With the deaths of Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy the specter of the star system is loose again in the land. "Who will be their successors? Who will pick up their mantle?" It's a plaintive cry, predictable but genuine, largely journalistic and academic—a spume from the wave of canon-making—thinned by its basis in literary politics. It isn't cast up, usually, by writers, at least not those writing, since their attention is centered elsewhere. They do lament, of course, the passing of the likes of Percy and Warren, some grieving the loss of the men more than the art. The living, however, aren't meant to supplant the dead, but to fulfill their own destinies.

At a festival honoring his work in 1985, Fred Chappell was asked how it felt to be a Southern writer. "You've got to come from somewhere," he replied. "Not everyone can be born in the Museum of Modern Art." The breadth of reference in the apothegm, as well as the choices that Chappell has made as a writer that underlie it, make it hard to dismiss the answer as flippant. It suggests in part Chappell's refusal to play the star-system game, to kowtow to the power centers of publication (fortunately dispersing), to court reviewers. It also points to the substantial shift in Chappell's work over the past thirty years.

After trying on ill-fitting European costumes (Rimbaud, Mann), a Faustian sort of bargaining with...

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