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February 09, 1986|FRED S. HOLLEY

THE LANGUAGE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH by Cleanth Brooks (University of Georgia: $9.95). The cliche, "a slim volume," is appropriate, but the slimness is a matter of pages--58 in all--not of thought. What we have here is the text of three lectures delivered at Mercer University in 1984 by one of the great American critics ("The Well Wrought Urn" and "Understanding Poetry"). His book is a reminder of the richly textured contribution of the South to American literature, and it may be worth noting that it is the only such regional culture to which blacks have made a major contribution.

"The Southern dialect," he tells us, "has perfectly sound historical roots," and he goes on to trace Southernisms to the speech of Thomas Hardy's country folk, the poetry of A. E. Housman and the King James version of the Bible. One of his most interesting examples is from an 1860s Sussex version of the Song of Solomon": "De song of songs, dat is Solomon's/Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth; for yer love is better dan wine." And he demonstrates again and again, with reference to the works of John Crowe Ransom, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Ralph Ellison, among others, that "the strength of even the most formal Southern writers stems from their knowledge of, and rapport with, the language spoken by the unlettered."

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