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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 542-543

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Book Review

Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990

Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990. Patricia Yaeger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. xvii + 324. $49.00 (cloth); $18.00 (paper).

Although Patricia Yaeger is not the first to critique the conventional assumptions of southern literary studies, she is perhaps the most concise, accusing them of "debility, enervation . . . [and] fatigue" (xiii). Arguing that the dominant account of southern literature marginalizes women's writing, she determines to "round up the usual suspects of southern studies and send them all packing" (32). This decision allows her to make analytic moves long needed in the field--to cease, for example, "focusing on the uses of the climactic southern past" instead of investigating "the southern present" (51). Though her trepidation about including both white and African American writers in her study seems excessive, Yaeger usefully positions all of these fictions in relation to the cultural forms of the apartheid-era South and its aftermath. In the process, she provides new insights into regional culture and into the processes by which literary works negotiate the concerns of their historical moment.

Alongside its iconoclastic energy, however, Dirt and Desire manifests an impulse that can look hegemonic. A substantial portion of the text is propelled by forms reminiscent of the catechism or the primer. These stylistic traits belie Yaeger's textual analyses, which are anything but dogmatic or reductive; it is also clear that her creation of "new 'laws' about what can and cannot be said" about southern texts is intended to encourage innovative work in the field (49). But she is committed to a project that compels her to naturalize certain questions, particularly their inclusion of the word "southern." Ultimately, she hopes to change not only how but also how much southern women's writing is studied, and she seems convinced that the only way to address "the current minoritization of southern studies within the academy" is to provide "a new archive" for the category (250, 262).

Even without Yaeger's self-professed zeal to "reanimat[e] southern fiction" her study would encourage renewed attention to these texts simply because of the insights that they yield in her analysis (253). Historicizing the obsessive fear Eudora Welty's fictional children experience when confronted with images of "gargantuan" women, for example, Yaeger shows how this writing elucidates a process by which white middle-class southern girls incorporated their culture's constricting norms of race and gender (135). Impressively attentive to descriptions of objects, she discusses seemingly opaque or mysterious images--rags, wedding cakes, corpses, and shapeshifting houses--to reveal how writers represent a material world in which all objects are deeply imbricated in systems of social and economic oppression. She also considers the literary manifestations of white southerners' "cloud of unknowing"--the inability of certain writers to comprehend their own knowledge--and the degree to which racism constitutes "a set of practices . . . so boringly enacted within the everyday that they seem to be hiding in plain sight" (88, 99).

It is frustrating to see such generative discussions subordinated to the importance of southern women's writing qua regional writing, an insistence that repeatedly truncates Yaeger's accounts of how the study of such writing could illuminate broader investigations into literature, history, culture, and critical methodology. This description of southern writing, once in place, restricts interpretation, promoting accounts of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God that overstate the centrality of that text's critique of apartheid while routinely marginalizing the work of William Faulkner, a writer who conforms to Yaeger's paradigm very well. Even Yaeger briefly demurs from her repeated claim that Faulkner's fiction understands race only through "the epic past" and provides no insight into how regional understandings of race "function in the everyday" (97). That claim is most (but not wholly) appropriate to Absalom, Absalom!, [End Page 542] the darling of previous southernists; in her project of replacing conventional critical paradigms, she overturns the conventional...


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