Last of the Southern Novelists

By deliberate artistry, Glenn Arbery’s Boundaries of Eden extends the tradition of the Southern novel. It is a tradition threatened by what the book’s main character, Walter Peach, recognizes as “the unfolding devastations of the modern project.” For Peach, “the old American way, the old Southern story with all its tragedies and injustices, was being displaced by a culture that was not a culture at all but a set of accusations, disrespectful of hard-earned understandings about freedom and responsibility….” This “set of accusations” is potentially fatal to our literature. That whites are either woke or they are white supremacists—that is, the assertion that the greatest sin is racism—is a taunt that connects the fate of the Southern novelist to the experience of every American writer who defies the political mandate.

It is primarily the Southern novelists of the past century that speak through Arbery’s work. This pantheon includes such figures as Zora Neale Hurston, Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy, and John Kennedy Toole. I want briefly to focus on two of the greatest, William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, for what they reveal about Arbery’s situation as a Southern writer today.

Faulkner was born in 1897, when memories of the Civil War touched every walk of public life. Faulkner’s world centers on Yoknapatawpha County, with its country seat of Jefferson, Mississippi. Arbery’s geography is likewise fictive, centering on Gallatin County, with its county seat of Gallatin, located in middle Georgia. Downtown Gallatin has a Lee Street and a statue of a Confederate soldier. Its topography, its Southern types and sub-cultures, and its labyrinthine past tie Boundaries of Eden to Arbery’s 2015 novel Bearings and Distances, much as Faulkner’s novels range across the landscapes of his mythical county. Arbery, who was born in 1951, is similarly steeped in Southern genealogical lore of an unsparing kind. His vision is not as abstruse, cruel, and squalid as Faulkner’s can be, but Arbery writes in Faulkner’s tradition of Southern Gothic dementia, horror, and long-brewing tragedy. Like Faulkner, he pens sagas that achieve the difficult feat of arousing pity for human behavior that is at once shocking and familiar. His flair for cutting back and forth across time shows a Faulknerian inspiration. Now and then, his syntax mimics Faulknerian stream of consciousness.

Mostly, though, Arbery’s prose is distinguished by a tight control of phrase and idiom. He is unflaggingly resourceful as a master of the middle style that typically undergirds the long novel invested in realism. Reading Boundaries of Eden, I found myself constantly impressed by Arbery’s virtuosic command of the English language within the supporting structure of a supple but durable syntax. This type of beautifully solid writing dominates the book.     

Arbery’s main style recalls the steady hand of Robert Penn Warren, who was born in 1905. Penn Warren’s best novel, All the King’s Men, was published in 1947. It can be interpreted as an extended comment on the artistic problems facing the Southern novelist. One recalls that Penn Warren’s narrator, Jack Burden, sojourns for a time at graduate school, studying Southern history before chucking his dissertation to become a newspaperman. Of course, Penn Warren did not chuck his dissertation. He became a renowned professor of literature. What I want to underscore is that Jack Burden’s graduate work enabled Penn Warren to make contact with the Confederacy. Burden turns out to be related by blood to a pair of brothers, Cass and Gilbert Mastern, whose antithetical values foreshadow Burden’s own fraught identity as a Southerner, while symbolically informing the choices of every major character in the novel.

If we compare Penn Warren to Faulkner, we notice that Penn Warren is closer to our present conditions. He must strain himself just a little to supply his novel with a living past. Hence Jack Burden’s reliance on old letters and academic research. Faulkner, who dropped out of college (and high school, too), is essentially a native of the old South. By contrast, Penn Warren and Arbery are professors skilled at research. Both All the King’s Men and Boundaries of Eden hinge on the recovery of old documents. We can pursue the comparison a little further: Jack Burden, as I’ve noted, abandons graduate work to become a journalist. Walter Peach leaves his academic position to run the Gallatin Tribune. But here is a difference, a result of coming later in history: while Boundaries of Eden is not an academic novel, it is nonetheless typical of Arbery to supply his characters with advanced degrees and university posts. Books and dissertations proliferate among them. These characters are recognizable as serious, interesting people; they come to life; they are psychologically complex. But they are vessels of a historical consciousness that is, in fact, the defining feature of this rich, inventive, and absorbing novel.

To convey the mind at work, Arbery employs the technique known as “free indirect discourse,” that is, the narrator slips like a cat from third-person observation into the thoughts of his characters. Arbery shifts from perspective to perspective by naming each section accordingly. The poet Walter Peach being the main character, there are many sections simply titled “Walter.” His embattled wife is Teresa Peach; she holds her own in the “Teresa” sections.      

In the following passage, Teresa makes coffee as she reveals her     concern with Walter’s attraction to her gifted and lovely niece, Nora. I note that Rose is Walter and Teresa’s teenage daughter; Belen is Teresa’s late friend who taught her the coffee ritual:

It was a felt measure, as Belen always said—the look in the hand, the weight. She loved the feel and smell of the beans—four palmfuls, one by one, into the coffee grinder. When she pressed the button, the grinder roared for a few seconds. She tapped it to settle the beans, ground again, not too much, and then emptied the grounds into the French press and waited for the water in the kettle.

Out of the window, over the sink, crows swapped perches and cawed at each other from the bare branches of the pecan trees.

No one could say she had not tried to be nice to the girl. Nora, Rose, and Walter up in the study reading together. Early on, she had even joined them a few times. She warmed seeing Walter’s genius revive, though it stung that she was not the occasion.

In the phrases after the dashes, Teresa’s point of view intertwines and merges with the narrator’s. One also notices, in this respect, the cause and effect of “button” and “grinder,” the adverbial “not too much,” the description of the territorial crows, and, most of all, the thought-ejaculation: “No one could say she had not tried to be nice to the girl,” as if the morally-minded Teresa were judging herself. The novel’s cast is large, but the method is successful because of Arbery’s eye for significant detail. Such domestic moments, “webbed” (an Arbery word) into the larger novel, are linked by a tragic design to characters and perceptions that range from a mastermind of pure evil, to a dope-addled veteran, to a hardworking sheriff, to dreams and mystical experiences, of which the most central emanate from Peach’s son Buford, a literary descendent of Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin. The dreams, like the old documents, are a means of becoming conscious of the past and its endless rippling.

Arbery succeeds in connecting to the old South while, across the region, mobs of tech-driven iconoclasts ensure that the past says nothing but nightmare, nightmare, nightmare.

Christianity is a force in this novel, as it often is among Southern novelists. Teresa is a devout Catholic. Braxton Forrest, the hero of Bearings and Distances, plays a supporting role in Boundaries of Eden, having converted to Catholicism. One might expect a pallet of platitudes: instead, Arbery delivers a mesmerizing, underworld journey through the historical unconscious. Mystical writing is a severe test. Arbery’s mystical strand is not an ascent of the intellect heightened by faith; but neither is it an eccentric attempt to invent a new mythology. It is expressive of Eden and its limits, and of sin and its ramifications.

So ambitious and hefty a novel as Boundaries of Eden is bound to have flaws. Probability takes an occasional hard hit, a problem that the novel’s considerable length exacerbates. There is one important letter, written by a sixties radical, that sacrifices voice and character to explanation. Also, I wish that Arbery had exercised more restraint with respect to literary allusion. I hesitate to use the much-abused term “epic,” but by any measure it applies here, and allusion is a technique prominent in the epic tradition. Even so, one must guard against allusions that come across as literary ornaments, as opposed to doing their main work as vehicles of historical consciousness—in which case they are justified. For example, late in the novel, Braxton Forrest quotes from the closing lines of Paradise Lost. The allusion fits the plot while successfully engaging Milton. But when, a page later, the narrator alludes both to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and to Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” and does so in the same sentence, one feels that a simpler mode of writing would have better suited the renewed marital intimacy between Walter and Teresa.        

One last set of comparisons may shed further light on the spirit of Arbery’s writing, which does not allow fiction to cheat history. Well-crafted to arouse the Furies, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning Underground Railroad (2016) is an alternate history novel set in a Southern dystopia. Whitehead (b. 1961) closes the distance between past and present by condensing timelines: slavery is concurrent with blood testing and tubal ligation; the heroine’s insights align her with our own period. It’s reasonable to ask: is the success of historical fiction coming at the cost of real history? Whatever the case may be (and many works of historical fiction could be discussed), one doesn’t place Go Down, Moses (1942) or All the King’s Men in that genre. They are bound by historical realities that the author doesn’t alter. The events of Yoknapatawpha County comment on “the unfolding devastations of the modern project” in ways that open up the actual past. Jack Burden realizes the presence of the past as well. That is why he is Jack Burden. Arbery follows in this tradition. If on occasion he stumbles under the weight of his material, he refuses to lighten the load.

I have referred to the challenges facing Southern writers for whom the Civil War and its 750,000 (or so) dead soldiers are retreating in time. Arbery succeeds in connecting to the old South while, across the region, mobs of tech-driven iconoclasts have taken the law into their own violent hands, toppling the statues, canceling the gains of healthy deliberation, ensuring that the past says nothing but nightmare, nightmare, nightmare. Moral intelligence demands, on the contrary, that we despise racism and decry the double standard, as those who condemn America shrug off not only their own debts and sins, but the genocidal failures of the anti-American regimes that they idealize. The scapegoating is so dense with implications that we might soon say, “First, they came for the South…” For Arbery, Gallatin County is a symbol of our imperiled civilization. His vision is one of monumental sin but not irredeemable evil. In this respect, Boundaries of Eden is more than a complex and satisfying work of art: it buttresses and sustains the hard work of American history—past, present, and future.