- New Southern Studies and the Race-Sex-Gender Spiral
In her recent overview of the state of southern literary studies for the broad readership of PMLA, Barbara Ladd argues that "Race is one of the two most salient problematics in southern literary studies; the other is gender." However, in a letter responding to Ladd's article, Jon Smith suggests that "it does not do the field any favors in 2005 to say its 'most salient problematics' are race and gender." Smith does not mean that race and gender are no longer important. Rather, he expresses concern that Ladd's assessment of the field "ignores completely much of the truly revisionary 'new southern studies' work of the past seven years," work that "is pushing the boundaries of American and inter-American studies, postcolonial theory, queer studies, cultural studies, and media, visual culture, and globalization." Smith identifies both Tara McPherson's Reconstructing Dixie and Gary Richards' Lovers and Beloveds as "major books" in "new southern studies." As the subtitle makes clear, race and gender are central to McPherson's study. What makes Reconstructing Dixie distinctive is the author's ability to move between and beyond the race-gender axis, and across an eclectic range of cultural forms: literature, television, film, historiography, comic books, academic memoirs, [End Page 119] and more. Put another way, Reconstructing Dixie (and by extension new southern studies) benefits considerably from McPherson's training in media and cultural studies. By contrast, Lovers and Beloveds is more narrowly focused on literary fiction, and emerges from within the established institutional apparatus of southern studies—derived from a dissertation supervised by Michael Kreyling at Vanderbilt, the book is published as part of Louisiana State University Press's Southern Literary Studies series. Ultimately, however, Richards' book is at least as (re)visionary as McPherson's, thoroughly dismantling orthodox thinking about race and gender in southern culture—and in southern studies.
The introduction to Reconstructing Dixie makes the by now rather routine noises about reconstructing southern studies, albeit with more sensitivity to the value of existing work in the field than, for example, Patricia Yaeger's abrasive introduction to Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930–1990 (2000). These gestures toward new southern studies would have seemed less predictable had the book appeared sooner: sections were first published elsewhere in 1993 and 1995, and McPherson herself acknowledges that "[i]n the years since I began this project, the contours of an emergent strand of southern studies have begun to take shape." The introduction's chief value is to outline the book's organizing idea about "lenticular logic" in southern culture. McPherson takes 3-D postcards—in particular, one she saw in Mississippi featuring a hoop-skirted white lady on one side, and a stereotypical black mammy on the other—as a metaphor for a larger southern cultural (and critical) failure or refusal to see black and white dialectically.
In the first chapter, McPherson starts "a tour of the [southern] lady's legacies, academic and otherwise" with Gone With the Wind. McPherson offers a pertinent critique of the ways in which Margaret Mitchell's novel has been selectively interpreted by feminist critics: in order to praise Scarlett O'Hara for breaking the traditional codes restricting the white southern lady, such critics have necessarily glossed over how "Scarlett's 'play' with femininity works in the service of capitalism and chain gang labor." This is a pointed early example of the book's repeated point that gender cannot simply be detached from the various other social relations that constitute southern identity. I was less convinced, however, by McPherson's argument that Gone with the Wind "fluctuate[s] between equating the belle with Atlanta and with rural life at Tara" before "finally secur[ing] Scarlett and the South within familiar stories and architectures." Scarlett does not start romanticizing Tara until after...