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Plantation Airs

Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945–1971

Brannon Costello

Publication Year: 2007

In Plantation Airs, Brannon Costello argues persuasively for new attention to the often neglected issue of class in southern literary studies. Focusing on the relationship between racial paternalism and social class in American novels written after World War II, Costello asserts that well into the twentieth century, attitudes and behaviors associated with an idealized version of agrarian antebellum aristocracy—especially, those of racial paternalism—were believed to be essential for white southerners. The wealthy employed them to validate their identities as "aristocrats," while less-affluent whites used them to separate themselves from "white trash" in the social hierarchy. Even those who were not legitimate heirs of plantation-owning families found that "putting on airs" associated with the legacy of the plantation could align them with the forces of power and privilege and offer them a measure of authority in the public arena that they might otherwise lack. Fiction by Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines, Walker Percy, and others reveals, however, that the racial paternalism central to class formation and mobility in the South was unraveling in the years after World War II, when the civil rights movement and the South's increasing industrialization dramatically altered southern life. Costello demonstrates that these writers were keenly aware of the ways in which the changes sweeping the South complicated the deeply embedded structures that governed the relationship between race and class. He further contends that the collapse of racial paternalism as a means of organizing class lies at the heart of their most important works—including Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee and her essay "The ‘Pet Negro' System," Welty's Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart, Faulkner's The Mansion and The Reivers, Gaines's Of Love and Dust and his story "Bloodline," and Percy's The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins. By examining ways in which these works depict and critique the fall of the plantation ideal and its aftermath, Plantation Airs indicates the richness and complexity of the literary responses to this intersection of race and class. Understanding how many of the modern South's best writers imagined and engaged the various facets of racial paternalism in their fiction, Costello confirms, helps readers construct a more comprehensive picture of the complications and contradictions of class in the South.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

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pp. ix-x

I have been the grateful recipient of many kinds of assistance while writing this book, including a Louisiana State University Council on . . .

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Introduction: The Problem of Flem Snopes's Hat: Southern History, Racial Paternalism, and Class

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pp. 1-15

Recent years have seen a steady flow of important scholarship in southern literary studies, work that has opened up new avenues of exploration . . .

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1 Paternalism, Progress, and “Pet Negroes” : Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee

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pp. 16-37

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1948 novel Seraph on the Suwanee follows the rise of Jim and Arvay Meserve, poor white southerners who overcome poverty . . .

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2 Playing Lady and Imitating Aristocrats: Race, Class, and Money in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart

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pp. 38-70

The central plot of Delta Wedding 1946), Eudora Welty’s richly textured novel of plantation life in the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s, involves the . . .

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3 Stopping on A Dime: Race, Class, and the “White Economy of Material Waste” in William Faulkner’s The Mansion and The Reivers

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pp. 71-99

In 1940, William Faulkner offered a eulogy for Caroline Barr, his family’s longtime African American retainer.1 In it, Faulkner credited Barr, to whom . . .

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4 Mechanics and Mulattoes: Class, Work, and Race in Ernest Gaines’s Of Love and Dust and “Bloodline”

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pp. 100-122

In Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967), narrator Jim Kelly relates a tale of race and class tensions on a post–World War II Louisiana . . .

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5 “Super-Negroes” and Hybrid Aristocrats: Race and Class in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins

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pp. 123-159

In an essay written shortly after the publication of his first novel, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy asserted the inescapable commitment of the . . .

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Conclusion:From “Pet Negro” to “Magic Negro”: Hyperreal Paternalism

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pp. 160-167

I want to linger for a moment over Walker Percy’s wry prophecy about the golf course of the future. Extending a curve whose literary origin . . .


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pp. 169-186

Works Cited

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pp. 187-196


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pp. 197-203

E-ISBN-13: 9780807135242
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807132708

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies