restricted access Gender, Race and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin (review)
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Reviewed by
Helen Taylor. Gender, Race and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. 229 pp. $29.95.

Taylor's book is an astute analysis of the fiction of three successful postbellum Louisiana women writers who, in different ways, were radically feminist but politically reactionary and racist. Taylor places their works in a literary, social, and historical context and examines various influences on these writers: women friends, male mentors, and domestic circumstances; the Local Color movement; the salability of romanticized versions of the Old South; and the break up of the old social order after the Civil War. [End Page 741]

Taylor elucidates the feminist concerns of these writers—Grace King's depictions of strong working women, Ruth McEnery Stuart's analysis of gender stereotyping and women's resistance to it, and Kate Chopin's celebrations of female sexuality. The author also offers provocative reinterpretations of major literary works. Our reading of The Awakening is enriched, for instance, by thinking of it as a political work about the "Protestant/Catholic divide" and about "nationality and regionalism." But the most important contribution of this book is its examination of the relationship between feminism and orthodox southern white racism in these texts. Taylor deliberately focuses on the writers' treatment of black experience—King's view of slavery as benevolent protection and Stuart's use of dialect to perpetuate stereotypes like the loyal mammy. The author emphasizes the problematic class- and race-bound perspective that generates the "conceit" between "bourgeous white marriage and slavery" and the connection, in turn, between racism and the political construction of a southern mythology that these writers participated in.

Gender, Race and Region would, however, benefit from greater theoretical sophistication. Every chapter begins with a mechanical and traditional birth-marriage-children-death biography that is then related to the texts in a simplistic, causal, and reflectionist manner; letters and diaries are treated as "evidence," as embodying a linguistic transparency that needs no interpretation; and there is a complete absence of theories of race, a crucial omission in a study so concerned with racial politics. There is also the politically troubling acceptance of the traditional version of southern history—the relative racial harmony and stability before the Civil War and the eruption of racial hostilities thereafter.

Despite these problems Taylor's book is a significant contribution to feminist scholarship. It is a much needed corrective to the apolitical and essentialist gender analysis of much of American feminist criticism. It is also an important addition to the small but growing body of scholarship on Southern women writers initiated by Anne Goodwyn Jones's Tomorrow is Another Day (1981) and followed by Louise Westling's Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens (1985) and Katherine Seidel's The Southern Belle in the American Novel (1985). By focusing on a narrow group of Southern women writers but through a broad spectrum of racial, gender, and political concerns, Taylor has set intellectual standards for further serious and specialized studies in the area. [End Page 742]

Malini Schueller
University of Florida
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