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  • Between Distant Modernities: Performing Exceptionality in Francoist Spain and the Jim Crow South by Brittany Powell Kennedy
  • Bainard Cowan
Brittany Powell Kennedy, Between Distant Modernities: Performing Exceptionality in Francoist Spain and the Jim Crow South Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015, 225 pp.

Between Distant Modernities is the first comparative study of U. S. and Spanish literature that is not a survey or a single-author comparison. Brittany Powell Kennedy's purpose is strongly defined from the outset: both Spain and the American South of the first half of the twentieth century were strongly traditionalist, struggling to maintain what they could of a pre-modern way of life in opposition to the destabilizing changes wrought by industrial capitalism. In the process they produced bodies of literature bearing records of the fracture that ran through families and individual lives as well as through the cornerstones of the state. This trans-Atlantic fault line is her subject, and she gives it crucial focus by bringing her familiarity with the modern Spanish novel to bear on some of the best-known exemplars of Southern fiction. She demonstrates, finally, a depth and patience like that of a medical researcher in delineating the common history these novels share and the toll that history exacts on their characters.

Don Quixote is, predictably, a frequent reference in Kennedy's early pages. The gaunt knight personifies Spain's half-millennium-long resistance to modernity and the ideals birthed out of that doomed project. The stands taken by José Ortega y Gasset and John Crowe Ransom, two of the first authors examined here, were already formulated by them in quixotic terms; indeed, Quixote's "devotion to a perceived loss of 'tradition' become[s] a … model … in Spain and the South" (25) for the Generation of '98 and the Fugitive-Agrarians. Both societies evolve personal roles for men and women to "perform," using gender studies' term, in order to attain the contradictory goals of future success and loyalty to the past. "What is left when these performances fail … are the very ghosts of the past that a progressive modernity seeks to remove from memory" (25). Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen and Cela's Pascual Duarte mount a heroic effort to "enact a coded Southernness and Spanishness," committing brutalities along the way, but are "caught in a melancholic relationship with the past" (25) that leads inevitably to their own [End Page 408] self-destruction. What Kennedy calls their melancholic relation to ritual seeks to keep at bay the inevitable realization of the death of tradition, which to them would mean the death of their masculinity and selfhood. Hence Sutpen and Pascual display "a willful, and unconscious, desire to obliterate 'other' narratives of authenticity that oppose the masculine … Southern or Spanish self … [even though] that 'other' is by no means external to the self" (60).

Two authors "on the periphery of Spanish and Southern letters"—the Basque Pio Baroja and the Catholic Walker Percy—follow the next step along this via dolorosa that Kennedy has discovered, employing a "suicidal, autobiographical main character influenced by existential philosophy" (Baroja more properly by vitalism) (26). Binx Bolling (The Moviegoer) and Andrés (El árbol de la ciencia), rather than projecting their inner conflict onto the outer world like Sutpen, make their primary work the quest for self-understanding and thus achieve a partial solution to this historic crisis. Both take as partners in their quest, and objects of their affections, "almost-masculine, similarly cerebral women … who engage in the same search for 'truth' as their male counterparts" (87). Binx evades suicide and marries Kate in a "union of two like minds" (101), and Andrés' suicide after Lulú's death in childbirth is presented as a limited victory rather than despair, in that at the end he has given himself to his life with Lulú, who has dared to search life for meaning in her own way.

Alongside these protagonists, white males all and most of them active causes of suffering, Kennedy places their victims—women and, notably in the South, slaves and those stigmatized by race who seek roles to enact against their oppression, from violence (William Styron's Nat Turner) to irony...


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pp. 408-410
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