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  • Postsouthern and (Increasingly) Post-Agrarian
  • Leigh Anne Duck (bio)
Martyn Bone , The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction. Southern Literary Studies ser.Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. xvi + 271 pp. $49.95 cloth.

Martyn Bone's engaging book The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction will be essential reading for scholars interested in the idea of the postsouthern and is also highly recommended for readers examining postmodernity more broadly. The term "postsouthern" designates work that questions traditional shibboleths of the region's literature; as Bone demonstrates in the introductory section of this book, conventional southern critical narratives centrally feature a special "sense of place." But since the Agrarians—who pledged resistance against a material "American industrial ideal" 1 —this concept of place has remained, in Bone's terms, "rather airy" (28), comprising little more than an interest in rural, natural, or seemingly static spaces. Concerned that this focus on image and style has displaced important socioeconomic changes, Bone returns to the more specific goals of the Agrarians as articulated in the mid-1930s; their political and economic program promoted "agricultural real property"—as exemplified in subsistence farming—and resisted "capitalist land speculation and development" (Bone 14). To challenge the Agrarian "sense of place," then, is to recognize the influence of an emblematically postmodern [End Page 299] form—that is, the remarkable mobility of contemporary finance, which seems to detach both capital and commodities from distinct local spaces. This volume sets out, accordingly, to trace the influence of economic change in contemporary southern literature, employing "a historical-geographical materialist approach" to consider how novels, through both style and plot, interpret "sociospatial reality" (vii, 45). Bone does not use the latter phrase casually, as he resists literary styles or critical approaches that might "risk uncritically recapitulating the (il)logic of late capitalism itself" (46); rather, he hopes to use postsouthern literature to facilitate readers' understanding of how capitalism continually alters both social space and the ways in which we think about our environs. He largely succeeds, through fresh, nuanced, and clearly presented readings of a wide range of texts, from the work of Eudora Welty to that of Barbara Kingsolver.

It is nonetheless surprising that this study features the Agrarians so prominently. As Bone notes, their influence on the development of southern literary studies has already been vigorously historicized by Michael Kreyling in Inventing Southern Literature (1998) and just as vigorously derided by Patricia Yaeger in Dirt and Desire (2000). Bone challenges Agrarian historiographies, which notoriously idealized the pre–Civil War South; further, he attends far more specifically to their "socioeconomic geography" than have other literary scholars (17). But his approach tends once more to position these avowedly reactionary thinkers at the center of southern literary criticism, and though he does so chiefly in order to examine works that will challenge their principles, this method nonetheless restricts the range of historical perspectives represented in this volume. It is perhaps only through contrast with the Agrarians, for example, that Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) could be considered unambiguously "pro–New South, pro-urban, and procapitalist" (148). Bone perceptively argues that, in a dynamic later (and critically) replicated by Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full (1998), the "Old South sense of place" maintained at Mitchell's Tara is underwritten by her protagonist's capitalist ventures in Atlanta, but he neglects to consider this character's crassness and corruption (148). These traits were starkly apparent to early readers of the novel, however, as it was published in a period when critics [End Page 300] across the ideological spectrum feared that unbridled capitalism might deprive the nation—not only its southern states—of both wit and decency. In her enthusiastic embrace of abusive convict labor practices, Mitchell's Scarlett serves to demonstrate the dehumanizing effects of the profit motive and also, explicitly, to suggest that slavery, in comparison, was not so vicious. In this way, the novel concurs with Agrarian tenets, while also, more surprisingly, echoing aspects of W. E. B. Du Bois's critique of Atlanta capitalism in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). But Bone's study is ultimately seeking to understand precisely such unexpected convergences...


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