In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

248Reviews ways, or how sexual energy and its repression are keys to understanding both Whitman and Hawthorne. In short, Shulman's book is a masterly effort. It is a substantial contribution to a growing body of literature that seeks to understand how classic works of American literature are motivated by and reflect their socio-historical contexts. But this contribution bears the added distinction of being equally valuable to the theorist and the classroom teacher. Pennsylvania State UniversityRobert E. Burkholder Seidel, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Tampa: Univ. of South Florida Press, 1985. 202 pp. Cloth: $19.00. She first burst upon the literary scene in John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832), and though she has endured a singularly checkered career in fiction—from coquettish manipulator to ravished victim, from icon to joke—the Southern belle continues to be a source of perennial, if not always discriminating, fascination to the American mind. Perhaps because of her very longevity, or our uncertainty over how to respond to the hyperbole she inspires, or even that traffic-stopping charm which, we have been told for 150 years, is the lovely cross she bears, the Southern belle has somehow managed to resist systematic analysis by either literary critics or students of popular culture. To be sure, brief discussions of the belle by W. J. Cash (The Mind of the South) and Merrill Maguire Skaggs (The Folk ofSouthern Fiction ) would suggest that the scholarly community acknowledges her importance, while heavyhanded parodies of her (most notably on television) would suggest that the general public recognizes the belle phenomenon in its broadest outlines; but not until Kathryn Lee Seidel's The Southern Belle in the American Novel has the belle as a recurring fictional type been subjected to critical scrutiny. Based upon her analysis of 150 novels published between 1832 and 1939, Seidel has managed to produce an insightful, albeit flawed, study of a complex character type that reflects, for good or ill, what Americans—and in particular Southerners— think about their women, the South, and themselves. Whether she is written about during the antebellum period, or after the Civil War, or during the Southern Renaissance, the belle is readily recognizable; she is young (usually sixteen or seventeen), unmarried (belledom is short-lived, ending officially at the belle's wedding), small of foot, close to her father (her mother is amost always long dead), and relentlessly charming. Essentially a hothouse flower, she is raised in the belief that her sole raison d'être is to attract and ensnare a good ("rich") husband. To this end, she strives to be physically alluring, ultimately becoming a pretty object with no mind or personality behind that dazzling façade. Small wonder that the belle is consistently depicted fictionally as narcissistic, perpetually gazing into mirrors and pools, and eagerly seeking the approval of Daddy, her brothers, uncles—any male. But ironically enough, she is expected to have no comprehension of the sexuality to which the men around her are responding. Though her flirting during courtship is designed to whip male hormones into a frenzy, and though her eventual marriage will be little more than a kind of prostitution, an exchange of sexual accessibility for financial security, the belle is expected to be a repository of "purity" who would not dream of doing the kinds of things that fancy ladies in Memphis—not to mention nubile slaves—do with the "knights" in her orbit. Both sending and receiving decidedly mixed sexual signals, the belle by World War I had evolved from the nineteenth-century sexually-repressed narcissist to the twentiethcentury nymphomaniac. The transformation is more logical and inevitable than it might initially appear. Constantly studying her lovely body, bluntly accepting cash for coitus, and willing to submit to anything for the approval of the nearest male (Popeye), Temple Drake suddenly becomes chillingly understandable. As Seidel makes clear, everything that Temple thinks, says, and does marks her as a modern Southern belle, a monster created by a social system that was itself monstrous. Studies in American Fiction249 Indeed, everything Seidel writes seems sensitive and accurate. She points out that while antebellum women writers often acknowledged that the belle was...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 248-249
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.