“One night,” said Uncle Remus—taking Miss Sally’s little boy on his knee, and stroking the child’s hair thoughtfully and caressingly—”one night Brer Possum call by fer Brer Coon, cordin ter greement, an atter gobblin up a dish er fried greens en smokin’ a seegyar, dey rambled fort fer ter see how de balance er de settlement wuz gittin’ long.”
So begins Joel Chandler Harris‘ Uncle Remus tale, “Why Mr. Possum Loves Peace.” Cleanth Brooks does not quote this particular passage in The Language of the American South, but he does quote frequently from Harris in order to establish the roots of the Coastal Southern dialect in the spoken language of the southern counties of England. And he might well have quoted the above passage, for it reveals as well a11 sorts of communally shared habits of behavior and social formalities that support Brooks’s twin theses: that the “soul of a people is embodied in the language peculiar to them,” and that “the richness of the Southern language” was a p(iceless resource for the region’s writers.
Brooks still has the capacity to surprise and delight. The doyen of the New Criticism and one who has been called “our best reader,” he has now turned his talents—as an “enthusiastic amateur”—to the relationship be tween linguistic study and literary criticism. The Language of the American South is a slight volume drawn from Brooks’s 1984 contribution as the 28th speaker in the successful Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures, de voted to aspects of Southern culture. It can be read as a sequel to a more technical linguistic study Brooks published over 50 years ago, in 1935, The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain, an outgrowth, I believe, of his early study as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Writing with grace and a winning geniality, he throws surprising light on language mores and the literature which reflects them.
No thoughtful critic has denied that both the literature and The Language of the American South have their distinctive characteristics. After using the opening lecture to establish his territory, Brooks turns in the second and third lectures to the great Southern writers of our century and how they use language as a mirror of the stresses and strains the changing South of the period has faced. The verse of John Crowe Ransom, the poetry and prose of Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, the fiction of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Walker Percy, and Eudora Welty take on new dimensions in Brooks’s study of their language and its relationships to the society it both nourishes and draws from. A Faulkner story, for in stance, uses dialect to transport through the ages the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to modern black Mississippi-“prettify it and formalize it,” writes Brooks, “and the magical reality is lost”—while Taylor’s “Miss Leonora When Last Seen” uses the formalities and facades of Southern manners and speech to create “a kind of parable of the ways in which a New South, with quite mixed emotions, bids farewell to an older South.” And so on.
At one point, Brooks pauses to pose a question:
Is it possible to make a sharp distinction between the content and the form, between the personality … and the language he uses? Are not our attitudes toward people and events in great part shaped by the very language in which we describe them? When we Uy to describe one person to another or to a group, what do we say? Not usually how or what the person ate, rarely what he wore, only occasionally how he managed his job-no, what we tell is what he said and, if we are good mimics, how he said it. We apparently consider a person’s spoken words the true essence of his being.
Or, as Brer Fox might have thought when he allows Brer Rabbit to escape through the “brier-patch” in Harris’ “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” “What you hear may be more than meets the eye.”
[The Language of the American South, by Cleanth Brooks (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press) $9.95]