This 1997 (518 page!) collection of essays posits that gender “may be as important an analytic category for making sense of the South as race itself traditionally has been acknowledged to be” (16). They propose an intersectional analysis which takes into account the connections between “whiteness and blackness, masculinity and femininity, domination and subordination” (16). From this comes Anne Goodwyn Jones’s question,
If Charles Chesnutt and Faulkner can be seen at least tentatively as writing within a thematic set by Douglass, who rewrites Jacobs’s story? For reasons about which it would be interesting to wonder, the story seems to have been taken up more by white writers than by African-American southern women like Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor. I am thinking of Katherine Anne Porter, for example, whose version of Harriet Jacobs in “The Old Order,” Nanny, stays with her mistress after the war by finally transforms herself in a free and independent “aged Bantu woman”; of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, another story of mastery, sexuality, and escape; of Ellen Douglas in her remarkable work about contemporary white mistresses and black maids, Can’t Quit You, Baby. (“Engendered in the South: Blood and Irony in Douglass and Jacobs” 216)
Jones’s observation about this writing is influencing my own ideas of the scope within which I want to write my dissertation.
One highlight early on for me is David Leverenz’s “Poe and Gentry Virginia: Provincial Gentleman, Textual Aristocrat, Man of the Crowd” (79-108). Leverenz uses Bordieau’s ideas of cultural capital to look at Poe’s exaggerated and parodic portrayal of the southern aristocracy, what he identifies as Poe’s “play[ing] a trixster role at the alienated margin of gentry culture” (100). Relevant to my work is his brief discussion of Poe’s short fiction versus what is generally accepted as his failed attempt at longer narrative: “What can be riveting or shocking in the short story seems nihilistic and capricious in the novel” (100). Though he is talking about Poe, I think this idea might be applied to the idea of the southern gothic in general, especially to the work of Flannery O’Connor. Many people claim that O’Connor’s best work is her short fiction, rather than her novels—however, I think it may instead be a lack of comfort with the kind of nihilism which Leverenz identifies here. This fits into my reading of Wise Blood, where the kind of shocking imagery which might be a central image in a short story instead appears over and over in the novel, creating a larger sense of nihilism which undergirds Hazel Motes’s own vision of a masculine, nihilistic Christianity.
The collection also contains Patricia Yaeger’s “Beyond the Hummingbird: Southern Women Writers and the Southern Gargantua” (287-318). Anticipating her brilliant Dirt and Desire, this essay looks specifically at the figure of the gargantuan woman in southern women’s writing. More generally, though, her essay asks “what it might mean to have one’s body ‘at the core’ of the South’s self-definition” (292). In her discussion of the ideal miniaturized body of the white southern woman, she identifies the fact that “the small compass of the ideal white woman’s body is oddly at war with its epic stature in minds of white men; this fragile white body, slim as a reed and graceful as a sylph, becomes pivotal in each crucial task of bodily discipline” (293). Importantly, though, she goes on to claim that,
What is most remarkable about southern women’s fiction is the way in which it refuses such discipline. When the grotesque body marches onto the page, the ideology that controls southern bodies explodes in the most unexpected of ways. Southern women’s writing is filled with bizarre somatic images that seem unnecessarily cruel or out of control, and yet this cruelty has a function: it gears at the social fabric and leaves it in shreds. (293)
Further, Yaeger claims that the gargantuan bodies specifically “invoke the messiness and hubris of history itself” (294). In particular, she sees written on the southern female body what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has named the “southern rape complex”:
This ‘complex,’ with its triumphant protection of white women, its calculated fear of black men, its ignorance of the abuses of black women, is an instrument of sexual and racial suppression scapegoating those players in the southern game who challenge the established order. Just as ‘lynching served to dramatize hierarchies among men,’ so stories of female victimization encourage white women to depend upon white men. (298)
However, Yaeger notes that characters in this work do not remain within this dimension; rather, their gargantuan bodies allowed for ways out of these limited identities: “the gargantuan body both maps its own limits and refuses to stay within boundaries, to serve asked for ends” (299). More importantly, these characters “remind[s] us of the relative difficulty—for women, for people of color—of such public refusals” (301).
The rest of the collection contains a variety of perspectives and objects of focus regarding gender and southern literature, from the eighteenth century to the present day. The authors see so much of present-day understandings of gender in the South still as rooted in the patriarchy and paternalism of the nineteenth century southern plantation, in the ways that it institutionalized structures of race, class, and gender. Further, it set up a system of who was allowed to speak for whom, silencing most voices which did not fit the image of the ruling class. Many of the authors in this collection address these silences (or attempts to silence, or reactions to those who do not remain silent) and the significance of southern texts which give voice to those who are expected to remain silent.