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To attend to one's own soul: Walker Percy and the Southern cultural tradition.

In describing what it means for a novel to be Southern, Louis Rubin uses the term convergence, meaning by it, I think, the palpable, singular depth of experience and memory that makes a community - a Southern community - an influence on a writer.(1) The Southernness of a book, that is, comes not just from a landscape or from a sense of the pervasiveness of evil or even from a "historical consciousness" but from the conscious and unconscious immersion of the imagination in the life and social nuance of a particular place, the writer's work drawing in perception and experience the way a wick draws in wax. For Walker Percy that place is Louisiana - New Orleans or the nearby parishes - and among the elements which converge there are the thinning threads of traditional French-Catholic and traditional Anglo culture as well as the disparate influences of a modern, paralyzingly indifferent Americanism.

Rubin finds an analogue for the sensibility evidenced in Percy's novels in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, but the likeness strikes me as a fairly limited one. Certainly the communal values which drive the characters of Proust's novel were at one time just as ascendant in Southern society; certainly, too, the tension in Percy's books is at least in part the same which Rubin identifies in Proust as a "discrepancy between role and purpose - between what the individual is expected to do and what the individual might wish to do or be" (p. 31). But this comparison might more properly be made with the prose of Walker Percy's adoptive father, William Alexander Percy; for the elder Percy the problem might well have been that simple, a conflict between obligation and self-determination. For Walker Percy's protagonists, there are complicating factors, the most important of which is the contingent and sundry nature of the "convergence" of values which saturate his novels. For Percy, "Southernness" is, it seems, as much a matter of dealing with a bewildering surfeit of changing possibilities for identity as it is a sense of the expectations of a traditional community. The old stoic/chivalric codes loom large among these possibilities, though; in them Percy's Southerners find both promise and terror - terror in violence and loss of self, promise in the security of formal patterns and in the possibility that the other dissonant elements of the "convergence" which defines his characters can be incorporated.

In an interview with Jo Gulledge, Percy declares a kinship with Faulkner that he had for a long time denied: "I would like to think of starting where Faulkner left off, of starting with the Quentin Compson who didn't commit suicide. . . . In a way, Binx Bolling is Quentin Compson who didn't commit suicide."(2) This simple declaration, "Binx Bolling is Quentin Compson who didn't commit suicide,'opens many doors toward an understanding not only of Binx but of all of Percy's characters. Faulkner's Quentin, as the precursor for Percy's protagonists, is the tragic end result of an inability to adapt traditional codes to modern imperatives. As many critics have pointed out, Quentin's fixation on the Southern codes, particularly in relation to the defection from them of his sister, is in large part the key to his self-destruction. His suicide, like those of the fathers of Will Barrett and Binx Bolling, is the inevitable conclusion to the life of obsession he has chosen to live; the very fact that Percy's protagonists can choose life over self-destruction indicates that they are able to overcome the traditional onus that Quentin Compson finds insurmountable.

Percy's novels seem to insist that one must discover and utilize what is best in the stoic/chivalric tradition - its patterns, its dignity - as well as what is best in a particularly Southern and secular sort of Catholicism - compassion, love (of God and of Woman), and faith. To appropriate Rubin's term, this is a "convergence" of a different sort, not of communal influences but of ideals inherent in a community's more formal institutions. "Southern," then, as it is applied to Percy's work, means a specific set of circumstances intrinsic to one place, circumstances which provide opportunities for identity and fulfillment.

In exploring the roots of the Southern Stoicism which is so much a part of the work of both William Alexander and Walker Percy, Lewis Lawson quotes Thomas Jefferson: "Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe others."(3) This, simply put, is the problem Percy presents; this separation of the imperatives of the secular stoic and religious traditions creates a serious though healable rift in the Southern consciousness. It is when his characters forgo the latter and live exclusively by the former, as does Lancelot (a Quentin who almost commits suicide), that tragedy inevitably results. Percy's survivors - all of his protagonists, perhaps even Lancelot in the end - balance the halves of this formulation in their lives. Epicurus and Jesus, tradition and religion, are the two hemispheres of the world in which Percy's protagonists come finally to live.

It is Binx's Aunt Emily who, in The Moviegoer, comes to embody the tradition as put forth by Percy's foster father, William Alexander Percy. Her lamentations about the "going under of the evening land" echo the stoic regret found in Lanterns on the Levee, and in his exaggeration of the terms of this tradition (not to mention the fact that he gives W. A. Percy's point of view to an especially intolerant, hard-nosed Southern matron), Percy seems to offer a satirically extreme version. The proud impertinence of her declaration "But one thing I am sure of: we live by our lights, we die by our lights, and whoever the high gods may be, we'll look them in the eye without apology"(4) is, I think, meant to be especially telling. Yet, it becomes clear that Percy would not deny the applicability of a great deal of what Aunt Emily represents in the novel. What Emily sees as most important about Binx's heritage - "More than anything I wanted to pass on to you the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women" - are exactly the characteristics in his adoptive father that Percy defends in his introduction to the 1973 reprinting of Lanterns on the Levee: "But is it a bad thing to believe that his position in society entails a certain responsibility toward others? Or is it a bad thing for a man to care like a father for his servants, spend himself on the poor, the sick, the miserable, the mad who come his way?"(5)

But Binx Bolling is a refugee in the faceless New Orleans suburb of Gentilly, a man who is running (albeit in place) from the things in his life which he cannot or will not abide, including this view of a man's responsibility toward his fellow man. The complexity, though, of the features of his world which he cannot accept is enough to make one hesitate in any definitive declaration of Binx's problems and their solutions. "Everydayness," scientific humanism, Christianity, sexual mores, a certain existential angst, all vie with his aunt's stoic world-view as aspects of the world and his own identity from which he flees. But Binx identifies for the reader the central elements that contribute to his despair, as he waits, smarting under the vitriolic haranguing he has been given by his aunt, for Kate to show up for their rendezvous and despairing that she will: "a:" he might have begun, "the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead," and "b:" his aunt's stoicism, "her rightness and her despair, her despairing of me and her despairing of herself" (p. 224). These two failed systems, that of the world and that of his aunt, are failures not of intent but of execution. In the first, compassion becomes a lack of differentiation - "everyone becomes an anyone" and the world is submerged in everydayness - and Christianity and humanistic values become conveniences instead of creeds; people become identical amoral Christians and cut-throat humanists, and become as a result nonentities, "dead, dead, dead." And Aunt Emily's stoicism becomes the simple despair of the secular existentialist, despairing unto death before the hopeless void, believing in the inevitability of failure rather than the possibility of immortal redemption. The solution - one in line with Percy's Kierkegaardian view - is authenticity. One must integrate what is authentic and true in both philosophies - the world's and Aunt Emily's - and approach the world as traditionalist, humanist and Christian. This is exactly what Binx and Percy's other protagonists do.

The very first movie which Binx describes in the novel announces his need, a need shared by all of Percy's protagonists, to escape a definition of self and to begin again, afresh:

The movie was about a man who lost his memory in an accident and as a result

lost everything: his family, his friends, his money. He found himself a stranger in

a strange city. Here he had to make a fresh start, find a new place to live, a new

job, a new girl. It was supposed to be a tragedy, his losing all this, and he seemed

to suffer a great deal. On the other hand, things were not so bad after all. In no

time he found a very picturesque place to live, a houseboat on the river, and a very

handsome girl ... (p. 4)

All of Percy's protagonists must go through a process delineated by the plot of this movie. Binx and Tom More (of Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome) lose their "memories" in the sense that they free themselves from the prescriptions of the traditional codes; both end up married and, it would seem, on the way to being reasonably content. Will Barrett, of Percy's second and fourth novels, The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming, literally loses his memory at first - he wanders around old Civil War battlefields in a fugue state - then figuratively loses it in his victory over the memory of his father. He is, in the end, able to love another, and settles into a greenhouse with his chosen mate. Even Lancelot, though the movement of the novel is a process of his recovering his literal memory, seems in the end to at least be open to the counsel of his compassionate alter-ego, Percival/Harry/Father John.

But one has to be authentic in one's escape from "memory"; it is irresponsible and defeating to do as Binx does at first, living in "the Little Way" in Gentilly. "It is not so bad," Binx tells himself, fighting back despair, "to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh" (p. 136). But the "little way" is serenity in the avoidance of responsibility: the "big happiness," as Binx terms it, requires involvement. Until the end of the novel, involvement is precisely what Binx is incapable of. At one point late in the novel, Binx recalls his first trip to Chicago, a trip taken with his father: "feeling his eyes on me, I turned and saw what he required of me - very special father and son we were that summer, he staking his everything this time on a perfect comradeship - and I, seeing in his eyes the terrible request, requiring from me his very life; I, through a child's cool perversity or some atavistic recoil from an intimacy too intimate, turned him down, turned away, refused him what I knew I could not give" (p. 135). A key word in this passage is atavistic; Binx's refusal is at least partly a result of his traditional heritage. Despite his rejection of his aunt's picture of him as "one of her heroes," affection, intimacy, compassion are beyond Binx, precluded by this heritage; and Binx's inability to give these things to his father proves fatal. Binx must learn that compassion - a Christian, Catholic compassion - is the necessary adjunct to the traditional code, and the ending of the novel bears out the positive results of this integration.

"My mother's family think I have lost my faith and they pray for me to recover it," Binx tells us. "My father's family think that the world makes sense without God and that anyone but an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it" (p. 146). But we, and Binx, know that both are wrong. "I am a member of my mother's family after all and so naturally shy away from the subject of religion," he declares in the epilogue. Like his mother's family, he has become religious; he knows that the world can only make sense with God. But also like his mother's family he knows that Christianity must inform life and not control it, just as the traditional codes and values my be used for the enriching patterns they offer. By the same token, in escaping the onus of his father's codes and in discovering he can love, live among men, and still retain an identity defined independently of the community, Will Barrett in The Second Coming(*) becomes not only Percy's most affirmative character but one who affirms his abiding commitment to what was good in the traditional South (self-definition, patterns for living) and what is good in the present (human love) and in Catholic faith (the love of and for God).

Throughout The Last Gentleman,(7) Will is a man haunted by the ghost of a traditionalist, his father, who, appearing in both The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming as a deeply troubling, obsessive memory, is the "last gentleman"; he is the last of the Barretts to allow traditional conceptions to rule his life and finally to kill him as they did Quentin Compson. He is, as Louis Rubin describes him, a man who has attempted to

insulate himself from time, change, and mortality by retreating into a private code

of aristocratic virtue and honor, truth and beauty that gave him the illusion of human

perfectibility; and when this was shattered by being tested in the actual world,

there seemed nothing left for him but to be destroyed by it.(8)

But Will finally escapes this burdening legacy. And more than that, he finds the same sort of idyllic happiness that Tom More finds in Love in the Ruins. Tom More moves with his lover into a slave cabin by the bayou, fishes and fathers children; Will Barrett and his love settle into a cathedral-like greenhouse; both find in a simple life if not the "Little Way" Binx leaves behind in The Moviegoer, then a "Middle Way" informed by faith and tradition but not ruled by them. Will is not the last of a breed but the first; he is the new gentleman, a Southerner still, but a survivor.

In order to find his idyll, Tom More must adapt his aristocratic, paternalistic attitudes and live an authentic life. Early in Love in the Ruins, More has retreated with his three consorts (two, actually; at this point one is still just his secretary), to an abandoned motel on the outskirts of town where he awaits a confrontation with a sniper who has been stalking him. In the dining room of the decaying Howard Johnson's hangs a decrepit and forgotten Rotary Club banner which reads:

Is it the truth?

Is it fair to all concerned?

Will it build goodwill and better friendships?(9)

But, More notes, "the banner is rent, top to bottom, like the temple veil." While this is only a Rotary slogan, and the temple is only an abandoned Howard Johnson's, this rent veil is given enough attention in the novel to suggest something more significant. What is written on the "temple veil" is what Percy values most in his Catholicism, at least as it is represented in his novels; the liturgy and its attendant symbolism and prescription are not so important as these simple human values, the same values, in fact, which are nurturing in the traditional Southern codes. (It is probably not incidental that the banner belonged to the Rotary Club: William Alexander Percy, the man with whom Walker Percy most directly associated the generative side of the old codes, was a Rotarian.)

These values are specifically counterpointed against less desirable traditional Southern attitudes later in the novel, when More is helped into a bar by a black man who inadvertently almost precipitates a violent attack by Leroy, the bartender, who thinks that the man expects to drink at the bar. More contemplates the tense moment as it passes without event:

The terror comes from, the piteousness, from good gone wrong and not knowing

it, from Southern sweetness and cruelty, God why do I stay here? In Louisiana people

still stop and help strangers. Better to live in New York where life is simple,

every man's your enemy, and you walk with your eyes straight ahead. (p. 153)

But Tom More doesn't live in New York, and wouldn't, any more than Percy himself would have. The reason he stays in Feliciana, in the South, is to find the other, opposite simplicity in life, where every man's your friend and compassion is the rule of the day. What he finds so distasteful about the bartender's violent reaction is that it is governed by the same patterns which would insist that Leroy help someone with car trouble. A tradition which can elicit both reactions is worse than untenable; it smacks of an abiding ailment of the Southern soul. The trick, he discovers, is to remain a gentleman and at the same time to renounce his paternalism and his stultifying sense of gentility; he leaves behind the vision of "Tara," which he is offered along with his own Southern belle, and moves into the slave quarters next to the bayou with a simple woman whom he can love and respect.

Lancelot, Percy's fourth novel, ends, apparently, with no such affirmation, in violence and confusion. Where Will Barrett's flight is to the North, or Binx Bolling's is to Gentilly, Lancelot Lamar's is into madness. Amnesia and dementia become for him the ultimate escape from not only what the world has become but from what his Southern conceptions of honor have led him to. The past and its attendant violence are all Lance has lived by; in the form of the traditional codes of honor and retribution it becomes, as his memory returns, again what he lives by. His lack of horror at the violence he has committed is the clearest sign of his malady, as well as the clearest indictment of the codes which drove him to that violence. He rejects the past and its attendant cruelty and yet he exists only to perpetuate them, and it is this tension which has rent his consciousness asunder and sent him to the madhouse. Live my way or die by my hand is his message to the world, but the louder he proclaims this creed, the more the reader should suspect that he protests too much and indeed at the end I suspect he is beginning to recognize as clearly as does Percival the futility in living by and for the violent past.

He tells Percival, "A year ago (was it a year?) I made my two great discoveries: one, Margot's infidelity; two, my freedom. I can't tell you why, but the second followed directly upon the first. The moment I knew for a fact that Margot had been fucked by another man, it was as if I had been waked from a twenty-year dream. I was Rip Van Winkle rubbing his eyes. In an instant I became sober, alert, watchful. I could act."(10) He could indeed act, and did - yet his freedom was deceptive: "Yet something went wrong," he observes. His actions have put him in a "nuthouse ... recovering from shock, psychoses, disorientation." His freedom to act was actually non-existent; he was just as programmed by his Southern conceptions of honor as Faulkner's Quentin Compson. The freedom he felt was freedom from the drifting malaise of being unguided, of being unable to give conscious allegiance to either the past or the present. But acting under the code has caused him to commit an atrocity which horrifies his moral sensibility and the tension between the demands of the codified tradition and his own conscience tear him apart.

Sexual defection, as it is for Quentin Compson or for Will Barrett's father, is the one betrayal of the Southern ethos which affects Lancelot more than any other. The first defection was that of his mother. The second, that of his wife, is the touch which triggers his manic defense of his honor. At one point Lance asks Percival, "is it just our generation that got hung up on it?" Percival's reply is to "shrug and cock an eye at the cemetery." Percival indicates here, I think, that it is not simply one generation's problem; it is, rather, a heritage bequeathed this generation by the Southern dead who occupy the graveyard beneath his window. Lance points out that the Bible even is "casual" about the matter and that "Dante was downright indulgent with sexual sinners. They occupied a rather pleasant anteroom to hell" (p. 17). It is only in the South, informed as it is by the staunch Victorian codes which it has adopted and made its own, that sex becomes so much the issue. When Lancelot declares that THE GREAT SECRET OF LIFE is simply that "God's secret design for man is that man's happiness lies for men in men practicing violence upon women and that women's happiness lies in submitting to it" (p. 22),he centers his view of sexuality, one informed by the Southern ethos, on violence and the dereliction of the selfs responsibility to others.

Lance's mistake is in seeking the answers to life in extremes, in demanding certainty, the ease of not having to make choices, of having a code define and delineate his identity and actions. As it was for Binx Bolling or Will Barrett, the imperative is to find a way to live which partakes of what is nurturing in all three spheres: the physical nurturing of the secular world, the spiritual compassion of the religious, and the positive patterns of the past. There is some indication that this is precisely the concession that Lancelot will make. He declares to Percival at the end of the novel, "It will be your way or it will be my way," and the assumption he makes, we are led to believe, is that it will be the way of the sword either way, either Lance's chivalric intolerance or the wrath of a Sodom-blasting God, who will "either destroy it [Sodom, the world] or let the Russians or Chinese destroy it just as he turned the Assyrians loose on the Jews, and Sparta on Athens" (p. 255).

When, late in the novel, Lance asks Percival, "so you plan to take a little church in Alabama, Father, preach the gospel, turn bread into flesh, forgive the sins of Buick dealers, administer communion to suburban housewives?" Percival answers in the affirmative, telling us that his way is not apocalyptic but cathartic; one lives, loves, practices compassion, forgives one's fellow man (p. 256). This is what Percival/Percy wishes to tell Lancelot at the end, the prophetic knowledge kept from the reader but suggested throughout the novel: there is indeed only one way, but it is a way composed of many ways, of values traditional, secular and religious.

William Rodney Allen is pretty pessimistic about Lancelot's chances: "Lancelot is a story of two struggling souls moving in opposite directions as the novel progresses: Lance toward greater and greater emptiness and despair, and Percival, paradoxically prodded to renewed faith by his friend's unbelief, toward love and hope."(11) But the novel ends in affirmation, with the simple word "yes," and I think that Percy intended that the reader understand that what follows that "yes" - as something inevitably must, since the question it answers is "Is there anything you wish to tell me before I leave?" - is a doctrine of love and faith which will bring succor to Lancelot's tortured and tarnished soul. As Jerome C. Christensen explains, the promise that Percival makes to Lancelot with his final word is exactly that:

The news must be the hardly possible alternative to both the intolerable Sodom

of contemporary America and the mad, murderous rage of Lancelot. It is the alternative

that the priest has been advancing all along: first automatically, then guiltily,

then cautiously, and, finally, with an authority that leaves Lancelot and the reader

hanging on to his words: love. Love earned by ordeal, offered in risk, justified by

a mortal need. Not just love, but Christian love... That message of love is, as I've

said, not spoken in this text. Indeed Lancelot has contemptuously commanded his

Percival, "Don't speak to me of Christian love." The priest obeys; he speaks only

a series of reassuring "yeses" at the close, affirmations that are not statements but

acts of love.(12)

"Acts of love" is a beautiful, evocative and wonderfully accurate description of what Percival offers Lancelot as the novel ends, though I would amend Christensen somewhat and claim instead that the alternative Percival gives Lance is human love as well as Christian love, love of the flesh as well as love of the soul. Both are imperatives in Percy's conception; his is a particularly secular Catholicism - even the priest Percival desires the girl he sees on the levee. Percy's characters are perhaps best off when their souls are, like the creole soul of New Orleans he describes in the novel, "neither damned nor saved but eased."

In Percy's last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, he returns to the life of Thomas More, the "bad Catholic" of Love in the Ruins, and in doing so becomes much more overt with his support of the more generative aspects of the Southern code, dispelling any doubt that he still finds traditional values pertinent to the present. A case in point is Tom More's attitude toward race relations:

In the first case-the old-style white and the old-style black - each knows exactly

where he stands with the other. Each can handle the other, the first because he is

in control, the second because he uses his wits. They both know this and can even

enjoy each other. . . . In the second case - Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson - each

is walking on eggshells. What to say next in this rarified atmosphere of perfect liberal

agreement? What if one should violate the fragile liberal canon, let drop a racist

remark, an anti-Irish Catholic slur?(13)

The problem with this is that it in some ways seems to vitiate the rejection of his paternalism that Tom More had accomplished at the close of Love in the Ruins. It treads the edge - there is nothing quite overtly offensive in More's comment - but it doesn't seem quite consistent. Later, More reflects on his relationship with his son and the modern child-rearing authorities who insist that a parent should "communicate" with his child. "I don't communicate with Tommy and he doesn't with me," More asserts, "beyond a single flick of eye, a nod, and a downpull of lip. If I sat Tommy down and said, Son, let's have a little talk, it would curdle him and curdle me, and it should" (p. 43). This is a Southerner being unequivocal about simple Yankce nonsense, and that sounds a bit strange for a Percy protagonist, if for no other reason than its lack of subtlety. Still, this novel, like Percy's others, is a fine instance of Louis Rubin's "convergence"; the complete breadth of belief and experience which permeates Percy's other novels infuses this one as well, though in his final novel the ideal is somewhat supplanted by the quite ordinary - and completely Southern - cultural attitudes to which Percy is heir.

All of these novels end, finally, in the same brand of affirmation that William Rodney Allen identifies in the last pages of The Moviegoer:

The end of The Movie go is redemptory ... for Binx has avoided falling back into

his Little Way and has become an at least potentially religious man who openly

considers the meaning of a churchgoer's receiving ashes. He has given up his life

of evasions and begun the only genuinely worthy pursuit, in Percy's Christian terms,

of man - the search for God through giving one's life to others. (p. 42)

This compassion is Binx's salvation, and this "Little Way" of a different sort is not so different, really, from the "Southern pattern," the philosophy for living which William Alexander Percy found "directions enough for any life"; "I guess a man's job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able - always remembering the results will be infinitesimal - and to attend to his own soul."(14)

This advice seems to describe rather well the attitudes of Will Barrett, Binx Bolling and Thomas More at the close of their respective stories. I believe Walker Percy would probably agree with his mentor that these words may well "contain the steady simple wisdom of the South."

(1) Louis D. Rubin, Jr. "From Combray to Ithaca: or, the |Southernness'of Southern Literature," in The Mockingbird in the Guin Tree (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), p. 35. (2) Jo Gulledge, "The Reentry Option: An Interview with Walker Percy," Southern Review, 20 (Winter 1984), 103. (3) Lewis Lawson, Following Percy: Essays on Walker Percy's Work (Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Co., 1988), p. 67. (4) Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Knopf, 1962), p. 224. (5) Walker Percy, Introduction," Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), p. xiii. (6) Walker Percy, The Second Coming (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980). (7) Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966). (8) Louis D. Rubin, Jr. "The Boll-weevil, the Iron Horse and the End of the Line: Thoughts on the South," Virginia Quarterly Review, 55 (1979), 200. (9) Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at Time Near the End of the World (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1971), 1). 9. (10) Walker Percy, Lancelot (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), p. 107. (11) William Rodney Allen, Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), p. 10. (12) Jerome C. Christensen, "Lancelot: Sign for the Times," in Walker Percy, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, pp. 112-113. (13) Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987), p. 36. (14) William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), p. 75.
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Author:Blair, John
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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