Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ellen Glasgow--Heroes and Monsters (1935)


            It is in this article that Glasgow is credited with coining the term “Southern Gothic”: I am not asking the novelist of the Southern Gothic school to change his material.  The Gothic as Gothic, not as pseudo-realism, has an important place in our fiction….All I ask him to do is to deal as honestly with living tissues as he now deals with decay, to remind himself that the colors of putrescence have no greater validity or our age, or for any other age, than have…the cardinal virtues” (4).  After decrying the previous “evasive idealism” from thirty years ago, in this article she decries the “aimless violence” of the current literature.  Glasgow says, “For all the weeds that grow and run wild in Southern soil, plain truth is the most difficult to serve without sauce” (3).  Discussing the contemporary Southern novel, which she describes as “the inflamed rabble of impulses in the contemporary Southern novel” (3).  To Glasgow, the modern age is recovering from its loss of superstitions.  Unable to fully recover, “the fantasy of abominations has stolen the proud stilts of the romantics” (3).  Glasgow is unhappy about this state of literature: “the literature that crawls too long in the mire will lose at last the power of standing erect.  On the farther side of deterioration lies the death of a culture” (4). 
            It was only one year later that Welty’s first short story, “Death of a Travelling Salesman,” was published, and her Curtain of Green collection came out in 1941.  At this point, Faulkner had published Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932).  It’s interesting to compare Glasgow’s decrial of the gothic in the mid-1930s with O’Connor’s embrace of the grotesque twenty years later in “The Grotesque in Fiction” and “The Fiction Writer and his Country.”  To O’Connor, her commitment to Christian orthodoxy made her more respectful of mystery; as such, everywhere she looked she saw “distortion.”  As what she thought of as distortions she assumed others saw as reality, so she felt it necessary to turn up the volume on the stories she told.  So, while Glasgow worries that the abominations of contemporary literature will cause cultural decay, O’Connor sees the portrayal of the grotesque as a moral imperative.

Flannery O'Connor--The Fiction Writer and His Country


            O’Connor wrote this in response to a Life magazine article which asked where the novels which were speaking for America were—and why novels no longer conveyed joy.  To O’Connor, the writer can only represent herself.  What’s interesting to me is her characterization of the current understanding of Southern literature:
Most readers these days must be sufficiently sick of hearing about Southern writers and Southern writing and what so many reviewers insist upon calling the “Southern school.”  No one has ever made plain just what the Southern school is or which writers belong to it. Sometimes, when it is most respectable, it seems to mean the little group of Agrarians that flourished at Vanderbilt in the twenties; but more often the term conjures up an image of Gothic monstrosities and the idea of a preoccupation with everything deformed and grotesque.  Most of us are considered, I believe, to be unhappy combinations of Poe and Erskine Caldwell. (802)
She goes on to say that while such outsiders consider that southerners are anguished people, anguished because of their isolation from the rest of the country—though O’Connor notes that
this would be news to most Southern writers.  The anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, that we are being forced out, not only of our many sins but of our few virtues. (802)
To O’Connor, this increasing assimilation has led to Southern writers being more self-consciousness of their Southern-ness, and it is this which is hurting Southern fiction.
            O’Connor claims that it is the Christian writer—not one who writes from a sentimental perspective, but rather one who writes with a true “respect for mystery,” who is able to write the most striking fiction—as the greatest fiction is that in which the “writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense” (804).  As O’Connor says, “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.  This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in its relation to that.  I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction” (805)—and it is her Christian perspective which gives her “the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, for the unacceptable” (805).  It is the Christian’s perception of the “distorted” which she tries to then convey to her readers—and as her readers most likely will see such distortions as natural, she will be “forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience” (805): “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures” (806).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Leigh Anne Duck--The Nation's Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, And U.S. Nationalism (2009)

  

 In this insightful work, Duck looks at the how the “backwards” South not only coexisted with but was a necessary component of the U.S.’s emerging identity as a liberal democracy.  Duck’s use of the term “apartheid” to characterize the state of racism in the South at this point not only calls attention to the separation caused by segregation and racism, but also to emphasize that segregation was not simply a “cultural practice tolerated by the liberal state” but also system codified and enforced by law (4).  Her use of apartheid also brings the text into larger discussions of postcolonialism in general. 
By focusing on work by Erskine Caldwell, Zora Neale Hurston, and William Faulkner (among others), Duck demonstrates how apartheid has been able to continue in a nation which claims to be a liberal democracy.  In each of the chapters, she examines the kinds of chronotypes (or collection of temporally coded traits (5)) posited in these works, and how these authors dealt with a South which was (or at least was considered) to be temporally different from the rest of the nation.  To Duck, identifying the South as temporally different from the rest of the country allowed it to tacitly sanction racial injustice by attributing it to cultural or interpersonal—rather than systemic or structural—relations (6). 
In the first section, “Imagining Affiliation,” she looks at how post-Reconstruction America relied up regionalist writers to offer “amelioration for precisely the damage that U.S. nationality  threatens to inflict: though citizens may justly fear being ‘left out of’ or ‘left behind in’ U.S. capitalist progress, identification with regions is held to be sustained—determined by roots—and, concomitantly, sustaining” (32).  More specifically, “regionalism, as a cultural discourse, has often functioned as a supplement to U.S. nationalism; it serves to suggest that, at the local level, the United States maintains precisely the kid of the cultural particularities that the state ideology of liberalism disavows” (33).  The South has provided the U.S. this kind of supplementation beyond the period of post-Reconstruction local color writing.
In the section section of the book, “Modernist Mappings,” Duck locates different strategies of portrayal and understanding the kinds of (particularly, but not exclusively, temporal) alterity represented by the South in texts from the Reconstruction era to approximately World War II.  Her analysis of Erskine Caldwell’s work looks specifically at his portrayal of southern culture of one of stasis and alternative temporality, and how it was possible that such a region of stasis and alterity could coexist in a nation so heavily invested in an identity of capitalist modernity.  Relying heavily on Kristeva’s theories of abjection, Duck shows how Caldwell’s portrayal of the grotesque, a grotesque particularly situated on the body, aligns this community with the kind of abject which results in reinforcing the larger ideas of order.  Particularly in her discussion of stage version of Erskine’s work, Duck says that “many audience members preferred the belief that, in another part of the country, people routinely killed and slept with their nonspousal family members to the belief that such activity was, at least in this case, restricted to a fictional realm.  The latter explanation would place the abject not only in Caldwell’s imagination but also in their own, thus violating a topographical rule of abjection—that it must be ‘hemmed in and thrust aside,’ not repressed but ejected, perhaps most effectively projected onto another, spatially distanced body” (94).
Turning to Hurston, Duck notes that most critics situate her work outside of modernity (115).  Duck notes that “Even as much African American writing from the 1920s and 1930s suggested that folk culture offered the attraction of an authentic racial community, that allure was often represented as uncanny—a dangerous nostalgia for an experience inaccessible to modern subjects, and, furthermore, inextricably linked to racist exploitation” (116), which is how many see Hurston’s writing.  However, Duck’s emphasis on Hurston’s inclusion of modernization in her work demonstrates Hurston’s more complex and often ambiguous position relative to technology, modernization, and modernity: “In representing this transition, Hurston provides or the preservation of folkloric values by incorporating them into the modern self-fashioning of her individuated protagonist” (116).
Again, what Duck refers to as allochronic time is important in this portrayal of the South.  She discusses Alain Locke’s New Negro anthology (1925), which while it “inscribes a modern national community in which individuals, though unacquainted and spatially distanced, recognize themselves as working together in homogeneous linear time to pursue shared goals” (117), also demonstrated how these individuals may experience time differently.  Compared to authors such as Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer, whose work is much more in line with more temporally progressive ideas of time, Duck notes that “though Hurston’s political beliefs were unquestionably complicated, they comprised not a consistent conservatism, but rather a continuing and dynamic ambivalence concerning the effects of modernization in southern African American communities.  Such ambivalence was partly a result of her work as an anthropologist, which allowed Hurston to see and portray the very real possibility of coexisting temporal differences within a seemingly homogenous geographical/cultural space.  When combined with the pressures of a changing capitalist democracy, Hurston’s work “explored the emotional responses that might emerge from concomitant cultural change” (131).
From Hurston, Duck moves to Faulkner’s work, focusing on his use of gothic conventions in order to convey the kinds of concomitant chronotypes and temporal fragmentation which existed in his South.  According to Duck, while “gothic tropes were mobilized to represent individuals’ anxieties as they perceive both substantial cultural differences and by uncontrollable psychological responses,” for Faulkner, they worked as “an analytic tool through which to investigate ideas of southern collective memory”: “Faulkner’s representations of haunting memories belie the idea that his characters participate in a shared white southern cultural identity.  Rather, they suffer individualized mnemonic disorders presented in the novels as sources of pain, cultural misrecognition, and ethical failure” (147).  As other Southern writers used gothic tropes for aesthetic reasons, Faulkner’s Gothicism was rather a “reflection of the temporal alterity in which both author and subject matter were submerged” (149). 
She compares Faulkner’s Gothicism to more traditional gothic works—in particular, to that of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  In all of these works, there is a distinct tension between an embrace of modernity undercut by temporal and geographic alterity: “Through their confluence of gothic imagery and the logic of psychological trauma, these narratives suggest that the encounter with a temporality perceived as nonlinear might itself be sufficient to detach subjectivity from the time of capitalist modernity, leaving individuals isolated and confused by memories that manifest precisely the sort of temporal multiplicity that they first sought to disavow” (155).  Duck sees Faulkner’s Gothicism as going a step beyond these more traditional gothic narratives, however: “Faulkner’s novels suggest not simply a backward culture but one in which individuals damage themselves and other by avowing an absolute split in time and refusing to engage in more nuanced investigation of the relationship between past and present” (159).
The final section of the book, “The Shifting South,” examines the post war period, in which “polarized perspectives on racial injustice continued to impede recognition that apartheid constituted not merely a recalcitrant holdover from the past but rather a broadly dispersed element of regional national modernity” (174).  The first section, “Provincial Cosmopolitans,” examines the how what in an allegedly liberal capitalist nation might be seen as backward southern culture in fact “exemplified prominent patterns in global modernity” (178).  Duck notes that uneven development is actually a key component of “capitalist spatiality” (179), thus showing that the South’s temporal alterity was not the anomaly it was so often understood to be.  Further, the characterization of the South as backward created a de facto disenfranchisement of all of its inhabitant—not only (though remarkably) its African American inhabitants—in larger national discourses of progress and modernization.
As a part of American exceptionalism, southern exceptionalism (as exemplified by writings by the Agrarians or W.J. Cash) claimed that those in the South were of a different breed from the rest of the country, which made them immune to full rehabilitation to the level of the rest of the country.  In this way, the infallibility of modernity and capitalist progress were able to stand despite what commentary the poverty of much of the South might otherwise present.  In the work of Richard Wright, Duck sees a critical analysis of this situation, again framing her discussion in particularly temporal terms: “Wright’s fiction, particularly, often undercuts or reframes such perceptions describing African Americans’ explicitly modern experience—both the ways in which racial oppression constituted a distinctly modern system of economic and political exploitation, and the ways in which African Americans positioned themselves in time….Like many African Americans and leftists of the era, Wright expressed substantial concern about how such a temporal lag might affect the consciousness of the people it affected” (186).  Duck shows how Wright’s work highlights how by highlighting the South as a culturally different region disavows any political foundation for what were in fact highly political/systemic/institutional acts which reinforced southern apartheid, with lynching as a prime example of such an act.
Duck then looks at James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, focusing on Agee’s words more than Walker Evans’ photographs.  She emphasizes the uncertainly Agee expresses, in his claims of both being unable to fully connect with his subjects and his inability to fully convey the connections he is able to make.  Finally, she ends with a consideration of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, with which she suggests that “southern literature from the 1930s through the 1940s participated in changing understandings of southern time.  Once considered a backward region whose racial oppression was inextricable from its idiosyncratic bounded temporality, the South in this period was increasingly represented, in literature and in political discourse, as a coeval region with strained by undeniable ties to the larger nation” (212).  Even after this period, in a post-Brown v. Board of Education nation, the idea of an anachronistic South became more and more important to an increasingly cosmopolitan world.  In Faulkner’s later work as well as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Duck shows how these writers stage “the problem of how to articulate the political meanings that might emerge from cultural differences”: “minority political beliefs are, variously, embedded in gestures concerning heritage and aesthetics, considered so futile as to be unutterable, rendered through heavy use of figurative or ironic language, or, famously, invisible” (217).
Ultimately, Duck shows how the “slippage” between the cultural and the political which emerges in these novels, these works speak to the current red state/blue state view that “political differences emerge from spatialized cultural difference, implicitly raising the question of whether meaningful exchange can take place among opposing parties” (231).  To Duck, examining how such slippage between spatialized cultural differences and politics emerged in the period of her study is key in disentangling current understandings of their connection.

Monday, July 4, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald--The Great Gatsby

      Straddling the line between realism and modernism, Gatsby does a wonderful job of combining the Darwinian tragedy of realism with the nostalgia for an unbroken world of modernism.  Both Gatsy and Nick Carroway, the narrator, were in the war, and they along with the other men in the novel are in pursuit of dreams from before which cannot be recovered.  Nick tries to tell Gatsby that he can’t repeat the past, but Gatsby refuses to believe him: “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously.  ‘Why of course you can!’” (111). 
      In the novel, narrator Nick Carroway befriends his neighbor Jay Gatsby (nĂ©e James Gatz), who attempts to reconnect with Nick’s cousin Daisy, his long lost love.  Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, a college chum of Nick’s, who’s cheating on her with Myrtle.  Nick has a vague job working with bonds in the city, Gatsby and Tom both have extraordinary wealth, while Myrtle’s husband runs a gas station.  Gatsby’s life in particular is one of unfathomable wealth and celebrity, with frequent lavish parties at his house attended by people who don’t even know him.  These parties show a hollowness to the kind of wealth he has amassed in his attempt to win back Daisy.
      I hadn’t read this book since high school, and was surprised that I still enjoyed it.  In high school, I was enthralled by the images of Daisy and Jordan in white seemingly floating over chaises and sofas.  There’s a definite demarcation of gender in this book, as the women are there as beautiful prizes to be competed for by the men.  Men are of the world, and can’t seem to help but interact with the seedier sides of life which bolster their wealth—whether Gatsby’s underworld dealings or Tom’s involvement with Myrtle. 
      In addition to the modernist themes of nostalgia, there’s also a real suspicion of technology and scientific advancement.  Tom’s espousal of the terrible racist theories which he claims are “scientific” are one example of this, but even more so are the ubiquitous cars.  While cars are an integral part of the key climax scene—when Gatsby hits Myrtle with his car and kills her—they are a dark presence throughout.  In one of Gatsby’s party scenes, the hilarity of the party gives way to the drunken reality of the cars leaving, as one partygoer hits a wall with his car and knocks out his tire, and another partygoer has his hand run over.  Cars may get people from one place to another faster, but it’s not clear that they have any idea where they’re going, how to get there, or what they’ll do when they arrive.
      Ultimately, Myrtle’s husband kills Gatsby for revenge, and the novel ends with Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz, and Nick being the only real mourners at his funeral.  Still, despite the characters’ cynicism throughout and the sad ending which Gatsby comes to, the novel ends on a romantic note, with Nick brooding over Gatsby’s life, ending with the beautiful lines:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms father…And one fine morning---
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (182)
I love those lines.  Despite the failure of the American dream, despite the hollowness of pleasure, the message seems to be that we persevere even with knowledge of our futility; it is this faith which enables us to persevere.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Flannery O'Connor--Wise Blood


Hazel Motes returns from the war (with an unnamed injury, something that the war had done to his insides, earning him a pension check every month) and anoints himself preacher in the Church of Christ without Christ.  He encounters the Hawkses, a man and his adolescent daughter who are sidewalk evangelists who use Mr. Hawks’s blindness to stir up support.  However, though their story relies upon Hawks’s self-immolation—blinding himself with lime—as their show of grand faith, it is revealed that Hawks lacked the courage to actually blind himself, and can actually see.  As the Hawkses are introduced alongside a street vendor hawking potato peelers, from the beginning their religious faith is suspect.
Hazel becomes obsessed with the Hawkses, however, and sets out to preach his own Church of Christ Without Christ as a way of making an impression on the alleged blind man.  He intends to seduce his daughter, Sabbath Hawks, and win believers to his Church in order to impress Hawks.  Unbeknownst to him, fifteen-year-old Sabbath Hawks has her eye on him as well, seeing him as her ticket out of life as a street evangelist with her father. Haze wants to seduce Sabbath as a way of confirming his own sin.  Sin and self-immolation for sin are the ways in which Haze confirms his identity: when asked why he rejects Jesus, for example, he says, “‘What do I need with Jesus?  I got Leora Watts” (31) (Leora Watts being the woman with the friendliest bed in town whom he first beds after his arrival). 
Along with Sabbath, Haze also attracts the attention of Enoch Emery, a young man new to the big city who claims to possess “wise blood,” a gift from God which he thinks directs him toward his destiny.  Enoch has been rejected by everyone he has encountered, and tries to attach himself to Haze.  Haze originally shows interest in Enoch, but only because Enoch claims to know the Hawkses.  Enoch, however, feels that his blood is drawing him to Haze and his new jesus; in fact, he steals a mummy from a natural history museum and delivers it to Haze (via Sabbath) in order to be Haze’s new jesus.  While Sabbath is shown with the mummy in an image of a grotesque pieta, Haze refuses the mummy and destroys it.  Enoch’s one positive encounter with another ends up being with a man in a gorilla suit promoting a movie.  This leads him to attack the man in the suit, steal the costume, and run away into the woods in the costume, happier than he has ever been.
Haze continues his evangelism of his Christless church and his own self-immolation from the hood of his Essex automobile, a key element of his ministry.  As he says in his preaching, "Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.  Where is there a place for you to be?  No place” (93).  However, he encounters competition from another would-be evangelical charlatan in the form of Onnie Jay Holy (real name Hoover Shoats); after he refuses Shoats’s offer to team up, Shoats recruits his own “prophet” who bears a striking resemblance to Haze.  Haze chases down this prophet and runs him over with his car, killing him.  Shortly after this, he is caught driving without a license by a police officer who pushes his car off of an embankment. 
After losing his car, Haze succeeds in blinding himself with lime.  His landlady, Mrs. Flood, takes advantage of his weakness to siphon off as much of his pension money as she can while he is such a vulnerable state.  However, she does eventually push him too far, demanding that he marry her, and he leaves, only to be found near death in a ditch by police.  They return him to Mrs. Flood and he dies.
            While I do adore this novel, it seems like it can’t decide whether it wants to be a short story or a novel.  It might have worked better as a collection of stories, some sort of Go Down, Moses, or Winesberg, Ohio, collection.  O'Connor truly is a master of the short story form, which is apparent in this novel.  As it is, the stories of Haze, Enoch, and the Hawkses don’t quite align in a satisfactory manner.  Although, the asymmetry of their stories and the lack of a satisfactory closure may be part of the point. 
Despite this, however, it is a fascinating meditation and exploration of the meaning of faith and sin and “justification.”  Reading it this time, I was struck by how important gender is in the novel and its understanding of faith.  As I was paying extra attention to the symbolism of the car in this reading (I’m writing a paper about the novel in conjunction with the industrial song “Jesus Built My Hotrod” by the industrial band Ministry, which samples dialogue from the movie version of the novel), it struck me as a very gendered symbol in the novel.  I think that at least part of Haze’s pursuit of a Church of Christ Without Christ is a pursuit of a masculine faith: as Haze puts it, “‘I believe in a new kind of jesus,’ he said, ‘one that can’t waste his blood redeeming people with it, because he’s all man and ain’t got any God in him.  My church is the Church Without Christ” (69).  Haze says this as he’s rejecting Sabbath’s offer of Christian salvation; I read this rejection as specifically rejecting a nurturing, feminine Christianity represented by Sabbath (and, in fact, all of the women in the novel).  As it is Hawks whom Haze seeks approval from, and it is his own father’s example of sexual pursuit of women (which his mother characterizes as sin in need of purification through self-immolation), I think one key to this novel is the bifurcation of faith into masculine and feminine arenas.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Annie Proulx--The Shipping News


I've never read Proulx before, or even seen the movie of Brokeback Mountain.  I admit to being a bit disappointed by this introduction to her work.
The novel won both the 1993 National Book Award as well as the 1994 Pulitzer.  It tells the story of Quoyle, who after losing his parents to suicide and his philandering wife Petal to a car accident, moves his two daughters and his aunt back to Quoyle’s Point in Newfoundland, where he works for the local paper, writing up car accidents and the shipping news.
Each chapter begins with a definition of a kind of knot or other nautical information.  Quoyle, as a newspaperman, responds to his life events (usually of some level of tragedy) in his thoughts by giving them headlines, such as “Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once More.” 
I don’t quite understand why this won so many awards.  Housekeeping is much more beautifully written, and was only a finalist for the Pulitzer.  In addition to the general theme of misery in the novel, I find some of Proulx's description to be rather awkward.  However, over the course of the novel, a general theme of the seeming randomness of why some survive and others don’t seems to emerge.  Particularly when Billy Pretty takes Quoyle to Gaze Island and tells him the story of his father’s being orphaned and shipwrecked and ending up in Newfoundland—by this point in the novel, about halfway through, the idea of survival despite a hostile environment is strong.  Proulx’s novel in many ways hearkens back to a Jack London kind of realism, man alone in a hostile environment.  Proulx’s novel, however, combines this harsh realism with the idea of familial roots—how do roots in a hostile environment hold?  Such a harsh place of stubborn individualism requires a certain kind of community—as Billy Pretty says, “No, they didn’t have any money, the sea was dangerous and men were lost, but it was a satisfying life in a way people today do not understand.  There was a joinery of lives all worked together, smooth in places, or lumpy, but joined.  The work and the living you did was the same thing, not separated out like today” (169).
It ends with Quoyle finding love with Wavey: “It may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery” (336).  Quoyle finds a way to survive through the ice floes of tragedy which surround life in Newfoundland.  It’s not my favorite—much of the metaphor is way too heavy-handed for me, such as Quoyle’s comparison of love to a box of chocolates.  To be fair, the movie of Forrest Gump didn’t come out until 1994, so this metaphor probably wasn’t nearly as tired when she wrote it, but it’s still rather typical of the kind of metaphors the book often engages in.  I was more intrigued by the elements of magic or at least the uncanny—the bewitching knots that Quoyle’s cousin with dementia left about or his daughter Bunny’s prescience.  They were acknowledged as somewhat credible—Bunny more than the cousin—but more tangential to Quoyle’s larger search for a way to live in the world.