To Hell and Back
Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel

Jeff Abernathy

How the southern novel works to construct the American concept of race


"Critics have long argued that Twain started something big with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Thanks to this most impressive study we know much more about just what he started. In developing a compelling white character who was almost, but not quite, coaxed out of whiteness by an African American mentor and friend, Twain set a pattern for ambivalent white southern literary liberalism on race and for African American efforts to push beyond the limits of such liberalism."
—David Roediger, author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past

"To Hell and Back shows how consistently white southern novelists committed to busting the color line have left it intact. Huck Finn's archetypal betrayal of Jim—his decision to 'go to hell' to set a slave free only to go slack at novel's end—has continued to plague his literary descendants, southern in purview but national in scope. A rousing and useful argument."
—Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

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This study of the construction of race in American culture takes its title from a central story thread in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck, who resolves to "go to hell" rather than turn over the runaway slave Jim, in time betrays his companion.

Jeff Abernathy assesses cross-racial pairings in American literature following Huckleberry Finn to show that this pattern of engagement and betrayal appears repeatedly in our fiction—notably southern fiction—just as it appears throughout American history and culture. He contends that such stories of companionship and rejection express opposing tenets of American culture: a persistent vision of democracy and the racial hierarchy that undermines it.

Abernathy traces this pattern through works by William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Kaye Gibbons, Sara Flanigan, Elizabeth Spencer, Padgett Powell, Ellen Douglas, and Glasgow Phillips. He then demonstrates how African American writers pointedly contest the pattern. The works of Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright, for example, "portray autonomous black characters and white characters who must earn their own salvation, or gain it not at all."

Page count: 240 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


List price: $26.95

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Jeff Abernathy is president of Alma College in Michigan.