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Disturbing Calculations

The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912-2002

Melanie R. Benson

Publication Year: 2008

In Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, Margaret Leonard says, “Never mind about algebra here. That's for poor folks. There's no need for algebra where two and two make five.” Moments of mathematical reckoning like this pervade twentieth-century southern literature, says Melanie R. Benson. In fiction by a large, diverse group of authors, including William Faulkner, Anita Loos, William Attaway, Dorothy Allison, and Lan Cao, Benson identifies a calculation-obsessed, anxiety-ridden discourse in which numbers are employed to determine social and racial hierarchies and establish individual worth and identity.

This “narcissistic fetish of number” speaks to a tangle of desires and denials rooted in the history of the South, capitalism, and colonialism. No one evades participation in these “disturbing equations,” says Benson, wherein longing for increase, accumulation, and superiority collides with repudiation of the means by which material wealth is attained. Writers from marginalized groups--including African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and the poor--have deeply internalized and co-opted methods and tropes of the master narrative even as they have struggled to wield new voices unmarked by the discourse of the colonizer.

Having nominally emerged from slavery's legacy, the South is now situated in the agonized space between free market capitalism and social progressivism. Elite southerners work to distance themselves from capitalism's dehumanizing mechanisms, while the marginalized yearn to realize the uniquely American narrative of accumulation and ascent. The fetish of numbers emerges to signify the futility of both.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: The New Southern Studies


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

This book has been an absolute joy from start to finish, and for that I thank the many individuals who have directly or indirectly contributed to that experience. Since this project began as a dissertation at Boston University, my first and deepest gratitude goes to Jack Matthews, my incomparable dissertation advisor. People never seem to tire of saying that Jack has a nearly supernatural ...

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INTRODUCTION: The Fetish of Number: Narcissism, Economics, and the Twentieth-Century Southern Ego

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pp. 1-26

Moments of mathematical reckoning like these are ubiquitous in the literature of the twentieth- century South. In works by white and black, male and female, rich and poor, and native and immigrant southerners, these calculating fixations impart critical lessons about southerners’ tendencies to measure, divide, and value themselves and the Others against whom they find balance. While ...

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CHAPTER ONE: The Fetish of Surplus Value: Reconstructing the White Elite in Allen Tate, William Alexander Percy, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe

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pp. 27-58

Images of the modern South have long featured conservative white gentlemen in Sunday best whose genteel breeding and humane values starkly oppose the crass materialism of northern industrialism and finance capitalism. Such fictions tend to attach themselves to antebellum idylls and the cataclysm of Civil War; when they do engage the twentieth- century context, it is often to dramatize how the Old ...

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CHAPTER TWO: Stealing Themselves Out of Slavery: African American Southerners in Richard Wright, William Attaway, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston

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pp. 59-93

... While it is not his primary concern in this passage, the economic language suffusing JanMohamed’s description of the colonial dyad is by no means unremarkable. In JanMohamed’s view, the elite white may “increase” and “accumulate” his own “‘surplus morality’” in contrast to, and at the expense of, the fetishized inferiority ...

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CHAPTER THREE: The Measures of Love: Southern Belles and Working Girls in Frances Newman, Anita Loos, and Katherine Anne Porter

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pp. 94-128

In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s polyvocal narrative of the death and burial of the poor white matriarch Addie Bundren, Addie ruminates on the measures of her domestic sacrifices: “The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a . . . . It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now. . . . I gave Anse the children. . . . That was my duty ...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Contemporary Crises of Value: White Trash, Black Paralysis, and Elite Amnesia in Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, and Walker Percy

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pp. 129-163

Fractional, contingent, and impoverished spiritually, the modern southerners of the previous chapters would have found the contemporary South a dazzling scene of plenitude and possibility. Or would they? “By the mid- 1960s,” Pete Daniel recounts, “both the rural and urban South had changed in ways that frustrated, astounded, and often upset ...

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CHAPTER FIVE: Re-membering the Missing: Native Americans, Immigrants, and Atlanta’s Murdered Children in Louis Owens, Marilou Awiakta, Lan Cao, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, and Tayari Jones

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pp. 164-201

In Edward L. Ayers’s sardonic glimpse into the soon- to- be future South we meet a young narrator who cannot fathom how his ancestors could “lump people together into two big groups,” even though “they could see that people they called ‘black’ and ‘white’ were in fact all different colors”; the baffled speaker himself proudly claims a “genealogy from Scotland, Ghana, Honduras, ...

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CONCLUSION: Disturbing the Calculation

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pp. 202-205

As we have seen, the crisis of transition to market capitalism and industrial progress in the twentieth- century South prompted intense regional reflection on the catalog of dispossessions the region had incurred during emancipation, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and finally desegregation. In this accumulation of losses, southerners register a profound sense of foreclosure at the ...


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pp. 207-232


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pp. 233-251


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pp. 253-263

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336725
E-ISBN-10: 0820336726
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820329727
Print-ISBN-10: 082032972X

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: The New Southern Studies
Series Editor Byline: Jon Smith and Riché Richardson, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 593295497
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Disturbing Calculations

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Southern States -- In literature.
  • Identity (Psychology) in literature.
  • Ego (Psychology) in literature.
  • Numbers in literature.
  • Fetishism in literature.
  • Narcissism in literature.
  • Value in literature.
  • Value -- Psychological aspects.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- Southern States -- History and criticism
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