Admittedly, I was a bit tentative when I began reading the latest issue of The Southern Review. When I hear the word “Americana,” its self-proclaimed theme, certain images are conjured—flat beers, hunters waiting in the pre-dawn darkness, the barefoot and pregnant teenage fatherless-yet-sweethearted girl working in a diner on the side of a barren highway—of which I have become a bit tired. Let us call those images shortcomings of my imagination; I had no idea of the depth and variance to the works waiting inside this publication’s pages. Produced by Louisiana State University, it is an engrossing and well-balanced mix of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and photography.
For TSR, Americana represents something lost, a sense of longing for the American Dream that has gone unfulfilled, an old feeling being revisited and reevaluated through the eyes of the modern writer. These works eloquently question what defines American culture by looking at those on the fringes of society. Resident Scholar Jen McClanaghan expresses the sentiment well when she says, “Americana as it emerges here isn’t a quaint diorama of a moment frozen in time. Instead, it’s much larger, a landscape continually resettled and redefined by those who come upon it.” Fittingly, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “What There Was” is the last work in the issue, emphasizing that profound sense of loss. It relates the story of Buckeye and Black Mike, two carnival workers at a crossroads: they can raise the baby growing in Buckeye’s belly and flee their long line of train cars, or Buckeye can go to the clinic with her powerfully protective friend and father figure, Red. After much debate, Buckeye’s idealism comes face to face with the harshness of reality:
Buckeye picked up a railroad stone. It was so hot it burned her hand, and she squeezed it. She has thought Mike’s wounds were something she might soothe or even heal, but it was too much. She pressed the stone into her thigh. She had to squeeze her eyes shut against the pain. Mike wouldn’t be able to see her below his window, but she was so close to him that she felt his heart swelling. […] This town was no place to raise a child. No town was. She couldn’t do it, not even for Mike, couldn’t bring forth another body of pain.
Another particularly striking piece is Amy Lee Scott’s “BabyLand,” a work of nonfiction in which a trip to the Cabbage Patch Kids “hospital” leads to Scott’s conflicting emotions about her own adoption. She artfully weaves together the doll’s history—from 1978, when Xavier Roberts “began his empire as an art student peddling quilted dolls around folk art fairs,” to its current mass-produced state—with her own, and mixes in scenes from BabyLand General in Florida where she and her husband witness what can only be described as a weird birth. The “doctor” is no more than a kid in a lab coat who has “sheep-dog bangs curling in teen heartthrob manner.” He stands by the Magic Crystal Tree as “bald baby heads [emerge] from the center of each cabbage,” and “some cabbage babies even [beckon] potential parents with strained, reaching arms”; frankly, it’s a bit frightening. Scott’s detailed descriptions help us see that this “pointedly commercial operation reminiscent of Korean adoptions […] highlights the relentless pageantry involved in hawking any ware—be it a doll or a child.”
Edward Keating’s photographs are a physical realization of how isolating it can be to exist as a small part of America’s vastness. In his artist’s statement, he talks of the road trip, “that American thing,” he took in the late 1970s and his subsequent understanding that personal difficulties are tough to drop, no matter how far you run. When he retraced his steps and focused on “those who never made it through,” the result was something bleak and a little lonely. Each of the men and women look tired, with an empty kind of disappointment.
In the impressive poetry selection (Emily Lousie Smith’s “American Photograph” and Ansel Elkins’s “Devil’s Rope” are especially beautiful), we see barns and fields, near-empty diners and rotary phones and cars and weighty doses of religion, all things that were (or are) a part of American culture. It is the land of the free, home of the brave, home of Elvis and racial tensions and fear of both God and the Devil, where anything is possible until you figure out that maybe it is not. Almost any reader will be able to identify with the nostalgia present in this issue, and appreciate the rummaging these writers do through the dusty boxes in our collective attic to create a modern portrait.