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The Rise of Southern Redneck and White Trash Writers
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reviews Our regular review section features some of the best new books and films. From time to time, you'll also find reviews of important new museum exhibitions and public history sites, and retrospectives on classic works that continue to shape our understanding ofthe South and its people. To commemorate our five-year anniversary, we devote our entire review section in this issue to a phenomenon which itself has continued to grow over the last five years: southern working class fiction. Here, Erik Bledsoe offers insight about some of the most important new voices in southern literature, with a special emphasis on the works of three recent stars: Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, and Tim McLaurin. The Rise ofSouthern Redneck and WhiteTrash Writers by Erik Bledsoe LindaTate has noted, with a touch ofhyperbole, that "[traditionally, southern literature has been understood to be that written by white men and, on rare occasions , by white women—and, in almost all cases, by and about white southerners of the upper middle class." As recendy as 1988, another critic claimed, albeit incorrectly , that Harry Crews "is absolutely unique among Southern writers in that he writes about life from the perspective ofthe poor white. He writes from within the class, not by observing it from without, the traditional perspective ofwhite Southern writers." That same year, however, marked the emergence ofthree new voices who join Crews in writing about southern poor whites from within the class. Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, and Tim McLaurin all published their first books of fiction: Trash, Facing theMusic, and TheAcorn Plan, respectively. In these and subsequent works, all three authors write about lower-class characters whose background they share. They were born in and write about the Rough South, a term coined by documentary filmmaker Gary Hawkins and more commonly referred to as the world of the redneck or white trash. In the public imagination, and arguably in reality, it is a world of excess—excessive alcohol, excessive sex, excessive violence. It is also a world that until recently has lacked its own recognized storytellers. This new generation ofsouthern writers is givingvoice to a different group ofsoutherners, and in doing so it is forcing its readers to reexamine long-held stereotypes and beliefs while challenging the literary roles traditionally assigned poor whites.1 In the race-class-gender triumvirate of much contemporary criticism, class is still the poor cousin who is often ignored while its higher-profile relatives are 68 An author who writesfrom within the class. Harry Crews, photo by George Kingson. wined and dined by academics. Noting the critical disparity, Allison has observed that "[tjraditional feminist theory has had a limited understanding ofclass differences and how sexuality and self are shaped by both desire and denial." Critic Fred Hobson has recently identified a group of "younger southern writers [who] do not come from the privileged classes, from educated families; and . . . they do not in any way try to disguise their origins." Although Hobson mentions Bobbie Ann Mason and Richard Ford as members of this group, he does not mention Brown, McLaurin, or Allison— all of whom were born a notch or two lower on the social ladder than Mason and Ford. Echoing William Dean Howells, Hobson suggests that "what is happening is simply an expansion of the franchise, part of the centuries-old progress in Western literature from a writing by and principally about the privileged—though occasionally about the. lower classes, comically rendered —to a literature by, and treating seriously, the common people." He also predicts that class "will be the next enlivening issue in the consideration ofsouthern letters."2 Part of the difficulty of discussing southern literature from the perspective of class arises from the slippery nature of class distinctions in southern white society . The terms redneck, white trash, cracker, andpoor white have all been used to describe certain white southerners, but exact categories are difficult to define. Some people, for example, casually use white trash and redneck interchangeably, while others draw distinct differences between the two. Nor is it exactly clear what the terms describe. As historianJ. Wayne Flynt has observed, the phrase poor whites "has been applied to economic and social classes as well as to...