- The Nation's Region Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism
Leigh Anne Duck's The Nation's Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism launches The University of Georgia Press series "The New Southern Studies," edited by Jon Smith and Riché Richardson. Richardson is known for her work on black masculinity (the topic of the second book in the series) and Smith is known as co-editor of Look Away!: The U.S. South in New World Studies (2004), a volume of essays arguing for a globalist redeployment of Southern Studies, and for his pointed criticism of (what he considers to be) configurations of the field beholden to old ways and old critical ideologies, such as, for example, those expressed by Barbara Ladd in her review of southern studies in PMLA (120:5, 1628–39). The UGA Press touts the series on its web site as "a floor-to-ceiling rethinking of some of the central ideas of the last twenty years of critical theory." "New" is the keyword, for "reinvigorat[ing] the old" is but a "secondar[y]" purpose for the UGA Press series and, it seems, for "The New Southern Studies" in general.
It isn't fair to any author, especially to the author of such a scrupulously researched and critically lively book as The Nation's Region, to make her responsible for the politics of publishing in her field. But the politics of the New Southern Studies was spawned in the claim that we haven't paid enough attention in the past to the politics of southern literary criticism when it held sway. It seems only fair that we treat the new with the lessons learned from the old.
Duck's book covers the middle years of the twentieth century, years dominated by Agrarian and Fugitive social and literary ideologies, by the Depression and the "problem" South, by the blockbuster novel and film Gone with the Wind, by the [End Page 111] enigmatic Faulkner of Requiem for a Nun, by the tangled cultural currents of the Harlem Renaissance and Zora Neale Hurston, and of course by race. The "segregation" of Duck's tripartite subtitle might be the familiar evil, but her analysis of its maintenance within cultural modernism is part of the new. (And timely too, given the U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 split on school desegregation in the Louisville and Seattle cases.) The "U.S. Nationalism" of her trinity comes from her hypothesis that the United States forged its particular nationalism on both racial separation (for this claim she relies on Walter Benn Michaels's work) and the peculiar way modernism configured time and place.
Duck begins her book with a discussion of Griffith's filmic icon, Birth of a Nation, which she positions as the keystone in a larger discussion of region and race. The general outlines of this gambit are familiar: Michaels in Our America (1995) and David Blight in Race and Reunion (2001). But, where Michaels often gets lost in fugues of interpretation, Duck keeps us close to texts: filmic, popular press, literary. And, where Blight measures the work of Dixon and Griffith upon their shared audiences, Duck "psychoanalyzes" the novel/film in search of suppressed messaging systems.
Duck's second chapter, pivoting on the "plantation romance" as genre and myth, maps out her temporal argument. She produces new readings of "place" (a shibboleth of southern literary studies in older hands) and "time" (an overlooked and elusive concept nevertheless crucial to modernism). The plantation is not just a place, nor even a capitalist or pre-capitalist economic engine, but a psycho-cultural medium in which modernist temporality meets its stubborn antithesis.
In modernist thinking, colonial or outpost time is stubbornly slow, even cyclical, whereas the time of the metropolis is linear, accelerating, oriented forward into the future. It is no secret that the South, especially in the 1930s, represented a tough "problem" for modern U.S. policymakers and literary critics because the region seemed immune to calls to shift its cultural...