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But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative. (Book Reviews).

But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative, by Fred Hobson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. xvi, 160 pp. $30.00 cloth. $14.95 paper.

EVER SINCE HIS INFLUENTIAL Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain, Fred Hobson has sought to explain the South. In his latest book--But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative--Hobson's focus narrows considerably. This time he has found his explanatory genre for attending to the pressure exerted by race upon Southern white consciousness. That genre is the Puritan conversion narrative, and it does a remarkable job in gathering together a wide range of narratives, even if (as I shall argue) it has increasing trouble explaining them.

Hobson concedes, at the outset, that this seventeenth-century Puritan genre is anachronistic for twentieth-century writings, and that he can use it only by recasting some of its primary terms. The drama he seeks to illuminate is secular, not religious, and its core term is race, not the soul. Thus Hobson describes, not the vertical religious experience of Puritan soul-conversion, but rather the drama that occurs when a group of writers "embraced a horizontal religion which held that getting right with man was at least as important as getting right with God" (p. 2). As he says, these two dramas are often hard to separate, especially in the white South of fifty or seventy-five years ago, yet there remain significant differences between them that Hobson might have analyzed further. One seems to me especially telling: the question of whose sin is at issue.

Puritan conversion narrative centers inflexibly on the sinfulness of the speaker--a sinfulness that would be annihilating were it not for God's grace. Thanks to receiving that radically unearned gift--a reception declared by means of the narrative itself--the redeemed man seeks (re)entry into the community of the elect through his conversion-claim. But racial conversion narrative may involve one's own sinfulness only tangentially: "the sins repented of are more `social' than personal ... acknowledged and confessed not only for oneself but for one's family, one's community, and one's homeland" (p. 4). This difference has far-reaching consequences. At the limit a narrative focused more on the sins of others than on one's own may resemble jeremiad as much as confession. The self-humiliation that attaches to confessional narrative may turn into the self-righteousness that attaches to critique of others. More, the very confession of one's conversion (as Foucauh and Bakhtin have shown) enacts an intrinsically noninnocent genre; even the most lacerating of self-critiques may harbor the snake of ego. When does the proclamation of a transparent and humbled heart serve to screen a self-serving performance? How can pure confession--the revelation of a cleansed and guileless heart--find its way unimpeded into language anyway? (Heinrich Heine claims, apropos, that "[t]he composition of one's own character description would be... quite simply impossible. ... However strong his wish to be sincere, no man is capable of telling the truth about himself." In entering language and targeting an audience, self-confession unavoidably turns strategic.) As I hope is becoming evident, we are dealing with a very American story.

The literary model Hobson prizes above all others for his analysis is Mark Twain's Huck Finn--that is, the Huck Finn of "deformed conscience and sound heart" (in Henry Nash Smith's phrase, repeated and endorsed by Hobson). On this model, a couple of assumptions slide surreptitiously into the discussion: one, that the heart is one's own and a locus of uncontaminated feeling, while the conscience is society's and full of meretricious ideas; and two, that lower class may well be sounder than middle or upper class and that the use of vernacular may serve as a reliable guide to this soundness. Hobson sees The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the "first and most eloquent of white racial conversion narratives," and "[m]any of the writers I will treat experience precisely Huck's conflict between `heart' and `conscience'" (p. 6). Hobson's allegiance to Huck rather than to Twain keeps him from registering some deeper complexities of Twain's novel. Huck may not know that a sound heart redeems a deformed conscience, but Twain does; so do Hobson's writers. Huck would be insufferably self-righteous if he knew he were being virtuous, and this is precisely the dilemma of writers who do know (despite their pretense) that they are being virtuous. More, Huck may have a pure heart, but Twain's novel is replete with figures--Pap, the Duke, and the King--who conspicuously lack such an organ. As a sort of textual unconscious, the performances of these pretenders--their melodramatic claims of conversion and a pure heart--keep echoing within Hobson's citation of his writers' epiphanies. For example, after Will Campbell and a black Nigerian hold each other, on stage, "`in a prolonged and passionate embrace,'" the crowd's applause "`swept rafters once a roost of fear-become-hatred'" (cited p. 78). Transparent virtue? Intricate performance? Hobson's trust in the innocence of conversion narrative keeps him from raising the question, even as he uncomfortably acknowledges that, "to an outsider, it [this scene] might have appeared a bit melodramatic, even a bit selfindulgent" (p. 79). At such a moment one wishes he were thinking more Twain-like, less Huck-like. The point is not just literary historical: Oral Roberts and evangelical TV wait on the wings with respect to it. As I said, this is an American story.

I do not want my critical remarks to obscure the achievement of Hobson's book. Each of his writers of conversion repays interest, and he ends up providing a three-tiered history of racially concerned white voices in the South. The first tier, attending to mid-century Southerners, centers on Lillian Smith. Hobson acutely delineates her anguished relation to her unforgiving culture, deftly suggesting connections between her concealed lesbianism and her forthright attack on racism. This chapter includes a good analysis of Katharine Lumpkin as well, after which Hobson turns to writers of a younger generation whose crucible moment was the Civil Rights turmoil of mid-century: James Dabbs, Sarah Boyle, and Will Campbell. Here again the analysis is adept, though a certain sameness starts to creep in. We are by now familiar with the genre of early complicity and later rupture that he is developing, and there are few surprises. Hobson then turns to writers whose Southernness is, so to speak, intermittent--Willie Morris and Larry King--and whose careers begin to solicit (without receiving) a different kind of critical attention. They are in no simple sense the heirs of Lillian Smith. The South is becoming a place to depart from in their narratives, and Hobson's last chapter--gathering together a potpourri of confession/ conversion narratives of the past two decades--seems only incidentally "Southern." The sound and fury clash between the virulent social text of an "unreconstructed" place, on the one hand, and a sensitive child inescapably of that place, on the other, has diminished. Although Hobson opens this chapter by claiming that "[b]y the 1980s the racial conversion narrative had fully arrived" (p. 120), the truth seems to be that its moment had passed. Latter-day conversion now involves not anguished Lillian Smiths but "half way sinners" (p. 130), writers remembering rather than living through the South's mid-century ordeal. Though Hobson does not say so, conversion seems in these writers to have become a tad fashionable--more a usable narrative than a searing life-experience.

In effect, the social phenomenon fueling this study--the incandescent eruption of Civil Rights in the South--concluded decades prior to Hobson's last cluster of confession-narratives. Perhaps this is why nostalgia crops up with increasing prominence in his white writers, for the coming of Black Power meant the end of their dearest dreams of shared struggle. While Hobson sees that this had to happen--that the movement was finally about black emancipation, not about white soul-saving--he does not see that his own choice of genre (his decision to redeploy the Puritan conversion narrative) inevitably privileges white pathos and large-souledness, while marginalizing the central historical story of black emancipation. Rather than reflect on this generic move that "converts" the socially marginal into the narratively central, Hobson ends his study elsewise, on the note of class.

His last chapter asserts persuasively that analysis of current race relations in America must focus on the intersection of race and class. Such a focus would effectively erase the South from its privileged position in the analysis, but Hobson is silent on this, citing instead two "heroic" lower-class, contemporary voices--those of Rick Bragg and C.P. Ellis (the latter discovered through Studs Terkel's American Dreams). This ending at the present curiously insinuates a return to the past, however, for Rick Bragg enters Hobson's text as Huck Finn redivivus, "the leading twentieth-century, true-to-life contender for that honor" (pp. 138-139). Thanks to Bragg, the racial conversion narrative remains viable. Hobson establishes Bragg's Huck Finnishness by quoting from the opening pages of All Over But the Shoutin': "`No, this is not an important book. The people who know about books call it a memoir, but that is much too fancy a word for me'" (cited p. 139). And further: "`I am ... just as proud of being the son of a woman who picked cotton and took in ironing as I am of working for a place like the New York Times'" (cited p. 140). Hobson hears Huck Finn, but I hear Flannery O'Connor's Manley Pointer. Given the artful juxtaposing of his "country simplicity" against big city's pretentions, Bragg, it seems to me, is engaged in the strategic performance of an innocent heart, not the genuine article. Finally, there is C.P. Ellis, who shares with Bragg a vernacular style, and who shares with Huck a conversion experience. When Ellis's racist friends warn him that he is backsliding, he thinks: "`This begins to make me have guilt feelin's. Am I doin' right? Am I doin' wrong? Here I am all of a sudden makin' an about-face and tryin' to deal with my feelin's, my heart. My mind was beginnin' to open up. I was beginnin' to see what was right and what was wrong'" (cited p. 146).

Ellis eventually does get clear: "`It was `almost like bein' born again'" (cited p. 146). Hobson's study thus ends, yet disturbing questions linger. What is so seductive about couching difficult moral choices within the stark binary of right and wrong, sound heart and deformed conscience? Why does vernacular carry with it the stamp of authenticity? What is at stake in the conviction that, given a sound heart, the little guy (lower-class, but imaginarily beyond class: himself alone) can get it right, achieve conversion, and triumph over socially imposed obstacles? Are these the all but inescapable framing assumptions of an American genre--the narrative of recovered innocence--that we seem never to tire of?. Finally, what dream of an intact, overarching American drama of the native and untutored heart is being pursued by rerouting twentieth-century racial narratives into a seventeenth-century Puritan conversion form, and then mediating them by way of a nineteenth-century Huck Finn who is still among us at the end of our own century? That Hobson's But Now I See does not raise such larger questions of strategy may mean that the politics of seeing the self, and of turning into discourse the self one sees, is (whatever else it is) never self-evident.
Swarthmore College
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Weinstein, Philip M.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:Interview with Barry Hannah: February 6, 2001.
Next Article:Allen Tate: Orphan of the South. (Book Reviews).

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