The University of Alabama is pleased to welcome Dr. James “Andy” Crank to the English Department’s roster of esteemed faculty members. His unique perspective and knowledge of southern literature and culture will be valuable assets for the growing number of southern studies faculty at the university. His research on the South should open new areas of discussion for teachers and students. Dr. Crank comes to us from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he received much acknowledgement for his work on the South. His specialties include studies of southern literature, culture, and film. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Crank spent much of his childhood traveling between Tennessee and Louisiana. He received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri; and his graduate degrees are from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His diverse interests range from Renaissance playwrights to various American literary figures, including James Agee, Sam Shepard, and William Faulkner.
Why did you choose to teach at the University of Alabama?
I think the thing that attracted me the most were the people that were here. Trudier Harris, Cassie Smith, Phil Beidler, Yolanda Manora; these were people that I knew through my research, and the opportunity to work with them and be their colleague was really important to me. Of course, one of the large draws was being able to be at a university with resources, a rigorous curriculum, and diverse student body. The students I teach are intellectually curious, engaged, and thoughtful.
Did growing up in the South inspire your research?
It’s difficult for me to say. I grew up thinking a lot about being southern and what that meant, but the point where it became obsessive was my freshman year at high school. When I was 14-15, my older brother took a course called “The Southern Renaissance.” He would tell me all of the things that he was reading in that class, and I would in turn pick them up and read them, too. He was reading works by people like O’Connor, Wright, and Faulkner. By the time I became a senior and was able to take the course, it was no longer offered. My whole adolescence was obsessed with this idea of southern culture and southern expression. So, more than being compelled by some sort of regional association, my interest really started as a younger brother wanting to emulate his cool older brother. But, then, the interest evolved. As I read these novels, short stories, plays, poems, I was fascinated by the achievement of the South’s writers—some of the most vivid and compelling exemplars of modern literature were southern texts. This was fascinating to me. When I got to Washington University, nobody really offered courses on southern literature. I was never able to satisfy the itch. Southern literature was something that I had always wanted to study, but never had the opportunity to do. When I got to graduate school, I actually wanted to be a Shakespeare scholar. I had a degree in performing arts from WashU, but I had the opportunity to take my first class in southern literature. After one semester, I switched fields. As I studied southern literature and culture more in Chapel Hill, I found my ambivalent relationship with the South to be fascinating on its own. And it’s not a unique perspective. I am drawn to southern culture and art, but at the same time, I am repelled by a lot of the things that are repugnant about the culture: xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, racism, classism, disenfranchisement, and exclusion. Frustration and ambivalence are nothing if not compelling, and they have sustained my interest.
What does the term “South-Sploitation” mean, and why should it concern us?
I’m interested in southern art, broadly defined, and that includes southern film. One subset of my interest (both personal and professional) involves American horror movies, where the South has a fairly troubled existence. I started thinking about how representations of the South tend to remain static in popular culture for almost a century. I considered thinking about this phenomenon as a kind of cinema of exploitation, one based on regional identification rather than racial or class representation (such as “black-sploitation” or “hick-sploitation”). This kind of film is used by American directors to present the South as a sort of outland where they can exorcise all of the fears and anxieties that America has in a particular historical moment, yet in a largely consequence-free environment.
What do you hope to achieve in your research of southern literature and culture?
Honestly, the answer is probably not satisfying because I’m more interested in complicating the South rather than explaining it. I don’t see my goal to explicate the culture and say, “This is what is important.” And maybe that shift in perspective is slightly different than those of southern scholars a decade or more ago. But there’s no way you can meaningfully explain a multi-vocal discourse in a monolithic way. So the important work needs to be in challenging and complicating the definition of what the South means and not promoting, advertising, or solving the riddle of the region. Hopefully, my work will open up spaces for conversation and complicate the areas that we think we have solved about the South—definitions of race, class, gender, and sexuality among other things. I’m interested, not in thinking about the South as isolated, but in thinking about the South as a contested space, a discursive rhetoric that is always challenged or challenging.
What are some common misconceptions about the South?
I think there is a belief that the South is only a space of disenfranchisement and exclusion. We manufacture excuses for the South when it represents the worst of American culture, such as in the cases of UA’s sororities or the murder of Trayvon Martin. We’ve talked about both those examples in my class, and how a narrative in popular and political culture emerges that explains these terrifying events as endemic to southern culture. “We shouldn’t be surprised by the South’s backwardness.” “What do you expect from Alabama?” “Well, that’s just Florida.” When we manufacture those kinds of regional excuses, we give the South a pass, and we negate the work of real people, including native southerners, who are trying to bring about radical change, who are trying to re-define the South. One serious side-effect of scapegoating is that it lets the South off the hook; it creates a mindset that its people cannot or will not change.
How do you think that the dichotomy between church and state affects contemporary southern literature as well as the outlook on southern culture?
I think the relationship gets conflated into different arenas—of course, the South has had a long association with religious fundamentalism, especially Christian evangelicalism, and that gets translated sometimes into a political identity. I feel less strongly about this, not necessarily because I’m not religious, but because I feel like this is changing more than anything else in the South. I feel like religious identity in the South is not what it was a decade ago, and the topic has become a little less meaningful. Flannery O’Connor famously said that the South is “Christ Haunted”—and you can still see that today: You drive through and you see billboards where God is literally talking to you. But in terms of a monolithic religious identity, I think the church is beginning to matter less and less to southern culture.
Do you think that race and segregation are still prominent themes in southern literature and culture? Do you think that these themes will ever cease?
I don’t know. In some ways, the South seems to be drawing more and more interior in thinking about racial representations. Disenfranchisement and exclusion based on race is going to be something with which the South will continuously struggle. It’s clear to anyone who lives here that a “post-racial America” is a myth. You still have pockets of resistance that are going to grow deeper and deeper because of a reactionary perspective—one that is necessarily more panicked as it senses its dissolution. It is going to try to take a hold of whatever it can because it senses itself in the last throes of its own relevancy. And, still, the truth is: the South is really quite diverse. Where I came from, in Louisiana, you had African, French, Spanish, and Native cultures all commingling with one another. The prominence of culture exchanges were encouraging.
Gone with the Wind is obviously a capstone in southern achievement, both in film and in literature. Are there any other novels that depict the South, whether in a positive or negative fashion, that you believe would make good film adaptations?
I believe one central reason Gone with the Wind was such a tremendous American phenomenon is because, in large part, it became a metonym for plantation culture, a kind of culture that many people romanticized in a very unironic way. Uncomplicated is what popular culture likes. It spoke to those people who wanted the familiarity of southern exceptionalism—the grandness, the aristocratic and genteel honor, the fantasy of southern luxury. But I’m hoping the collection I’m editing complicates those conventional readings. In my introduction, I ask the question, “Do we need Gone With the Wind anymore?” I hope that the people reading my book think so anyway. My introduction is called “Too Big to Fail: Gone with the Wind @ the 21st Century,” and it’s trying to make some claim about how the novel and movie still offer something to scholars, students, and audiences beyond conventional and stereotypical tropes about the plantation South. One adaptation of a southern novel that I do like is To Kill a Mockingbird. My partner and I watch it every October like clockwork. It’s also his favorite novel of all time. And I know it has problems; the problems are inherent in any narrative that foregrounds white authorship in the civil rights movement. But I think that the movie is successful in portraying the South because it tries to engage with its problems rather than accepting them in an uncomplicated fashion. It thinks of the South as a space where questions are being challenged and not accepted, and that’s why it feels more successful to me.
I know that you have done a lot of work on James Agee and Sam Shepard. Are either one of those your favorite author, and if not, who is your favorite author?
Favorite is a difficult adjective. There are obviously certain authors that I find more compelling than others. Each time I read them, I find something new to discuss. If that is the definition for “favorite,” then I would say my favorite author is Faulkner. There are some works of his that I have read 20 or 30 times, and each time I come away stunned to find something new there. Faulkner rewards the careful reader. However, if there is an author that I come to, that I take pleasure in reading and re-reading, it’s James Agee. He’s from Tennessee, and he writes so eloquently about childhood. His achievement is so vast, because he’s a wonderful poet; he’s a fantastic novelist; he does great creative nonfiction; he wrote short stories, journal articles, and screenplays. His achievement is so broad. Sam Shepard is also in there, but more because I associate him with a specific place and time in my life. So, I like many authors, but I guess I’ll say Faulkner—he’s like Shakespeare in that there is always something to say about his work, and sometimes you surprise yourself with what you can find in his work.
Could you give us an insight into the progress of one of your current projects?
The book I am conceptualizing right now is interested in images of trash and disposability in the South. I’m actually teaching a graduate class on this subject, and together, we are looking at a variety of issues: class and white trash; cuisine; “Dirty South” hip hop; southern literature’s anxiety over issues of narrative; marginality and race; disposability and the discipline itself. It’s an ambitious project, and it’s going to involve a variety of different claims, historical, cultural, and literary. It’s been in the works for about two years, but I finally have a grasp on the metanarrative. Hopefully, it will be out and published by 2016. I’ve got the collection of essays on Gone with the Wind coming out next year and hopefully my James Agee collection will be out the year after that. I’ve also been reviewing books for The Southern Literary Journal and Southern Studies, and I just finished an article on celebrity chef Paula Dean. The most difficult thing for me is keeping quiet. I always feel like there is something to say.