Jeffrey J. Folks
From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison: Ethics in Modern and Postmodern American Narrative
New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Pp. 199. $29.95

Reviewed by Axel Knoenagel

During the last few decades, literary criticism has been dominated largely by structuralist and poststructuralist approaches. As a consequence, form has been strongly emphasized over content. American critic Jeffrey J. Folks sees a recent change of direction in contemporary criticism, though, that is best exemplified by the PMLA special issue on "Ethics and Literary Study" (January 1999). In his book From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison, Folks sets out to analyze selected twentieth-century American fiction based on "an urgent need to assign priority to narrative content itself" (5).

For his study, Folks selected texts by authors for whom "the force of history threatens to deprive their communities of a workable consensus" (8) and whose texts "center on just such questions of 'what must be affirmed and what must be denied'" (18). To make his point, Folks collected twelve essays on writing by Richard Wright, James Agee, Ernest J. Gaines, Henry Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Richard Ford, Thomas Keneally, Kaye Gibbons, and Toni Morrison. Only three of these texts find their original publication here. The rest of the book is made up of essays published in various journals during the 1990s.

In "Race, Class, and Redemption in Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman," Folks sets out to analyze "a central text for discussing his social ethics" (111). This turns out to be very difficult, however, since Percyone of the most important American novelists of his generationis "disturbingly indifferent" in his treatment of social issues: "In a meaningless world, almost all human relationships are rendered pointless and accidental" (112). Folks's discussion of The Last Gentleman demonstrates how difficult the task is that he has set himself. The novelcharacterized by a shift "from an ethical model in which race, class, and other social conflicts mattered to a model of society and art in which they are irrelevant" (118)is not suited to the approach to which Folks subjects it.

In the second original essay, Folks compares Thomas Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner to The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally. Both historical novels focus on rebellions by figures belonging to marginalized social and cultural groups. Folks manages to contrast the basic assumptions informing the two novels: "Unlike Styron's novel, which promotes a liberal program of assimilation within an authoritative Western culture, Keneally's work mocks pretensions to authority of all sorts" (146).

Kaye Gibbons emerges as the ideal candidate for Folks's approach. As he demonstrates in his discussion of Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman, "Gibbons imagines an unfamiliar fullness of life and a potential for human fidelity based on the simple efficacy of moral conduct" (151). What makes Gibbons so attractive for Folks is her focus not on the absence that characterizes the critical persuasions of Derrida, de Man, Hayden White, and others but rather on "the desperate need for a coherent system of ethical beliefs and priorities" (157). The great accomplishment that Folks sees in Gibbons's novels is that the readers "come to understand much about the essential physical and emotional needs of human beings" (153).

These three original essays are supported by nine essays that have been published independently of each other before. The outstanding pieces here are an analysis of Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying and an essay on Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, which in some respects resembles a dialogue with the essay on Walker Percy. Ford, "assembling the novel from the collective voices of postwar American culture" (127), creates a world that "lack[s] coherent significance" (128) in which characters, though they may possess serious ethical concerns, hardly find echoes of such concerns in the culture that surrounds them.

Folks wants to promote the discussion of ethical concerns in contemporary writing. Unfortunately, the texts that he chose for this study do not lend themselves easily to such an enterprise. In a number of instances, therefore, Folks resorts to an analysis that progresses only little beyond paraphrasing. The book would have greatly benefited from a more thorough selection of primary works and an extended discussion of the developments in literary criticism and their implications. From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison is a collection of essays strung together more by the name of the critic than by a coherent thematic concern.