A week in books

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The Independent Culture
I once heard a Senior Northern Poet react to the fact that one of his more elegiac works had turned up in the Oxford Book of Death. "Aren't they all?" muttered the gruff bard. With most anthologies, you know just what he meant. Hauled out of context, those inert chunks of literature lie on the page like dead-eyed, grey-gilled fish on a marble slab.

All the more reason, then, to savour an anthology with a clear purpose and a coherent pattern evident through its 600 well-balanced pages. The Oxford Book of the American South (OUP, pounds 22.50) jumps the gun on William Faulkner's centenary by six weeks or so. Yet its one-author-one-piece rule determines that the sage of another Oxford (Mississippi) has to make do with a single story. "Wash", from 1934, portrays the kind of marooned but uncrushable poor whites whose accents fill the book.

Its other leading voice, of course, belongs to the black Southerners who somehow managed to record their lives from at least a century before Emancipation in 1861. As their first black contributor, editors Edward L Ayers and Bradley C Mittendorf select Olaudah Equiano, who documents a Middle Passage in 1756. The last - Anthony Wilson, born in 1960 - returns to Mississippi to "embrace the ghosts and cradle the bones" of a brutal but enduring past.

Sliding easily between fiction, memoirs and reportage, the editors pick cleverly from every expected figure - Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King - but also dig up many hidden gems. They want us to cherish all their choices: black and white, radicals and diehards, scoffers and romantics. And I did - all except a slice from the most famous Southern novel of the lot. In their extract from Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O'Hara, in the aftermath of Civil War, whines that she would "never feel like a lady again ... until black hands and not white took the cotton from Tara". Tough luck, girl; or rather (all together now): frankly, my dear, we couldn't give a damn.

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