To Hell and Back

Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel

Title Details

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 12/04/2003

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2578-1

List Price: $26.95


Pub Date: 04/01/2017

ISBN: 9-780-8203-5264-0

List Price: $84.95

To Hell and Back

Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel

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  • Description
  • Reviews

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."

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

Literally and truly a heartening book. Because Abernathy has thought deeply about black-white relations. Because he illuminates many concerned novelists since Mark Twain. And because he incisively helps us to search for the most promising path forward.

—Louis Budd, editor of Mark Twain: The Contemporary Reviews

Complementing Montserrat Gines's The Southern Inheritors of Don Quixote, which addresses similar and related issues in Twain's and Faulkner's writing, this thoughtful study goes beyond the genre of literary studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended.


Abernathy establishes the continued relevance of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to life in the U.S.. Abernathy shows that, though most readers find Twain's conclusion unsatisfactory, our repeated efforts to renegotiate the relationship between black and white in our history and in our literature have yielded similarly unsatisfying results.

College Literature

This thoughtful study goes beyond the genre of literary studies.


To Hell and Back is a wide-ranging, accessible work on essential elements of American life.

University Press Book Review

Abernathy's To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel is without question one of the bravest forays into racial politics and literary production that has been written. . . . To Hell and Back is an extraordinary book, well argued without being condescending and penetrating in its analysis without being vicious or petty. Abernathy has thrown down the gauntlet of racial crossing as it were and has challenged the South and its writers to move beyond the pattern of betrayal.

Southern Literary Journal

About the Author/Editor

JEFF ABERNATHY is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of the College, and a professor of English at West Virginia Wesleyan College.