POWER IN THE BLOOD by John Bentley Mays

POWER IN THE BLOOD

Land, Memory, and a Southern Family

KIRKUS REVIEW

 A soul-searching memoir makes poetic hay of the saw that you can take the boy out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the boy. Mays's picturesque childhood on a Louisiana cotton plantation ended abruptly with his parents' deaths. He withdrew into a fantasy of ultra-Southernness and, after a mental breakdown, rejected Dixie altogether and settled in Canada, where he's the art critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail. The death of Aunt Vandalia, final occupant of his childhood home, instigates a midlife quest to rediscover his southern roots. That quest leads to tidewater Virginia (where his first ancestor, an Anglican priest, arrived in 1609), to colonial South Carolina, and finally to the Deep South of Mississippi and Louisiana. The power referred to in the title (from an old gospel hymn) is paternalistic duty, a patrician sense of decorum and behavior that once made up the ``codes and tactics of Southern existence handed down, father to son'' and that persist, for Mays at least, ``at the deep levels of consciousness where the anthropological oddments of `Southern culture'. . . are irrelevant.'' Those oddments, which compose the popular conception of the South canonized and promoted by the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the burgeoning academic field of Southern studies, represent Southernness in only the narrowest sense, he convincingly argues. Mays, more interested in memory than history, seeks a broader definition. Like a graduate student deconstructing literary texts, he mines deep significance from tombstone epitaphs and family snapshots, communing dutifully with the ``genius loci'' of his ancestors' far-flung homes. The portrait of Southernness that emerges--rooted inexorably in land, classical notions of agrarian harmony, and Golden Age Greek and Roman myth and epic--is decidedly elitist, and narrow in its own right. Mays thoughtfully interprets Southern culture, but his self-absorption makes the journey less compelling as memoir than as history. (8 pages b&w photos) ($50,000 ad/promo; author tour)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-06-018269-5
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1997




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