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Reviewed by:
Brannon Costello. Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945–1971. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2007. x + 203 pp.

Brannon Costello suggests that class remains an underdeveloped theme in southern literary studies, one moreover dominated in its limited appearances by white-trash or rough-South approaches that focus narrowly on white working-class identities and experiences in the region. Such approaches run the risk of letting "spectacular, often grotesque descriptions of poverty and desperation" overshadow "other important aspects of class in the South" (1). Among these neglected aspects of class is the role of racial paternalism in helping "wealthy white southerners . . . validate their identities as 'aristocrats' and . . . upwardly mobile white southerners . . . separate themselves from 'trash'" (2). "[A]ssociated with an idealized version of agrarian antebellum aristocracy" (1), paternalism as Costello defines it "encompasses a whole range of racialized social practices stemming from a belief that African Americans are fundamentally inferior, even childlike, and, as such, require the almost parental care and protection of well-to-do whites who claim to have their best interests at heart, though they may in fact be ruthlessly exploiting them" (3–4). Costello is less interested in the emergence of this ideology in the antebellum period (as a way to legitimate master-slave relations) or in its postbellum appropriation by the New South business elite (as discussed by C. Vann Woodward and Grace Elizabeth Hale) than in the rapid erosion of its ability to organize class relations in the period following World War II. These years saw changes in the organization of agricultural labor, the rise of the civil rights movement, and "the transfer of population and therefore political power to the South's growing cities" (12), where new "metropolitan elite[s]" discovered that their "interests might not always align so neatly with the planter class," developments which, according to Costello, combined to render paternalism increasingly untenable. That stress is reflected in the fiction of the period. Costello focuses on a series of novels and stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines, and Walker Percy that collectively offer a multifaceted critique of paternalism, "exposing the mechanisms that allow the social positions authorized by paternalism to appear natural and essential" (14), and "imagining alternative economic and social practices as a way of resisting" it.

One of the strengths of Costello's study is its inclusion of women and black writers in its analysis of what was primarily an elite white male empowerment strategy, since these writers are especially sensitive to the costs of paternalism—or its perverse, pyrrhic benefits— [End Page 853] for African Americans and white women. Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee, for instance, charts the "largely successful attempts" of a pair of Florida whites, Jim and Arvay Meserve, "to deploy paternalism . . . to increase [their] wealth and to create a new kind of aristocratic identity for" themselves (25), but as the story progresses, Hurston uncovers the gendered dimensions of this racializing strategy: "Arvay is caught in a double bind: she must perform racial paternalism in order to maintain her status, but that performance does not offer her the same power to coerce and organize African American workers that it offers Jim. . . . Even when enacted by a women, the effect is always the creation and maintenance of power for the fatherly aristocrat" (33). Moreover, while the paternalism of the Meserves may offer "modest protection and a limited structure for economic gain and social mobility" to their "pet Negroes" in the harsh climate of Jim Crow (19), it also leaves African American characters like Joe Kelsey incapable of imagining "success outside of the paternalistic framework" (23). An especially incisive chapter on Welty's Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart—for me the high point of Plantation Airs—also touches on the self-defeating quality of paternalism for white women in the South, but goes on to identify at least one Welty character, The Ponder Heart's Bonnie Dee Peacock, who sees through its mystifications and breaks through to a new way of envisioning southern class and interracial relations, a "more equitable" way based on friendship rather than strict social control...

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