there still exist powerful books that take place in rural Mississippi (though even they now often feature African or Asian immigrants!). But the novels that I’m most interested in show how our established understandings of the South and its literature shift once we analyze how such novels themselves shift scales between the regional, national, and global.

Challenging the southern myth

In Where the New World Is, Martyn Bone writes about the ways in which immigration to the US South has changed over the last two hundred years, and focuses on a range of novels published since the 1920s by mostly non-southern authors, and which take place both within and beyond the South. Such novels challenge the conventional idea of the US South as a place that was and remains untouched by migration and globalization.

- The novels I consider cover a period of about eighty years since The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. They include books by significant figures including Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Russell Banks, as well as lesser known writers like John Oliver Killens and Erna Brodber. They are all authors, however, who have written about race, migration, globalization, and immigration; they have all located the US South in larger national and transnational networks. It is true that, until fairly recently, there was little voluntary immigration to the US South, because few immigrants wanted to move to a region defined by slavery, segregation, and poverty. However, since 1965, immigration patterns have changed significantly; hence I also consider writers like Monique Truong, Lan Cao, and Ha Jin who write about Asian American immigration to the U.S. South from Vietnam and China.

The Danish connection

One of the chapters in Where the New World Is concentrates on Nella Larsen, nowadays regarded as one of the central figures in The Harlem Renaissance. Larsen was the daughter of a white Danish immigrant mother and a black man from the Danish West Indies; she was born and lived mostly in the United States. Larsen was not a native southerner, but she studied and worked in the South, and her novel Quicksand (1928) begins and ends in the region. However – and this is significant – Quicksand also takes place in Chicago, New York, and Copenhagen, where the protagonist Helga Crane lives for a period—much like Larsen herself did.

- Wherever Helga finds herself, she experiences racism. When I first read Quicksand fifteen years ago, after taking a job at the University of Copenhagen, I began to think about the ways in which the novel destabilized definitions of southern literature – and, for that matter, Danish literature, declares Martyn Bone.