The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction
Publication Year: 2014
For generations, southern novelists and critics have grappled with a concept that is widely seen as a trademark of their literature: a strong attachment to geography, or a "sense of place." In the 1930s, the Agrarians accorded special meaning to rural life, particularly the farm, in their definitions of southern identity. For them, the South seemed an organic and rooted region in contrast to the North, where real estate development and urban sprawl evoked a faceless, raw capitalism. By the end of the twentieth century, however, economic and social forces had converged to create a modernized South. How have writers responded to this phenomenon? Is there still a sense of place in the South, or perhaps a distinctly postsouthern sense of place?
Martyn Bone innovatively draws upon postmodern thinking to consider the various perspectives that southern writers have brought to the concept of "place" and to look at its fate in a national and global context. He begins with a revisionist assessment of the Agrarians, who failed in their attempts to turn their proprietary ideal of the small farm into actual policy but whose broader rural aesthetic lived on in the work of neo-Agrarian writers, including William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. By the 1950s, adherence to this aesthetic was causing southern writers and critics to lose sight of the social reality of a changing South.
Bone turns to more recent works that do respond to the impact of capitalist spatial development on the South -- and on the nation generally -- including that self-declared "international city" Atlanta. Close readings of novels by Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Richard Ford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Tom Wolfe, and Toni Cade Bambara illuminate evolving ideas about capital, land, labor, and class while introducing southern literary studies into wider debates around social, cultural, and literary geography. Bone concludes his remarkably rich book by considering works of Harry Crews and Barbara Kingsolver that suggest the southern sense of place may be not only post-Agrarian or postsouthern but also transnational.
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
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It is a truth universally acknowledged among southern literary scholars that “the South” and “southern literature” have been characterized by a “sense of place.” By 1996, the Natchez-born novelist Ellen Douglas could note, with a slight air of both bemusement and skepticism, that “Southern writers of fiction and poetry and the critics and academics...
Part One: Capital, Land, and Place from Agrarianism to Postsouthernism
1. “Not a Mere Real Estate Development”: Capital, Land, and the Agrarians’ Proprietary Ideal
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In “The Irrepressible Conflict,” his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), historian Frank Owsley wrote that “[w]hen America was settled, the tradition of the soil found hospitable rootbed in the Southern colonies, where climate and land combined to multiply the richness of an agrarian economy...
2. (Re)inventing the (Post)southern “Sense of Place”
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Fred Hobson has identified “the origins of modern southern literature as an academic discipline in a volume published in Baltimore in 1953, Southern Renascence, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and Robert D. Jacobs.” Hobson goes further, positing that, by defining a canon of modern southern literature, “Rubin and Jacobs, nearly as much...
Part Two: The Postsouthern Turn: Warren, Percy, Ford, and the Redevelopment of Place
3. Toward a Postsouthern Sense of Place: Robert Penn Warren’s A Place to Come To and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer
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When Lewis Simpson introduced the term “postsouthern” to the literary-critical lexicon, he had in mind the work of Walker Percy. Chiefly concerned with the fate of the “literary mind of the South” in the post- Renascence period, Simpson focused upon the desperate struggle of “the southern consciousness” depicted in Percy’s...
4. Neo-Faulknerism or Postsouthernism?: Labor, Parody, and the Problem of Place in Richard Ford’s A Piece of My Heart
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In a 1977 review-essay entitled “Walker Percy: Not Just Whistling Dixie,” Richard Ford observed pointedly that “Percy has been telling us for a long time what most of us may be just realizing: that southern regionalism as a factor in the impulse that makes us write novels . . . has had its day.” At the time, Ford must have felt especially strongly...
5. Land and Literary Speculations: The Postsouthern World-as-Text in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter
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When The Sportswriter’s narrator Frank Bascombe begins by stating, “I am a sportswriter. . . . My life . . . has not been and isn’t now a bad one at all,” he echoes quite eerily Binx Bolling’s comment that “I am a stock and bond broker. . . . It is not a bad life at all.” Indeed, a number of critics have identified...
6. New Jersey Real Estate and the Postsouthern Sense of Place: Richard Ford’s Independence Day
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Some way into his second autobiographical narrative, Frank Bascombe acknowledges that “[i]t might be of some interest to say how I came to be a Residential Specialist, distant as it is from my prior vocations of failed shortstory writer and sports journalist.”1 He recounts how “[f]ive years ago, at the end of a bad season” (91) he moved...
Part Three: Placing the Postsouthern “International City”: The Atlanta Conundrum
7. Locating a Nonplace: Atlanta’s Absence from Southern Literature and the Emergence of a Postsouthern “International City”
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On 19 July 1996, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an essay by the novelist Ellen Douglas. Douglas’s short piece was written ostensibly in honor of the Olympics, the international sporting jamboree that Atlanta was about to host. Douglas began, though, by noting that southern writers, literary critics, and academics...
8. Urban Renewal and Mixed-Use Developments: Place and Race in Anne Rivers Siddons’s Peachtree Road and Downtown
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In his introduction to The Future of Southern Letters (1996), John Lowe advances his revisionist review of the southern literary canon by introducing the “conundrum” of “[p]opular women writers.” Two noncanonical themes—Atlanta and popular southern women’s writing—come together when Lowe refers to...
9. Placing the Postsouthern “International City”: Atlanta in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full
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The publication of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full in November 1998 focused attention upon Atlanta as Anne Rivers Siddons’s Peachtree Road, for all its popularity, never did—indeed, as no novel had since Gone with the Wind. A little over ten years earlier, Wolfe’s ambitious and commercially successful debut novel...
10. Capitalist Abstraction and the Body Politics of Place: Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child
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Between 1979 and 1981, Atlanta’s black community was both torn asunder and brought together by the mysterious disappearance and death of a number of local African American children. Fresh from the critical success of her novel The Salt Eaters (1980), writer and Atlanta resident Toni Cade Bambara responded to the traumatic...
Epilogue: Against the Agrarian Grain, Taking the Transnational Turn
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At the end of Part 1, I quoted David Harvey’s claim that “[t]he preservation or construction of a sense of place” by individuals and social groups, in social reality and fiction, is more important than ever “in a phase of capitalist development in which the power to command space, particularly with respect to financial and money flows, has become more marked...
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Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2014
Series Title: Southern Literary Studies