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From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison: Ethics in Modern and Postmodern American Narrative.

Jeffrey J. Folks. From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison: Ethics in Modem and Postmodem American Narrative. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. 199 pp. $29.95.

It is telling that nine of the twelve chapters on individual works in Jeffrey Folks's volume have been published previously in various journals, for the volume remains a collection of essays rather than a unified study. The essays are loosely connected by their focus on Southern writers and Southern-based works and on Folks's central theme of ethics in fiction. In addition to Wright and Morrison, the volume includes essays on James Agee, Ernest Gaines, Henry Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Richard Ford, William Styron, Thomas Keneally, and Kaye Gibbons.

Many of the essays are intriguing. For example, Folks's analysis of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men probes how the effects of Agee's sense of his own inadequacies and his feelings toward his parents shaped his text. Like many other modernists, Folks claims, Agee was acutely aware of the impossibility of adequately conveying in words what he saw and felt. In his essay on O'Connor, Folks details how she develops illness as a metaphor in her fiction for treating such issues as humility, tolerance, community, and religion. The two chapters on Gaines--one on A Gathering of Old Men and one on A Lesson Before Dying--are illuminating analyses of these novels. In the first, Folks shows how Gaines's exploration of the meaning of community, as enacted in the novel's plot, involves complex interactions of individuals, other communities, change as well as stability, and the past as well as the present. In the second, Folks pursues the ethics of relationships between community and individual as he examines the po ssibilities of heroism and the meanings of rituals.

Some of the essays, however, are less successful. Folks's analysis of Wright's The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference turns up the usual themes in Wright's work: his alienation and his faith in the interrelationships of cultures. The essay on Morrison's Jazz is disappointing. Folks's primary assertion that the novel centers on "the control of language" is not convincingly supported, nor is his related idea that Violet Trace's silence is due to her "continuing sense of oppression" and "defiance."

To be more persuasive, the volume needs more connections among the essays and a stronger sense of unity. The works studied are by Southerners and/or about Southern places and characters, but that alone does not provide sufficient connection among them. In the book's introduction, Folks makes assertions about the South and Southern literature (for example, "The multiracial nature of Southern society requires that its literature deal centrally with issues of race"), but rarely do the individual readings develop the Southernness of the texts being examined. Moreover, Folks's primary focus on ethics--"understanding the representation of ethical issues"--does not provide the needed unity. The "representation... of ethical meaning" turns out to be an investigation of various themes related to community and identity in the works examined and in the authors' own lives. Such themes are almost universal, and elaborating upon them is certainly a viable form of literary criticism, but gathering these different analyses u nder such an umbrella and calling it the "ethics of literature" does not solve the problem of blending them into a compelling whole or provide much insight about ethics. Without stronger connections among them, each essay sheds little light on the others, and the collection does not provide a sufficiently well-developed context in which the different essays can resonate with one another.

[c] 2002 Philip Page
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Author:Page, Philip
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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