Over the past fifteen years or so, the field of US southern literary studies has remade itself, incorporating new methodologies and addressing new texts in equal measure, challenging the impulse to engage in literary hagiography, and generally redefining the very idea of what constitutes both the southern and the literary. Barbara Ladd has been at the forefront of this revolution and has done much to ensure that the new southern studies will play a prominent role in national and international scholarly life. Her landmark first book, Nationalism and the Color Line in George W. Cable, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner (1997), urged literary scholars to reconsider the complex ways in which three major US writers confronted the contradictions and complexities of racialist culture through both a thematic focus and a formal innovation. Her new book, Resisting History: Gender, Modernity, and Authorship in William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eudora Welty continues this groundbreaking work, but instead of foregrounding the problem of the color line, Ladd addresses a new constellation of linked themes, central among them the vexed place of gendered literary agency in a region where and era when subjects of all kinds underwent the painful experience of delayed modernization. Ladd demonstrates that the work of Faulkner, Hurston, and Welty “inscribes a shared and very corporeal imaginary across differences and, in the process, speaks to memory and authorships in the register of resistance” (12).
While the three key terms at the heart of the work—authorship, gender, and modernity—do vary in importance from chapter to chapter, for the most part Ladd emphasizes how the latter two terms structure and modify the first. Hers is at base a study that seeks to [End Page 427] reconsider the problem of the author and authorship by attending to how the engagement with various forms of alterity—whether those of gender, race, or geography—enabled writers to resist a modernity that sought to undermine or delimit the possibility of agency and voice. Resisting History includes four rich chapters and a substantial introduction. In chapter one, Ladd takes up Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. She focuses in chapter two on several Welty texts, among them, “A Worn Path,” “Music from Spain,” and The Golden Apple, and then turns back to Faulkner with a rich analysis of the understudied late novel The Fable. Ladd’s book concludes with an inspired response to Hurston’s often-misunderstood Tell My Horse.
Each of these chapters is at its core concerned with the articulation of an original analysis of an important primary text, but Ladd doesn’t so much limit herself to a narrow reading of Faulkner or Welty as use the occasion of these interpretations to engage with a rich range of theoretical, historical, and cultural topics. Her first chapter thus argues that “As I Lay Dying is a battle for authorship at its most intense in Faulkner” (38), speculating that in Addie Bundren’s body we might find a figure for “the problematics of authorship in the modern world,” namely the issue of whether literary language can ever be expressed autonomously in an age of mechanical reproduction (51). Contending with Eric Sundquist’s influential reading of the novel, Ladd insists that Bundren’s corpse doesn’t only signify such anxieties of authorship, but also highlights the important role of alterity in Faulkner’s creative process. In linking his own crisis of artistic selfhood to this female corpse, that is, Faulkner doesn’t so much find the perfect figure for the modernist writer in extremis as weave into As I Lay Dying the subversive energies of the Other.
The subsequent two chapters also take up the way the Other constitutes something of a figure for authorial crisis in modern southern literature, but Ladd’s argument necessarily changes as she first analyzes various Welty texts and then Faulkner’s A Fable. In the former chapter, Ladd emphasizes to great effect how Welty pioneered an approach to history that diverged from the example of Faulkner as the great...