- The Angelic Mother and the Predatory Seductress: Poor White Women in Southern Literature of the Great Depression by Ashley Craig Lancaster
In Economics in the Shadows of Darwin and Marx (2004), Geoffrey M. Hodgson exhorts practitioners of interdisciplinary studies to focus their attention on the ideologies of race, sex, colonialism, and eugenics rather than the contentious and ill-defined notion of social Darwinism. As if writing to Hodgson’s dictate, Ashley Craig Lancaster avoids the tangled debate concerning the presence or absence of intellectual relays between eugenicists and social Darwinists in America and thereby clears a path for her study of eugenic perspectives on impoverished southern women during the Great Depression. The absence of certain large names, however, might disappoint and surprise some readers. How did the thoughts of Samuel Jackson Holmes and Thorstein Veblen (among others) establish, promote, or undercut the stereotypes of the angelic mother and the predatory seductress that so concern Lancaster?
These absences signal other frustrations. Most obviously, The Angelic Mother and the Predatory Seductress is a misleading title: Lancaster scarcely employs let alone debates the term “angelic,” and she uses the word altruistic as its synonym. Charles Darwin found altruism an evolutionary puzzle, and as geneticists including John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins emphasize, altruistic behavior can arise from self-interest. Kin-selection certainly hovers on the periphery of Lancaster’s discourse, a text that considers “Mendelian traits” (27), “hybridity” (50), and “genetics” (14), but is never discussed. This reticence is a shame. In a related vein, the “angelic” of Lancaster’s title connotes spiritual matters and “angelic mother” carries notions of the Madonna, but Lancaster’s volume is lacking in metaphysical considerations. While this shortage is not a difficulty in itself, it does leave titular expectations hanging.
Lancaster’s first chapter, the bedrock from which the remainder of her monograph evolves, argues that eugenicists labeled “feeble-minded” (18) women predatory seductresses rather than victims of predatory men. This is an important point, but one that her detailed discussion slightly obscures, with the attendant argument demanding more clarity and force. Can feeble-minded humans—of whichever sex—be predatory? The term feeble-minded also becomes a suffocating textual blanket, which diminishes the nuances struggling to emerge from this section. More confusingly, and more worryingly, much is made of “dualistic stereotyped roles” (3), “dualistic stereotypes” [End Page 198] (3, 11, 96), and “dualistic images” (43), but the concept of dualism, sometimes spilt between two objects and sometimes housed in one, is ambiguously deployed.
The metaphysics of presence must also be of relevance to Lancaster’s project. Chapter 2 hints at a prescient novelist’s realization of the paradigmatic tension between the discourses of eugenics (discrete) and literature (continuous) with an analysis of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). A novel at once cubist and exemplary of the author’s intellectual struggle with notions of soft and hard inheritance, As I Lay Dying offers a rich resource for Lancaster’s study, and she mines this source to some effect. Faulknerians would complain that in terms of a popular fiction from the period, which is the criteria used to select the novels relevant to this chapter, sales of Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) far outstripped those of As I Lay Dying. What is more, Faulkner’s notorious “corncobby” novel would have afforded Lancaster the opportunity to discuss the critically overlooked character of Ruby Lamar—an ideal figure for problematizing the eugenic agenda of the 1930s. One wishes Lancaster had extended her examination of Faulkner’s novels in this direction. More impressive than the Faulknerian passages, then, is the material in chapter 2 on Erskine Caldwell. The link between the novelist and his sociologist father offers a contextual smoking gun, which is all but missing in Faulkner’s case, and this familial link firmly grounds Lancaster’s discussion of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). The turn to Steinbeck is an expected one but pays off with her discussion of The Grapes of Wrath...