Southern Literary Studies

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

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The Angelic Mother and the Predatory Seductress

Poor White Women in Southern Literature of the Great Depression

Ashley Craig Lancaster

In The Angelic Mother and the Predatory Seductress, Ashley Craig Lancaster examines how converging political and cultural movements helped to create dualistic images of southern poor white female characters in Depression-era literature. While other studies address the familial and labor issues that challenged female literary characters during the 1930s, Lancaster focuses on how the evolving eugenics movement reinforced the dichotomy of altruistic maternal figures and destructive sexual deviants. According to Lancaster, these binary stereotypes became a new analogy for hope and despair in America’s future and were well utilized by Depression-era politicians and authors to stabilize the country’s economic decline. As a result, the complexity of women’s lives was often overlooked in favor of stock characters incapable of individuality. Lancaster studies a variety of works, including those by male authors William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and John Steinbeck, as well as female novelists Mary Heaton Vorse, Myra Page, Grace Lumpkin, and Olive Tilford Dargan. She identifies female stereotypes in classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and in the work of later writers Dorothy Allison and Rick Bragg, who embrace and share in a poor white background. The Angelic Mother and the Predatory Seductress reveals that these literary stereotypes continue to influence not only society’s perception of poor white southern women but also women’s perception of themselves.

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Awakenings

The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival

edited by Bernard Koloski

One of the most often repeated anecdotes about the direction of literary studies over the past three decades concerns a graduate student who complained of reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in three classes and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in none. But Chopin has not always been featured in the literary curriculum. Though she achieved national success in her lifetime (1850–1904) as a writer of Louisiana “local color” fiction, after her death her work fell into obscurity until 1969, when Norwegian literary scholar Per Seyersted published The Complete Works of Kate Chopin and sparked a remarkable American literary revival. Chopin soon became a major presence in the canon, and today every college textbook surveying American literature contains a Chopin short story, her novel The Awakening, or an excerpt from it. In this unique work, twelve prominent Chopin scholars reflect on their parts in the Kate Chopin revival and its impact on their careers. A generation ago, against powerful odds, many of them staked their reputations on the belief—now fully validated—that Chopin is one of America’s essential writers. These scholars energetically sponsored Chopin’s works in the 1970s and 1980s and encouraged reading, studying, and teaching Chopin. They wrote books and articles about her, gave talks about her, offered interviews to newspapers and magazines, taught her works in their classes, and urged their colleagues to do the same, helping to build a network of teachers, students, editors, journalists, librarians, and others who continue to promote Chopin’s work. Throughout, these essays stress several elements vital to the revival’s success. Timing proved critical, as the rise of the women’s movement and the emergence of new sexual norms in the 1960s helped set an ideal context for Chopin in the United States and abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. Seyersted’s biography of Chopin and his accurate texts of her entire oeuvre allowed scholars to quickly publish their analyses of her work. Popular media—including Redbook, New York Times, and PBS—took notice of Chopin and advanced her work outside the scholarly realm. But in the final analysis, as the contributors point out, Kate Chopin’s irresistible writing itself made her revival possible. Highly personal, at times amusing, and always thought provoking, these revealing recollections and new critical insights offer a fascinating firsthand account of a decisive moment in American literary history.

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Becoming Cajun, Becoming American

The Acadian in American Literature from Longfellow to James Lee Burke

Maria Hebert-Leiter

From antebellum times, Louisiana’s unique multipartite society included a legal and social space for intermediary racial groups such as Acadians, Creoles, and Creoles of Color. In Becoming Cajun, Becoming American, Maria Hebert-Leiter explores how American writers have portrayed Acadian culture over the past 150 years. Combining a study of Acadian literary history with an examination of Acadian ethnic history in light of recent social theories, she offers insight into the Americanization process experienced by Acadians—who over time came to be known as Cajuns—during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hebert-Leiter examines the entire history of the Acadian, or Cajun, in American literature, beginning with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Evangeline and the writings of George Washington Cable, including his novel Bonaventure. The cultural complexity of Acadian and Creole identities led many writers to rely on stereotypes in Acadian characters, but as Hebert-Leiter shows, the ambiguity of Louisiana’s class and racial divisions also allowed writers to address complex and controversial—and sometimes taboo—subjects. She emphasizes the fiction of Kate Chopin, whose short stories contain Acadian characters accepted as white Americans during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Representations of the Acadian in literature reflect the Acadians’ path towards assimilation, as they celebrated their differences while still adopting an all-American notion of self. In twentieth-century writing, Acadian figures came to be more often called Cajun, and increasingly outsiders perceived them not simply as exotic or mythic beings but as complex persons who fit into traditional American society while reflecting its cultural diversity. Hebert-Leiter explores this transition in Ernest Gaines’s novel A Gathering of Old Men and James Lee Burke’s detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux. She also discusses the works of Ada Jack Carver, Elma Godchaux, Shirley Ann Grau, and other writers. From Longfellow through Tim Gautreaux, Acadian and Cajun literature captures the stages of this fascinating cultural dynamism, making it a pivotal part of any history of American ethnicity and of Cajun culture in particular. Concise and accessible, Becoming Cajun, Becoming American provides an excellent introduction to American Acadian and Cajun literature.

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Being Ugly

Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion

Monica Carol Miller

In the South, one notion of “being ugly” implies inappropriate or coarse behavior that transgresses social norms of courtesy. While popular stereotypes of the region often highlight southern belles as the epitome of feminine power, women writers from the South frequently stray from this convention and invest their fiction with female protagonists described as ugly or chastised for behaving that way. Through this divergence, “ugly” can be a force for challenging the strictures of normative southern gender roles and marriage economies. In Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, Monica Carol Miller reveals how authors from Margaret Mitchell to Monique Truong employ “ugly” characters to upend the expectations of patriarchy and open up more possibilities for southern female identity.

Previous scholarship often conflates ugliness with such categories as the grotesque, plain, or abject, but Miller disassociates these negative descriptors from a group of characters created by southern women writers. Focusing on how such characters appear prone to rebellious and socially inappropriate behavior, Miller argues that ugliness subverts assumptions about gender by identifying those who are unsuitable for the expected roles of marriage and motherhood. As opposed to familiar courtship and marriage plots, Miller locates in fiction by southern women writers an alternative genealogy, the ugly plot. This narrative tradition highlights female characters whose rebellion offers a space for re-imagining alternative lives and households in opposition to the status quo.

Reading works by canonical writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, along with recent texts by contemporary authors like Helen Ellis, Lee Smith, and Jesmyn Ward, Being Ugly offers an important new perspective on how southern women writers confront regressive ideologies that insist upon limited roles for women.

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Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men

Nineteenth-Century Mississippi River Gambling Stories

edited by Thomas Ruys Smith

In 1836 Benjamin Drake, a midwestern writer of popular sketches for newspapers of the day, introduced his readers to a new and distinctly American rascal who rode the steamboats up and down the Mississippi and other western waterways—the riverboat gambler. These men, he recorded, “dress with taste and elegance; carry gold chronometers in their pockets; and swear with the most genteel precision. . . . Every where throughout the valley, these mistletoe gentry are called by the original, if not altogether classic, cognomen of ‘Black-legs.’” In Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men, Thomas Ruys Smith collects nineteenth-century stories, sketches, and book excerpts by a gallery of authors to create a comprehensive collection of writings about the riverboat gambler. Long an iconic figure in American myth and popular culture but, strangely, one that has never until now received a book-length treatment, the Mississippi River gambler was a favorite character throughout the nineteenth century—one often rich with moral ambiguities that remain unresolved to this day. In the absorbing fictional and nonfictional accounts of high stakes and sudden reversals of fortune found in the pages of Smith’s book, the voices of canonized writers such as William Dean Howells, Herman Melville, and, of course, Mark Twain hold prominent positions. But they mingle seamlessly with lesser-known pieces such as an excerpt from Edward Willett’s sensationalistic dime novel Flush Fred’s Full Hand, raucous sketches by anonymous Old Southwestern humorists from the Spirit of the Times, and colorful accounts by now nearly forgotten authors such as Daniel R. Hundley and George W. Featherstonhaugh. Smith puts the twenty-eight selections in perspective with an Introduction that thoroughly explores the history and myth surrounding this endlessly fascinating American cultural icon. While the riverboat gambler may no longer ply his trade along the Mississippi, Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men makes clear the ways in which he still operates quite successfully in the American imagination.

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Bridging Southern Cultures

An Interdisciplinary Approach

edited by John Lowe

A panorama of past and contemporary southern society are captured in Bridging Southern Cultures by some of the South’s leading historians, anthropologists, literary critics, musicologists, and folklorists. Crossing the chasms of demographics, academic disciplines, art forms, and culture, this exciting collection reaches aspects of southern heritage that previous approaches have long obscured. Virtually every dimension of southern identity receives attention here. William Andrews,Thadious Davis, Sue Bridwell Beckham, Richard Megraw, and Joyce Marie Jackson offer engaging reflections on art, age, race, and gender. Bertram Wyatt-Brown delivers a startling reading of Faulkner, revealing the tangled history of southern modernism. Daniel C. Littlefield, Henry Shapiro, and Charles Reagan Wilson provide important assessments of Africanisms in southern culture, Appalachian studies, and the blessing and burden of southern culture. John Shelton Reed probes the humorous and awkward aspects of the South’s midlife crisis. John Lowe shows how the myth of the biracial southern family complicated plantation-school narratives for both white and black writers. Showcasing the thought of preeminent southern intellectuals, Bridging Southern Cultures is a timely assessment of the state of contemporary southern studies.

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Calls and Responses

The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind

Tim A. Ryan

In this comprehensive, groundbreaking study, Tim A. Ryan explores how American novelists since World War I have imagined the institution of slavery and the experience of those involved in it. Complicating the common assumption that authentic black-authored fiction about slavery is starkly opposed to the traditional, racist fiction (and history) created by whites, Ryan suggests that discourses about American slavery are—and have always been—defined by connections rather than disjunctions. Ryan contends that African American writers didn't merely reject and move beyond traditional portrayals of the black past but rather actively engaged in a dynamic dialogue with white-authored versions of slavery and existing historiographical debates. The result is an ongoing cultural conversation that transcends both racial and disciplinary boundaries and is akin to the call-and-response style of African American gospel music. Ryan addresses in detail more than a dozen major American novels of slavery, from the first significant modern fiction about the institution—Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder (both published in 1936)—to recent noteworthy novels on the topic—Edward P. Jones's The Known World and Valerie Martin's Property (both published in 2003). His insistence upon the necessity of interpreting novels about the past directly in relation to specific historical scholarship makes Calls and Responses especially compelling. He reads Toni Morrison's Beloved not in opposition to a monolithic orthodoxy about slavery but in relation to specific arguments of controversial historian Stanley Elkins. Similarly, he analyzes William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner in terms of its rhetorical echoes of Frederick Douglass's famous autobiographical narrative. Ryan shows throughout Calls and Responses how a variety of novelists—including Alex Haley, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, Margaret Walker, and Frances Gaither—engage in a dynamic debate with each other and with such historians as Herbert Aptheker, Charles Joyner, Eugene and Elizabeth Genovese, and many others. A substantially new account of the development of American slavery fiction in the last century, Calls and Responses goes beyond merely exalting the expression of black voices and experiences and actually reconfigures the existing view of the American novel of slavery.

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The Complete Works of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin. edited by Per Seyersted. foreword by Edmund Wilson

In 1969, Per Seyersted gave the world the first collected works of Kate Chopin. Seyersted's presentation of Chopin's writings and biographical and bibliographical information led to the rediscovery and celebration of this turn-of-the-century author. Newsweek hailed the two-volume opus -- "In story after story and in all her novels, Kate Chopin's oracular feminism and prophetic psychology almost outweigh her estimable literary talents. Her revival is both interesting and timely." Now for the first time, Seyersted'sComplete Works is available in a single-volume paperback. It is the first and only paperback edition of Chopin's total oeuvre. Containing twenty poems, ninety-six stories, two novels, and thirteen essays -- in short, everything Chopin wrote except several additional poems and three unfinished children's stories -- as well as Seyersted's original revelatory introduction and Edmund Wilson's foreword, this anthology is both a historical and a literary achievement. It is ideal for anyone who wishes to explore the pleasures of reading this highly acclaimed author.

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Composing Selves

Southern Women and Autobiography

Peggy Whitman Prenshaw

In Composing Selves, award-winning author Peggy Whitman Prenshaw provides the most comprehensive treatment of autobiographies by women in the American South. This long-anticipated addition to Prenshaw’s study of southern literature spans the twentieth century as she provides an in-depth look at the life-writing of eighteen women authors. Composing Selves travels the wide terrain of female life in the South, analyzing various issues that range from racial consciousness to the deflection of personal achievement. All of the authors presented came of age during the era Prenshaw refers to as the “late southern Victorian period,” which began in 1861 and ended in the 1930s. Belle Kearney’s A Slaveholder’s Daughter (1900) with Elizabeth Spencer’s Landscapes of the Heart and Ellen Douglas’s Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell (both published in 1998) chronologically bookend Prenshaw’s survey. She includes Ellen Glasgow’s The Woman Within, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek, Bernice Kelly Harris’s Southern Savory, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. The book also examines Katharine DuPre Lumpkin’s The Making of a Southerner and Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. In addition to exploring multiple themes, Prenshaw considers a number of types of autobiographies, such as Helen Keller’s classic The Story of My Life and Anne Walter Fearn’s My Days of Strength. She treats narratives of marital identity, as in Mary Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth, and calls attention to works by women who devoted their lives to social and political movements, like Virginia Durr’s Outside the Magic Circle. Drawing on many notable authors and on Prenshaw’s own life of scholarship, Composing Selves provides an invaluable contribution to the study of southern literature, autobiography, and the work of southern women writers.

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A Dark Rose

Love in Eudora Welty's Stories and Novels

Sally Wolff

From the heartbroken protagonist she depicted in her first published story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," to the reflective widow she described in her last novel, The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Welty wrote realistically about the shadows and radiance of love. In a meticulous exploration of this theme, Sally Wolff combines new readings of Welty's fiction with contextual information and background drawn from a nineteen-year friendship with Welty.

A common image in much of Welty's fiction, the rose has traditionally symbolized love in literature. Wolff argues that the dark rose-from the height of its brilliance to the end of its life-serves as an apt metaphor for the dichotomies Welty presents, equally suggestive of beauty and sadness, as well as the comic, tragic, and mysterious qualities of love. While some of Welty's characters seem autobiographical-a daughter remembering her parents' marriage or a broodingly hopeful member of a large family wedding-at times Welty analyzes from a distance the dynamics of successful and troubled loving relationships. Although Welty experienced love several times during her life, she never married, and Wolff argues that this vantage point allowed Welty to write from an objective perspective in her fiction about the varied dimensions of love.

A Dark Rose explores several texts to examine Welty's nuanced and intricate portrayals of love. Though love in Welty's fiction fails, wears thin, and even faces death-it remains a vital force in her characters' lives.

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