Sunday, August 26, 2012

Michael Kreyling--Inventing Southern Literature (1998)

Despite the fact that I'm knee-deep in exam-writing (and full of hurricane anxiety), I'm still reading to finish up my lists.  This book in particular is coming in quite handy.  However, because I'm focusing on exam writing, this summary is not up to my usual standards of summaries--I just wanted primarily to get the significant quotes recorded.

Right now, I'm at 28 days before the essays are due!

Kreyling’s book is “a consideration of the ways and means by which southernness has come into being and been sustained there, along with the attempt to measure how and why the meaning of the term has changed over time” (169).  He relies upon Benedict Anderson’s concepts of nationhood in order to explain how the South understands itself.  Unlike Patricia Yaeger’s later work, in this work he says that this text is “not a counternarrative that seeks to dynamite the rails on which the official narrative runs; rather, it is a metanarrative, touching upon crucial moments when and where the official narrative is made or problematically directed” (ix). 
In his discussion of the Agrarians and the formation of the southern canon and southern studies which put Quentin Compson and Faulkner at the center, he notes that putting Quentin at the center is the result of “the legion of white males who have assumed responsibility for inventing a style for thinking of the South.”  I’m particularly interested in his discussion of feminist responses:
Feminist critics are not unanimous on an alternative to the Quentin thesis.  Some, like Carol S. Manning, might he called moderates: Manning points  out the defects in the Quentin position but wants to preserve the status quo  long enough to modify it for the admission of southern women's fiction (Manning   i-i2). A little to the left are critics like Susan V. Donaldson and Anne  Goodwyn Jones, who would like to modify the meaning of "history" in the  prevailing southern formula (usually along lines of Foucaultien "genealogy")  and, thus, run southern women's history into the mainstream at an angle”  (Donaldson i77ff). 
He goes on:
More extreme is the position of southern lesbian critic Mal, Segrest, who  would have community admit neither men nor their history: "For there have  always been Southern women who knew that they did not want to join the  white men in Mississippi for anything; who have known that WE did not  lose the war" (Segrest 29-3o; emphasis in original). Segrest's view represents  the most radical denial of the Quentin thesis, and it is not merely a matter  of polemic. Her reading of the figure of the spinster (like Jones's reading of  the southern-woman-as-author, but more radically) breaks the hold of the  consensus in thematic literary readings: "The other terrible absence in male-dominated   fictions is the absence of female community, or even its possibility. In all the stories I described [Ahsalom, Absalom!, "A Rose for Emily,"  "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," and "Good Country People"[, the spinster was  ;clone, set apart from both amen and married women. The small-town communities   within the fictions showed complete lack of support for female self-identification.   Without either respect for female solitude or the presence of  female community', of course spinsters were seen as freaks (Segrest 35).
Segrest's critique fractures the ideal of community by alleging that representations   of it have been unreflectingly male As I have argued just above,  Simpson's reading of Roberts could fall under this indictment. If Segrest's  image of community is as narrow from the feminist side as any might he from  the male, it is nevertheless provocative. In her "fable" of becoming it southern   writer, exclusion from "the community" is double. She dates her initiation   to the moment when she spied, from it distance, the black children who  were integrating her school in the Alabama of George Wallace: "I have it  tremendous flash of empathy, of identification, with their vulnerability and  their aloneness inside that circle of force Ithe white males of the Alabama  Highway I'atroll. Their separation is mine" (Segrest, 20). Segrest, establishing   another ideological center, uses the vocabulary of the former center-race   and community identification-to make herself it southern (woman)  writer. Extending and "outing" Lillian Smith's deconstruction of the southern   imaginary, Segrest links southern women writers in shared consciousness  of exclusion from it constructed center.
What the Quentin-based canon formation leads to is blindness to the kinds of female community which exist in the work of southern women writers, and the kinds of women who are estranged from these communities.  I particularly like Kreyling’s observation that while Flannery O’Connor’s comment on the centrality of Faulkner to southern studies originally referred to him as the “Dixie Limited,” her comment was quickly changed to be understood as the “Dixie Special.” 
If one looks at the work of southern women’s writing, one sees different kinds of commentaries on not only community, but the work of race within these communities:
Eli:abeth Jane Harrison reads the "other" narrative as a version of the  more familiar pastoral. Her reading of recent fiction by southern women,
black and white, arrives at it kind of utopian community: "Despite difficulties   in overcoming the harriers to sex and race equality, female friendship  and cooperative communities become an important part of the new southern   garden for these women authors" (Harrison i4-15). Harrison's guide is  Nina Auerhach's Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (tg78), it work  that is both about utopian communities of women in fiction and the product  of the author's own personal experience of "a model community of women  Ithe Radcliff Institute and its Fellows] who gave a local habitation to the  Utopias I read about" ("Acknowledgments," n.p.). Female textual utopias  exist, for Auerbach, in it ghostly relationship with the male, public community   of history: "The communities of women which have haunted our literary   imagination from the beginning are emblems of female self-sufficiency  which create their own corporate reality, evoking both wishes and fears" (5).  These wishes and fears are sexual, political, social, and historical; they are  "voiced" in a "code" that, unlike the male code, is "a whispered and it fleeting   thing, more it buried language than a rallying cry" (y). For it lesbian  critic like Segrest, burial is deep and the code sexually complex. For critics  like Donaldson, Manning, and Jones the "silenced" voices are still audible in  the Quentinian din.
As Segrest suggests in her memory of identifying with the black children  who integrated her school, experiences of racial exclusion may serve as metaphors   of sexual exclusion. The historical trajectory of African-American  women's writing, from the slave narratives of the nineteenth century to their  "recovery" by Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, suggests a common  cause. The household, sexual politics of slavery produced in the community  of women, across racial boundaries, a lively code, open to many and sometimes   contradictory meanings. As Harriet Beecher Stowe would have it in  Uncle Tom's Cabin, black and white women-though unequal- conununi-  cated in the channel of domestic management and sentiment. Chloe and  her mistress bond against Mr. Shelby's purely economic decision to sell Tom  and Eli:a and her son. Eli:a Harris and Mrs. Bird openly conspire to circumvent   the public code-the Fugitive Slave Law thematically presented as a  male language. In texts by African-American women who were slaves, Harriet   Jacobs being the most prominent example, conversation within sexual  territory but across the racial barrier is more subtle. Sometimes, in Jacobs'.  narrative, the lines hold, and sometimes they Freak down.
Solid or breakable, conversation in overlapping racial and sexual channels  is vital to an understanding of the African-American woman's image of community as well as to the white southern woman's imagined community. The  classic of the first half of this century, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching  (;od (1y37), is almost universally acknowledged as an encoded text on the  formation of an African-American woman's community evolving from heterosexual,   social dependence on black men into a very strong community of  women that, according to Marjorie Pryse, "recreates the tradition of female  friendship and shared understanding and heals the lingering impact of separation   imposed by slavery and sexism" (t 5). Rather than attempt to occupy  the discourse of history, from which black American women have been excluded   even more thoroughly than white women, African-American women  writers (with Hurston as the twentieth-century leader) have unearthed the  buried languages of African-American folk traditions and community (2-4).  The result, for its late in the century, is that in African-American women's  writing, history is nearly abolished. Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982)  is the most famous text in which "black history becomes firmly rooted in the  network of female friendship" (Pryse 20) and, thereby is removed from male  control.
Kreyling’s analysis of Smith’s Oral History does a good job of showing how this novel exemplifies these differences.  For example, he observes that, “Dory is horn at the center of it community   the male literally cannot register because that community is in its  very constitution beyond his "history." (loc 1775-6)  Also, “Oral History signifies on traditional images of the origin and nature of  southern community in history, even as it pleads for a redefinition of community   in the woman's register.” 
Kreyling’s discussion of race in this work is quite interesting.  He says that, “bypassing of the traditional reading of the tragedy of race in the southern  narrative and suggests that it might always have been, as Welty', feminine  eye had seen in Delta Wedding, it learned pattern of male imitation, not an  essential tragedy of the community as it living whole.”  Even more importantly is his observation that “Lillian Smith, before Fried Green Tomatoes, and Dorothy  Allison in Bastard out of Carolina ( 1092) since, have used the same coupling  of sexual abuse with racial terrorism to stigmatize the male community.”  He also looks at the centrality of women’s lives to history; in Jill McCorkle’s work, for example, “pregnancy and birth  are shown to be at the center of the process of identity making. Men are irrelevant   after impregnation.”
Ultimately, he concludes that
What is powerful in the fiction of contemporary white southern women is their common, if not concerted, challenge to the Quentin thesis. It is not  that the prevailing literary historical and critical apparatus is or must he, in all instances, totally dismembered but rather that it must be seen as man-made,   the product not only of a time and a social condition (though that  would he had enough When the assertions are of "transcendent" meaning)  but of gender too. Through the heyday of "modern" southern writing, from the 1920s, of the renaissance, through various announcements of its end, to  the prophecy of a second rebirth by those who look to the African-American  male writer as savior rather than propagandist, the canon has been presented   as essentially linked to an ideal of southern community conceived in  history but transcending the materialism of historical circumstances. The  emergence of southern women's writing, however, makes that literary orthodoxy   seem partial, at best. What is emerging in southern literature, to confound   the critical attempts of traditional defenders to extend the hegemony  of renaissance ideology, is a body of work by white women writers that calls  up "forgotten" meanings of precursor texts and proposes a new configuration  of southern "community." The more defenders try to stretch the Quentin  thesis to fit historical/social change, the more the thesis thins at its weakest  seams.
Ironically, after all of this, Kreyling then spent two chapters discussing Faulkner—although his discussion of Faulkner is one in which he identifies Faulkner as suffering from an anxiety of his own influence.

No comments:

Post a Comment