Tell About the South:
The Southern Renascence
to World War II
Part I of the documentary examines the period from World War I to World War II, which includes both the Southern Renascence and the Harlem Renaissance. The film makes clear the fascinating connections between these two bursts of creativity that at first glance might seem totally unconnected. Indeed, it is these hidden connections between black and white writers of the American South that the documentary seeks to illuminate. Part I features the works of blues singers, Fugitive poets, Jean Toomer, William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Erskine Caldwell, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Wolfe, and many others. It includes interviews with Pat Conroy, Rita Dove, Wilma Dykeman, Shelby Foote, Ernest Gaines, George Garrett, Nikki Giovanni, Andrew Lytle, Albert Murray, Willie Morris, Reynolds Price, William Styron, Alice Walker, and Eudora Welty. Narrated by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Rita Dove, Part I contains commentary by scholars Cleanth Brooks, Thadious Davis, Mary Helen Washington, and Joel Williamson.
General Discussion Questions
* What images does the filmmaker use to begin Tell About the South? What portrait of the South do they convey? Why do you think the filmmaker began this way? What is the effect of the way the film ends?
* What has the filmmaker accomplished by comparing black and white writers of the American South? What story is the filmmaker telling about the South?
* A documentary filmmaker carefully juxtaposes words and images and music. View one segment of the film again, such as the opening or another section elsewhere in the film, and analyze this juxtaposition, not only of words and images, but images and images, as well as images and music, explaining the effect.
* What do the images used in the film reveal about the writers that the filmmaker examines, especially those who are examined in depth?
Fugitive Poets/Blues Poets
By the 1920s the southern legacy of slavery and the loss of the Civil War had produced a bifurcated literary tradition that reflected the South's racially segregated society. In Nashville a group of educated white men, excited by the innovations of modernist poetry and thought, came together and began to write a poetry of wit and irony that the journalist H. L. Mencken had said the South lacked. They called themselves the Fugitives and later went on to write essays for the collection, I'll Take My Stand, which championed the agrarian society of the South over the industrialized society of the Northeast. At the same time African-American musicians of the Mississippi Delta were creating the blues songs that revealed another, more painful side of the agrarian South. As Albert Murray says in the film, the music was a "device for confronting the facts of life. . . . life is a lowdown dirty shame that shouldn't happen to a dog, but you confront that and you accept it and it inspires you. Even as the lyrics point out, or spell out, a tale of woe, the music counterstates it."
* Why did the Fugitive poets feel like outcasts?
* The film compares Fugitive poets and blues singers. What similarities and differences are suggested by the filmmaker's images?
* How do the Fugitive poets write about the South in the early twentieth century? the blues singers? Why?
* After viewing the film, what is your definition of the blues? Several southern writers defined the blues in the film. Is one definition more memorable to you than another? Why?
Harlem Renaissance/Jean Toomer
Military service in World War I provided some African-Americans in the South with a different perspective on their lives and their society's Jim Crow laws; economic and social hardships during the 1920s and 1930s caused many African-Americans to look outside of the region for work. These factors combined to cause what has been called the "Great Migration" of African-Americans out of the South. Some went to Chicago and Detroit; others to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The creative energy that converged on New York was released in an outpouring of literature, music, and scholarship that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925 Alain Locke published an anthology of contemporary work entitled The New Negro: An Interpretation. Locke distinguished this New Negro from the Old Negro of the past who was a stereotype, "more of a myth than a man." As Thadious Davis says in the film, "The New Negro had a history and a heritage that included Africa but also the American South." As a result, African-American writers, such as Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston, who had moved North, found themselves writing about the African-American folk heritage of the South, about the beauty of the southern landscape, and about both the richness and the pain of African-American life in the South.
* Why had so many southern African-Americans moved to New York by the 1920s?
* As a man of mixed racial ancestry, Jean Toomer proclaimed himself one of the first "new Americans." Why has it taken the United States so long to think of people of mixed black and white ancestry in this way?
* Literary critic Thadious Davis says that African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance wanted to reclaim the South as "a positive space." What do you think she means?
* Compare the Fugitive poets' manifesto against northern industrialism, I'll Take My Stand, to Jean Toomer's interests in the South as expressed in Cane.
* Poet Rita Dove terms some of the pieces in Toomer's Cane "mood pieces." What mood does the filmmaker create by the dramatization of "Fern"?
Mississippi Mythmaker/William Faulkner
The Southern Literary Renascence which had its beginnings with the writings of the Fugitive poets came to full flower with William Faulkner's fiction. He created a fictional place, Yoknapatawpha County, modeled after his own home territory of Oxford, Mississippi. Taken together Faulkner's novels set in this mythical place are one long quarrel with white southern bigotry, complacency, and provincialism. Although Faulkner left Oxford briefly--at the beginning of his career he went to New Orleans to write, in the middle he went to Hollywood to make money writing film scripts, and late in life he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia--he made his home in Mississippi because the tales he heard there were the lifeblood of his fiction. Faulkner's experimental fiction, though difficult to read, captures the complexity of life in the South from many perspectives: black and white, aristocrat and sharecropper.
* What does it mean that Faulkner created a literature of the past in the present?
* Why do you think Faulkner's white neighbors were scandalized by his fiction?
* How does the filmmaker use Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha County?
* To represent Faulkner's large body of work, the filmmaker uses a montage of images and quotations from various novels. Which novel captured your imagination? Why?
* Jean Toomer and William Faulkner are both literary modernists who experiment with narrative forms. Compare their experimental techniques and subject matter by examining a work by each, such as Toomer's Cane and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.
* Does the film itself replicate any of the techniques of literary modernism that the filmmaker presents in his narration of southern literature?
One of the commonplaces about literature of the American South and also about African-American literature is that both come out of traditions of storytelling. As a variety of writers testify in the film, rural life, poverty, lack of formal education, but a love of words combined to create an environment conducive to storytelling. The film explores two of the most popular storytellers of the 1930s: Margaret Mitchell and Erskine Caldwell. Both writers specialized in fast-moving plots and larger-than-life characters. Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, with its romantic story of the "Lost Cause" and of southern love of the land, and Caldwell's Tobacco Road, with its tenant shacks and violent melodrama, have created images of the American South that have reverberated around the world and sometimes interfered with more accurate understandings of the South and its people.
* Are there any good storytellers in your family? When and where were the stories told? What function did storytelling play? Are we losing the storytelling tradition? Why or why not?
* Shelby Foote says that "storytelling is a very strong southern tradition." How does the filmmaker enact this tradition? If you remember a story that one of the writers or scholars told, why does it stand out in your mind?
* In their day, the popular writers Margaret Mitchell and Erskine Caldwell sold millions more books than William Faulkner or Zora Neale Hurston. Why do you think this was the case?
* What stories about the South did Mitchell and Caldwell tell?
* How have works by Mitchell and Caldwell affected the way people, not only in the United States but all over the world, see the South?
Leaving the South/Zora and Tom
Throughout the film, black and white writers are juxtaposed, but in the last segment the filmmaker actually interweaves the life stories of Zora Neale Hurston and Thomas Wolfe. The stories of these two writers who both left the South for New York, but who both found their subject matter to be rooted in the South suggest many similarities. But the juxtaposition also reveals significant differences based on race and gender. While both had rich patrons in New York, Thomas Wolfe's friend Aline Bernstein made his writing easier by providing money and places to write. Zora Neale Hurston's patron was also a rich white woman, Mrs. Osgood Mason, who loved what she termed "primitive art," but she, not surprisingly, was condescending to Hurston. While Aline encouraged and inspired Wolfe, Hurston never found a man who was not threatened by her career.
* What do you think was the filmmaker's purpose in interweaving the stories of Hurston's and Wolfe's lives and works? What is revealed by this technique?
* What similarities and differences are revealed in Hurston's and Wolfe's lives and works? Do race and gender have anything to do with the differences?
* How does the filmmaker suggest that Zora Neale Hurston's and Thomas Wolfe's lives affected their works?
* Pat Conroy says that he feels "edited" when in the South, that the "South could do this thing of love you to death--of smother you." He thinks some southern writers leave the South so that they "can look back and write about the South accurately and with distance." From what you learned from the film about Hurston and Wolfe, speculate about what stories they told about the South from a distance that they might not have been able to see or might not have wanted to tell while still living in the communities they grew up in.
* The film dramatizes several works of literature: Ransom's "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," Toomer's "Fern," Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. How do these dramatizations cause you to think about any of these works you have read? In filming novels, the filmmaker could only choose a scene. What did his choice reveal about the filmmaker's perception of that work? If you read the work after viewing the film, how did the film affect your reading?
* Tell About the South comments briefly on a number of other southerners writing between the wars. Have your students choose one writer who most intrigues them and read some of the literature. Then have each student either write an essay suggesting why that writer deserved more than a minor role in the film or an essay planning how he or she would convey the writer's life and work on film?
* Ask your students to have someone they know tell them a story. When Faulkner was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, he said that when someone tells a story, "he's actually telling his own biography, talking about himself, in a thousand different terms, but himself." Have each student tape the story to share with their classmates, but then have them analyze the stories as Faulkner would have--to determine what the story he or she heard actually reveals about the storyteller.
Study Guide for Part II: Prophets & Poets
Study Guide prepared by Suzanne Jones, University of Richmond, 1998
Funding for the series Tell About the South was provided by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other funding was provided by grants from the humanities councils of Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as grants from the Southern Humanities Media Fund, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Anne and Erlo Von Waveren Foundation.