[Access article in PDF]
Dirt and Desire:
Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990
Patricia Yaeger. Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. xviii + 324 pp.
Patricia Yaeger's ambitious study of southern women's writing is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship that seeks to revise the content and criteria of the southern literary canon. Dirt and Desire, perhaps more than any other text on southern women writers, brings literature by black and white women from the South together under a unifying critical framework. An ambitious project that spans nine detailed chapters and provides close readings of an array of southern fiction by a diverse group of women, Yaeger's book is structured by her insistence on bringing black and white authors together on the same page in order to revise dominant theories about southern fiction. Although the literary figure or trope under scrutiny shifts from chapter to chapter, Yaeger's commitment to examining the relationships among subjectivity, epistemology, race, and metaphor remains steadfast throughout her book.
Yaeger's primary, overarching focus is on images in southern women's writing that shock and astonish the reader. Her book opens with an analysis of a scene from Can't Quit You, Baby by Ellen Douglas, in which a young white girl is devoured by water moccasins while water skiing. After reading other figures of monstrosity composed by Flannery O'Connor, Grace Paley, and Alice Walker, Yaeger argues that they need [End Page 755] to be read as symptoms of a white crisis that has emerged in response to increasing demands for African-American equality. Yaeger calls these monstrous literary figures "southern habits of troping." When social change results in cultural chaos—when racial integration challenges white ways of knowing—the result is a kind of uncontrollable violence that is perpetrated on white and black bodies alike. Southern women writers illustrate this political and cultural chaos not by writing grand narrative epics but by weaving this chaos into the mundane activities and exchanges of everyday life. Yaeger calls for a reevaluation of the grotesque and its political implications in the fiction by southern women.
The goal of Dirt and Desire is to illustrate how grotesque and abject figures in texts by both black and white women illuminate racial ways of knowing at the unconscious level. And "white and black literatures about the South," according to Yaeger, "present this cloud of unknowing very differently." Whether this knowledge is implicitly suggested in white women's writing, such as the image of flour-dust that cannot be cleaned away in Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl (whiteness as pollution), or whether the knowledge is explicitly addressed in black women's writing, such as Rufel's sudden realization that she has been blind to the realities of her mammy's life in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, southern texts, according to Yaeger, overflow with racialized epistemological insights. Yaeger is most interested in the ways in which racial misrecognitions function in texts by white writers, and how these misrecognitions are symbolized within domestic objects and daily habits.
Yaeger claims early in her book that she wants to redefine "our sense of the relations between black and white women's writings." But the questions that drive the introductions to most of her chapters surround the oddities, misrecognitions, and denials that characterize white southern women's writing. Discussions of black women's texts often come after Yaeger's critique of racial blindness in white texts. What she seems most fascinated with, especially in the first half of her book, are the stylistic forms that white writers employ when they repress the racial real. She brings in black writers such as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison to illustrate how they use similar techniques to make more explicit statements about racial oppression, but these examples frequently come after a critical survey of white texts. Perhaps Yaeger is exemplifying the "spectacle of unknowing...