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Spectral Returns and New Turns in Contemporary American Literature and Criticism

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 132-135 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0019

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Since Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, contemporary literary criticism has taken a veritable “spectral turn,” and the current fascination with specters is reflected in book titles ranging from popular culture to academic studies. The new books by Arthur Redding and Melanie Benson Taylor, though very different, both rely on the metaphor of haunting for their arguments.

Arthur Redding’s Haints is based on the premise that gothic fiction is experiencing a contemporary resurgence. Redding’s work builds on Teresa Goddu’s classic Gothic America, a study that links the gothic to the project of nationhood and especially to the voices that have been excluded from prevailing representations of America. Redding follows this line of reasoning into the 20th century and into the post-national era, when in the wake of 9/11 the presumed homogeneity of the national project has come under attack. The aim of the book, he writes, is to contend that “contemporary gothic literature does speak cogently, if indirectly, to the sensibilities and conditions of which the attacks and the American response were symptomatic.” As an apocalyptic fictional genre, the gothic fits the current cultural moment since it offers no resolutions to the traumatic fracturing of national identity.

The book’s three chapters contain familiar arguments about the nation as haunted, but unexpected and provocative new groupings of writers. In chapter one, for instance, novels by Jamaica Kincaid, Isabelle Allende, and Henry James are discussed side by side as narratives of immigration and exile that trace the contours of an American identity construed as haunted. In chapter two, Toni Morrison, Lee Smith, and Toni Cade Bambara are portrayed as awakening ghosts that arise from racial and sexual crimes. Here again, various geographies and vantage points are fruitfully juxtaposed to show how specters of otherness—African-Americans, poor white mountain folk, Native Americans, and children—haunt the house of fiction. Chapter three briefly glosses over Leslie Marmon Silko’s monumental Almanac of the Dead and Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart as Native American novels that imagine an “apocalyptic endgame” to social crisis. The scant eight pages devoted to Native literature are followed by an analysis of E. L. Doctorow’s City of God, creating an unsatisfying imbalance and rupturing the otherwise well-rounded and nuanced readings in the rest of the book.

The focus on ethnic American literature provides some overlap with Kathleen Brogan’s 1998 Cultural Haunting, and the emphasis on the contemporary scene dovetails with Mark Edmondson’s 1997 Nightmare on Main Street. Eager to distinguish his book from theirs, Redding characterizes Edmundson’s study as one in which the gothic “remains mired in a political debilitating and anxious dread,” whereas in Brogan’s book, the gothic “moves us toward an idealized cultural recovery.” Redding delineates the limitations of each of these positions and offers his own as he claims that “no individual or collective identity can be forged without reference to the dead.”

Whereas Haints attempts to find new ground in a familiar field, Reconstructing the Native South outlines a brand new field of study altogether. This truly original study is the first book-length publication on Native southern studies that sets up parallels between the disciplines. Taylor argues that the U.S. South and Indian Country in particular are “imagined geographies,” each functioning to represent the national abject. Her Reconstructing the Native South clarifies that these overlapping regions have been called on to defend their integrity and autonomy, and that this position produced very particular constructions of otherness and difference. Specifically, Taylor argues, these legacies of difference are grounded in loss. By linking the southern “Lost Cause” with an “Indian lost cause” these seemingly diametrically opposed narratives take on strange new echoes in shared histories of colonialism. This recognition brings into focus the productive lines of affiliation and solidarity between two groups who stand historically opposed and whose land claims are competitive at best.

The book’s four chapters each brilliantly illuminates a different facet of affiliation: the story begins with fiction by white southern writers like William Faulkner, Barry Hannah and Charles Frazier and Native American writers from the South like LeAnne Howe, Diane Glancy, and Louis Owens who, in their fiction, share...



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