Gray addresses the questions of southern regionalism in literature by looking at “writers who, for very different reasons, have found their involvement with the American South particularly problematical” (ix). Beginning with Edgar Allan Poe, and looking at authors such as Ellen Glasgow, the Agrarians, Erskine Caldwell, Appalachian authors, and contemporary southern writers who address social change such as Lee Smith, Harry Crews, and Barry Hannah (among many others). He addresses the Agrarian codification of the southern literary canon, noting that Allen Tate in particular “was trying to rewrite literary history from a self-consciously reactive position just as much as, in his social and political essays, he was trying to reinvent the broader history of the West from a stance of equally self-conscious reaction” (97). He then addresses subsequent canonical Southern criticism texts and examines what has been omitted from the traditions and why. Throughout, he examines how such authors, most of whom have definite ties to the South (and write about the South) negotiate their vexed relationship to the region, often in terms of their participation in (or lack) of social criticism, awareness of social problems, or the ways in which they address the history of racial violence.
While Cash (among others) identified that “Southern white women of the privileged classes have customarily been associated with the ‘very notion’ of the region…black women were assigned the sexual function: that is, they became those with whom the sexual dimension of experience was habitually and mythically associated” (23). Echoing Mr. Compson in Absalom, he discusses the paradox that Southern women are considered both bodiless as well as marked by blood, a contradiction which requires a certain kind of repression “when women are transformed into ‘ladies,’ drained of blood and all intimations of corporeal or sexual life, dressed in white and placed on a pedestal” (24). He invokes Kristeva’s definition of femininity as “that which is marginalized by the patriarchal symbolic order” (quoted page 24), and says that, “To the extent that they are within the order, shielding it from an imagined chaos, they can be seen as precious guardians of the law; to the extent that they are outside, however, in contact with that chaos, they can be seen as creatures of turbulence and darkness—not preventing chaos but partaking of it, even encouraging it to come again” (25). He then brings up Mary Douglas’s ideas of purity and dirt, noting that while traditional southern white women in literature “have all the insubstantiality that any self-respecting Southern white male…might have expected[,]…at crucial moments, they prove themselves unclean, the blood breaks through….it a blood that reminds us that they are, finally, of the earth, earthly” (25).
His discussion of Mildren Haun’s female characters is interesting: “Haun’s stories describe a community in which women can have strange powers—to put ‘a sure witch sign’ on someone they disapprove of, for instance—but where they remain, in the last analysis, powerless” (294). Further, “Haun was convinced of the conflicted status of her sex in traditional hill culture. The women in these stories draw whatever strength they possess, not so much from the concreteness of the natural world as from the vitality of custom; their belief in themselves flows from their tapping into the wellsprings of magic and ritual. Their powerlessness, however, issues from the same source” (295).
Gray’s analysis of Harry Crews sees him as the progeny of O’Connor. “Crews deploys freaks to defamiliarize, to expose what may be concealed by the tyranny of habit and so make us see how remarkable, how truly strange, the supposedly normal can be” (402). What’s important to me in his discussion of contemporary southern lit such as Crews is his discussion of the “postsouthern”: “these ‘postsouthern’ people live not so much in the stream of history as on its margins from where, like compulsive voyeurs, they watch everything that passes with a glazed sense of uninvolvement. Their problem, really, is not like that of their predecessors, an excess of narrative (an excess flowing from the conviction that the past is never dead), but rather its absence, the suspicion that no stories or ceremonies apply, that there are no more tales worth telling or parts worth playing” (433). This really echoes my own idea of the “postmythic” South, one in which we no longer believe in the old stories—but I think my position is a bit more overtly optimistic, as I see the continuation of southern literature as proof that there are new stories to tell. Of course, it’s dangerous to use the word “optimistic” even in the same paragraph as Harry Crews’s name.
To Gray’s concluding question, “Why does Southern self-fashioning continue?” he cites Welty: “It is a matter of language and communal ritual: the human habit of positioning the self with the help of the word and others—giving a local habitation and a name to things to secure their and our identity, and establishing a connection or kinship with other people that is also an anchorage, a validation of oneself” (504). Ultimately, southerners are driven “to position themselves with others in their locality, communality of interest or area, and against or apart from others elsewhere” (511).