Each summer, the Society for the Study of Southern Literature appoints a committee of experts to select the winner of the Hugh Holman Award, a prestigious honor given to the best work of southern literary criticism published the previous year. From 2012’s particularly rich field, Jay Watson’s Reading for the Body emerged as the honorable mention recipient—only the second time such an accolade has been bestowed in the nearly thirty years of the award’s existence. With its superb balance of theoretical breadth and textual depth, Watson’s handbook for rereading the rich corpus of body-obsessed southern literature is, indeed, a singular achievement. [End Page 885]
Watson’s turn to the corporeal is prompted in part by his sense that considerations of the South have long been “vulnerable to over-intellectualization and over-idealization by scholars” (21). Inordinate attention to the southern mind developed largely to combat assumptions that the region “’had no mind,’” according to critics Henry Adams and H. L. Mencken, a supposition countered energetically by W. J. Cash, the Nashville Agrarians, and the myriad artists and intellectuals who contributed to the so-called Southern Literary Renaissance of the early twentieth century (21). While the South proved capable of producing the inimitable likes of a William Faulkner or a Toni Morrison, it apparently also continues to spawn the toothless moonshiners, illiterate swamp-dwellers, and four-wheeling good-old-boys that stud cable television’s drift toward “rednexploitation.” Emphasizing the intellectual over the brute physical would seem more urgent now than ever; nonetheless, Watson suggests that recent critical approaches have distracted us from “the body work that has throughout southern history served as the material ground of the region’s culture and experience” (21). This refocusing is imperative, as it prompts scholars to attend more intimately to the literary texts themselves and not simply our own assumptions and priorities, however well intentioned. In this way, Watson’s projects fits neatly into a growing body of southern scholarship keen to untangle the “real” South from its stylized mythologies and reproductions, concluding often that the “real” is always already a mystification. Yet Watson’s study indeed forces us out of the closed loop of postmodern signification, reminding us that there is nothing quite so real—and ripe for reading and revelation—as the human body.
Drawing on a deliberately eclectic range of theoretical and historicist approaches—from Marxist materialism (Louis Althusser and Colette Guillaumin) to somatic philosophy (Elaine Scarry), trauma theory (Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and others), media theory (Friedrich Kittler), gender critique (Luce Irigaray), and materialist approaches to war (Cynthia Enloe, Sara Ruddick, and others)—Watson highlights the dense interface between southern bodies and the social, cultural, economic, racial, and national formations that interpellate them. Even more acutely than the mind, Watson argues, “the body is the indispensable matrix of ideology” (22). Particularly in the tense, violent stratifications of southern society, “[i]deology marks bodies as superior or inferior, sufficient or lacking, familiar or alien, pure or corrupt, desirable or repulsive, visible or invisible, central or marginal” (23). By thus shifting our attention to these primal sites of ideological violence, Watson enables a deeper engagement with the landscape of struggles faced by modern and contemporary southerners. Following a richly theorized and historicized introduction, Watson’s project is [End Page 886] divided into two parts, each of which contains three substantial chapters covering a wide array of fiction published largely in the twentieth century (his focus on Mark Twain in chapter 1 reaches briefly into the tail end of the nineteenth), and ending with a brief coda.
Part 1 features an array of readings focused on “Bodily Attributes”: the hand and fingers in Twain, the voice in Zora Neale Hurston, and the blood in Faulkner. In each chapter, Watson deftly adjusts his theoretical approach to the historical conditions and tensions constellating around the novels’ productions, moving with remarkable fluidity from archival documents and popular newspaper reports to descriptions of new technologies such as fingerprinting (Twain) and audio recording (Hurston...