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The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 171-174

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Riding the Lines of Southern Women's Fiction

Mary Wheeling

Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990. By Patricia Yaeger. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. 324 pp. $49.00.
Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing. Edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. 232 pp. $39.95.

An impatient reader might be tempted to put down Patricia Yaeger's Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990 after the first few chapters. The book is not the cleanest, most seamless critical production, but its bagginess is almost appropriate for a project claiming as a goal to "dynamite the rails" of traditional southern studies. If you stay with the work, you will find that its arguments point southern studies in invigorating new directions.

Yaeger insists that the old ways of understanding Southern Renascence fiction through valorizing the "male" models of historical and political consciousness (as outlined in works such as Richard King's A Southern Renaissance) need to be rethought; new categories must be cast. "This focus on the uses of the past," she argues, leads critics to concentrate on "intellectual history—on a set of ideas about the South constructed by a group of conventional white men—and [to] continue to overlook the uses of contemporary events in modern southern literature." This latter focus, women writers' dialogue with their contemporary culture (whether New Negro Renaissance, Depression and the New Deal, the Great Migration, or racial violence), eventually becomes one of Yaeger's most compelling points. [End Page 171]

The fictions' engagement with contemporary events and concerns, she demonstrates, belies southern women writers' profound historical and political consciousness, rivaling that of the canonical southern male authors. The female model plays itself out in an "obsession with the southern grotesque"—in other words, "the ordinary dominations, the insane politics of everyday southern life." Instead of following earlier critics' analyses of "southern politics as monument and myth," Yaeger examines "other ways to come to terms with the legitimation crises of twentieth-century southern life."

Another path Yaeger takes is into the area of race, specifically, the problem of studying together black and white women's writing as "southern." She admits difficulties, yet suggests resolution in her demonstrations of how works by writers including Lucille Clifton, Ellen Gilchrist, Alice Walker, and Katherine Anne Porter concern similar issues along different lines. With the help of a wide range of literary and cultural critics, Yaeger points out the intersections, influences, and collisions in their texts along such matrices as epistemology, biology, politics, economics, and gender. She writes, "African and Anglo Americans often experienced a world of similar objects—but from within completely different semiotic and cultural systems." The "trivia" (objects, bodies, dirt, domestic work) constituting these matrices reveal a great deal more about southern politics, history, and society than most southern literary scholars have recognized, she claims, largely because critics have treated trivia as such.

Yaeger's attention to Eudora Welty and to several less-lauded southern writers—particularly Carson McCullers and Zora Neale Hurston—is extended and meaningful, especially when she shows the political work accomplished by writing traditionally marginalized as adolescent or folk literature. Her inclusion of African American women writers who hail from non-southern regions, but whose writing explores southern issues and legacies (including Lucille Clifton and Toni Morrison), is a refreshing challenge to our often boundary-obsessed field of regional studies.

But finding my way through the arguments in Dirt and Desire was not easy. From the outset, the book's organization disconcerted me, and my concern with misleading titles and metaphors lingered well after I finished it. Puzzled, I struggled to discover how "Southern Women Writers" constituted the "Confederacy of Water Moccasins" as the title of Chapter One appeared to claim. In Chapter Three, "Dynamiting the Rails: Desegregating Southern Literary Studies," Yaeger refers first to sabotaging the path of the Dixie Limited (after O'Connor's famous complaint) to subvert the critical aims of those who...


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