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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.4 (2004) 561-581

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Elizabeth Spencer, the White Civil Rights Novel, and the Postsouthern

During the 1940 s, around the time that Allen Tate looked back at the recent achievements of the southern renascence and gloomily opined that such literary riches would not come again, a new kind of southern novel—what I will call the white civil rights novel—began to appear.1 For several decades a steady stream of these novels, including Lillian Smith's Strange Fruit (1944 ), William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1948 ), Elizabeth Spencer's Voice at the Back Door (1956 ), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960 ), Carson McCullers's Clock without Hands (1961 ), and Jesse Hill Ford's Liberation of Lord Byron Jones (1965 ), would attract critical attention and, often, popular success. These novels are easy to identify as a group: all are set in small southern towns and their environs, all foreground the mores and politics of race relations, and all present these relations not as a metaphysical given (as earlier southern novels often did) but as a problem that requires attention. Like the nineteenth-century "condition of England" novels, which weigh possible responses to the social upheaval caused by industrialization, white civil rights novels identify typically southern positions on race, place them in dialogue with each other, and attempt to adjudicate their competing claims.

These novels did little to change the perception among many writers and critics that the vitality of southern literature had begun to wane. [End Page 561] In "The New Provincialism" Tate argued that the renascence had been a product of the South's long-delayed entry into modernity, an efflorescence dependent on the creative tension between traditional and modern values that the First World War had forced the region to recognize: "With the war of 1914-1918, the South reentered the world—but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that backward glance gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present" (545 ). Such fortuitous circumstances could not last, as Tate had predicted in "The Profession of Letters in the South": "From the peculiarly historical consciousness of the Southern writer has come good work of a special order; but the focus of this consciousness is quite temporary. It has made possible the curious burst of intelligence that we get at a crossing of the ways, not unlike . . . the outburst of poetic genius at the end of the sixteenth century when commercial England had already begun to crush feudal England."2 Tate's essays mark the beginning of a critical tradition lamenting the end of the southern renascence, held to be coterminous with the final collapse of traditional southern values and even the death of southern literature itself.3 Viewed against the highly wrought modernism of such works as Tate's own "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1928 ) and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936 ), which tortuously juxtapose a mythic past with an anxious present, the white civil rights novels, structurally less complex and invested above all in the politics of the contemporary moment (even when they disguised this investment, as To Kill a Mockingbird did, by setting their plots several decades before), could only be seen as a falling off.

It is not surprising that these novels began to appear during the decade that saw both the first stirrings of the modern civil rights movement and the first fierce, organized resistance to it: Intruder in the Dust, for instance, should be read against the backdrop of Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma (1944 ), President Harry S. Truman's integration of the armed forces, and Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential candidacy [End Page 562] of 1948. Nor is the particular brand of politics that these novels consistently endorse unexpected: a liberal gradualism that supports civil rights for African Americans but rejects violence and clings to the notion that the white South, presented as an organic "community," must painstakingly work out its own salvation without interference from the outside. In...


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