Helen Taylor

Circling Dixie: Contemporary Southern Culture through a Transatlantic Lens

Helen Taylor, Circling Dixie: Contemporary Southern Culture through a Transatlantic Lens. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 232. Hb £39.50. ISBN 0 8135 2861 5. Pb £20. ISBN 0-8135-2862-3.


Reviewed by Will Kaufman, University of Central Lancashire,
in Symbiosis 6.2 (October 2002)


The title of Helen Taylor's latest study is, as she says, 'intentionally ambiguous. Circling Dixie suggests the international circulations of southern cultural forms themselves and also those appropriations and critical responses that circle around, and back to, the American South'. Thus, Taylor's Dixie is clearly a transatlantic construct (emerging from the American South and Europe) as well as a circum-Atlantic one (from the American South, Africa and Europe). Circling Dixie is an important development in nascent field of Transatlantic Studies, in that it puts the critique of regionalism in a transatlantic perspective. Precious little work has considered this relationship before now, at least so explicitly-even concerning such other culturally influential regions as (say) the American West. Taylor is well aware of the multiplicity and slippage germane to regional identities once thought to be unified. As she argues: 'American studies scholars are now rightly wary of using the term American because of the nation's multiple identities and constituencies, and it is hard to refer to "the South" or "southern" without needing to qualify and amplify what kind of South/ern/er you mean. No one could now write a book called, simply, The Mind of The South—after W. J. Cash's popular study of six-odd decades ago. The Modernist singularity of Cash's critique-influential as it still is-has been notably challenged by the many voices speaking from within Taylor's last collection, Dixie Debates, co-edited with Richard King. In Circling Dixie, Taylor naturally offers a singular voice herself, in that she recounts a personal, critical journey, 'an attempt to record the results of one Briton circling the Dixie of her onetime home and long-term imaginative desire'. Still, hers is a journey that foregrounds Southern plurality to a degree that Cash was unable to project-understandably, perhaps, with the anti-internationalist shadow of the Southern Agrarians falling so heavily upon him.

In exploring the South as a cultural 'space of interaction and reciprocity', Taylor focuses on a series of transatlantic and circum-Atlantic case studies that are, in her words, 'internationally celebrated but whose transnational formations have been critically neglected'-all emerging from the postwar South: Gone With the Wind as a transatlantic phenomenon; the troubled and troubling history of Alex Haley's Roots; New Orleans as 'America's European Masterpiece'; the British staging of Tennessee Williams; and Maya Angelou as both a transatlantic and circum-Atlantic figure.

Circling Dixie opens with some suggestions about looking at the South 'transatlantically', but for the most part from a squarely British perspective. Taylor introduces examples to which she returns in greater detail, such as the Southern 'cultural industries' that knowingly set out to target British conceptions and misconceptions of the South, or the equally selective appropriation of Celtic Britain by Southern nationalists and chauvinists. Her chapter on 'Gone With the Wind into the Millennium' is a gripping account of the transatlantic sequel wars and the jockeyings in the literary and television marketplaces of London, Hollywood and Paris, all over the legacy of Scarlett O'Hara. Taylor explores Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett, and in particular its use and setting of Ireland and Fenianism, in the context of Grady McWhiney's frightening polemic, Cracker Culture, which claims a narrow Celtic (read both 'white' and 'rebel') foundation to Southern exceptionalism. A discussion of the TV miniseries of Scarlett, with British actors Timothy Dalton and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer playing both leads, harks back to the furore over Vivien Leigh's casting in the original film, as well as to the ongoing 'transatlantic tensions' exemplified by the 'flop' of the British writer Emma Tennant's sequel, Tara, indicative, evidently, of American 'hostility toward the British approach to an American, and southern, treasure'.

In 'Everybody's Search for Roots: Alex Haley and the Black and White Atlantic', Taylor recounts the history of the Roots project as 'both a transatlantic and circum-Atlantic tale'. Pitting, through Paul Gilroy, the reactionary status of 'roots' (in postcolonial terms) against the fluidity of 'routes' as the defining Atlantic experience, Taylor presents a critical mosaic that focuses on a variety of issues dealing with Haley's relationship with Africa and his text's relationship with Britain (in particular, the place of the sceptical Sunday Times journalist, Mark Ottaway, who was the first among many to question the authenticity of Haley's African sources). Taylor challenges the 'patriarchal American Africanism' that mars the book as much as its history of 'plagiarism, inventions, and inaccuracies'. Still, she is much kinder to the text than to the author, as she concludes, 'In terms of recording, and giving imaginative life to, the long circum-Atlantic history of slavery, Roots deserves its success. Whether Alex Haley himself should be revered and celebrated is perhaps a different matter'.

There is no question of just deserts, however, when it comes to celebrating New Orleans. This is to my mind the book's best chapter, due to depth and extent of its informed and confident multidisciplinarity, as well as the sheer, infectious delight with which Taylor approaches the subject of her former hometown. I'll admit my great pleasure, for instance, in being guided through the New Orleans cuisine and café culture ('Café du Monde uses a chicory/coffee mix that is dark-roasted and double-dripped, then tempered with hot milk'). Still, after such temptation, she goes on to do the right thing and explore the critical associations between café au lait and 'mixing it'—'a sexually and racially loaded phrase'. Moreover, in spite of her fealty to this city, Taylor is not sparing in her critique of the city's international marketing, with its tendency—Mardi Gras notwithstanding—to 'downplay the influence' of the Caribbean dimension. 'For predominantly white U.S. and European tourists, analogies with North Africa, Marseilles, and the West Indies may prove a disincentive to visit; a Parisian-style Catholic bohemian jewel set within a puritan Protestant nation is probably easier to sell to the international tourist and convention set'. If this is in fact the case, as Taylor goes on to demonstrate, the city fathers must have their hands full in attempting to incorporate profitably the Europe of Anne Rice, their most popular native daughter. 'Rice's Europe is a dark, gothic space that haunts and troubles its American southern characters but also offers magical, liberatory ideas and imaginative sites unavailable within a North American Protestant culture'.

Taylor moves on to the New Orleans jazz heritage and its impact upon Britain, through an unlikely discussion of a quirky bunch: the Ken Colyer Trust, a group of British, male, 'fiftysomething affluent white jazz buffs' collectively named after the British musician who famously joined the merchant navy in order to jump ship in New Orleans and play with his idols. Their annual tours demonstrate the transatlantic impact of New Orleans culture going both ways, as does the twinning of the 'sister cities', New Orleans and Liverpool, through a scheme 'designed to cross two hybrid cities in need of economic regeneration through cultural industries'. In conclusion, Taylor returns to her bête noire, marketing, the impact of which appears to appal as much as enthral her, whether with regard to her case study of the Southern Comfort ad campaign in Britain, or New Orleans itself—a city of racial violence, extreme poverty, high criminal activity, and police and underworld corruption. The French Quarter masquerades innocence, claiming to be clear of all this; for convention and gambling visitors and tourists, the quaint horse and carriage rides avoid the now badly deprived area named Desire. The original streetcar named Desire, which provides the most culturally resonant title of all New Orleans's fictional/filmic productions, is literally enshrined in a French Quarter museum but is also now a 'virtual' streetcar that will carry one through the city's Web page.

Desire provides the linkage to Taylor's penultimate chapter, on Tennessee Williams and the contemporary British stage. She explores the implications of Williams's own Europhilia, as well as the important archival research by such British luminaries as Richard Eyre and Vanessa Redgrave, both of whom worked with Williams's conflicting manuscript versions in order to radicalise such plays as Sweet Bird of Youth and to introduce the harrowing prison drama, Not About Nightingales, to the British stage. In addressing Williams's bisexual imagination on the British stage, Taylor turns to the perseverance of Rupert Everett in acquiring the Williams Estate's approval for the cross-gender staging by the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre. This in turn leads to an account of a particularly nasty critical spat between the American critic John Lahr and Williams's larger-than-life friend and executor, Lady Maria St Just. This latter discussion made me somewhat uncomfortable, not because I felt it positioned me as a reader of stage gossip for its own sake, but rather because—as Taylor rightly says—'In St. Just's case, the bitter and defensive feelings on both sides of the pond have obscured an objective account of the extent to which Tennessee Williams's transatlantic friendships and theatrical dealings shaped and modified his southern themes and preoccupations and ultimately transformed transnational understanding of the plays'. I was left wishing that Taylor had indeed devoted less attention to 'St. Just's case', and more precisely to the objective account that she calls for.

Taylor's final chapter, on the ambition of Maya Angelou, is on the one hand the most uneven chapter, carrying the most digressions away from the Atlantic focus into more general critiques of her didacticism, her 'charismatic pedagogy', her picaresque and performative qualities-true and valid enough in their own right, perhaps, but sometimes coming at the expense of the transatlantic or circum-Atlantic focus that is the book's objective. Having said that, there is still enough in this chapter to justify Taylor's claim that it is about 'a figure who, in her personal history and experience, her writing and performances, has embodied the very spirit of circum-Atlanticism'. Thus, we still have an extensive critique of Angelou's five years in Africa as well as her avowed Anglophilia. Taylor here explores the importance of Angelou's English literary influences, her friendship with Jessica Mitford, her status as the flagship author of the British press, Virago, her deep involvement with Britain's NSPCC, and-perhaps this belongs in a separate 'Celtophile' subsection-Angelou's eulogies of Robert Burns.

In total, Circling Dixie demonstrates ably the construction of the postwar South as fluid, multiple, transatlantic and circum-Atlantic. With both Paul Gilroy and Joseph Roach obviously the angels on Taylor's shoulder, she admits: 'I believe there are exciting, progressive possibilities opened up by this new emphasis on hybridity rather than pure essence, movement and mediation rather than roots and rootedness….' Still, in spite of such optimistic emphasis on fluidity and 'routes' as the critical Holy Grail, many of Taylor's own examples dwell on resistance and conflict across the Atlantic, often in the form of national jealousies over cultural ownership. As she herself admits, 'It is easy to become romantic about transatlantic relations'; and before we go too far down the road of dreaming of Transatlantic Studies as one great big group-hug, she provides us with enough 'salutary reminder[s] of the limitations of entente cordiale'. Circling Dixie is a perceptive, new ingredient in the ongoing discussion of Atlantic connections and separations.


© Symbiosis, 2002