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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 not a lily-white work of art, postbellum males worked diligently to create the still-powerful popular myth of the prewar South as Eden and the belle as a pure-minded Eve. Seidel observes how writers of both sexes skirted the blunt fact that, immediately upon marriage, the belle turned into a plantation drudge, endlessly darning socks, making pickles, and even driving the plows. And Seidel argues persuasively that the belle quickly became identified with the South itself and was "tried"—and condemned—in a series of fictional courtrooms in the 1930s. These points are sound and illuminating; but as Seidel makes them over and over again, the unfortunate limitations of her argument become jarringly apparent. Why, for example, does Seidel limit her study to just novels? True, as Nina Baym pointed out in Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, we were indeed a nation of novel-readers in the nineteenth century, and surely many of our ideas about the belle were derived from that genre. But we also were long a nation addicted to reading short stories in popular magazines, and Seidel's study seems undercut by her neglect of writers like George Washington Cable, whose immensely popular "Belles Demoiselles Plantation" sheds much light on the notion of the doomed belle, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose own growing disenchantment with the Southern belle is recorded painfully in his Tarleton trilogy of short stories. Likewise, drama was an important mode of popularizing, and sometimes puncturing, the cult of the belle. Far more Americans knew of Marie St. Clare through touring "Tom shows" than through Uncle Tom's Cabin the novel, while a host of other plays exploited America's fascination with the South after 1865. Almost as questionable as the book's generic limitation is its time frame: why use 1939 as the cut-off-date? After all, writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor depict middle-aged women characters who cling pathetically to antebellum notions of belledom, sometimes with fatal results (the grandmother in O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). Surely much can be learned about the phenomenon of the belle by examining her post-World War II manifestations. For that matter, even her presence in Black literature, a body of writing untouched by Seidel, is quite revealing. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, when Joe Starks wins Janie Killicks with the words "'a pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo'self and eat p'taters dat other folks plant just special for you,'" it is clear that even Hurston's lower-class Black characters appreciate fully the allure of the belle. These limitations are unfortunate, and they compromise the value of what could, and should, have been a major contribution to Southern and women's studies. Even so, Seidel does make some solid observations, and one welcomes her attention to such neglected authors as Frances Newman, Hamilton Basso, and Isa Glenn. If The Southern Belle in the American Novel is not the last word on the subject, it is at least a suggestive introduction; and there is a solid niche in American literary scholarship for books of that ilk. Rhode Island School of DesignAlice Hall Petry Wilde, Alan. Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction . Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. 198 pp. Cloth: $24.95. Once noted for its uncompromising anti-establishment rigor, contemporary American fiction in the past decade has been settling into a very respectable academic style. Publishers who once sent the best of it packing to smaller, experimentally based houses now market it in one designer series after another. Classroom instructors who used to share the fears expressed by John Gardner's On Moral Fiction and Gerald Graffs Literature Against Itself (that there were no more rational lessons to teach) can now pontificate to their hearts' content . And scholars are again able to publish studies worthy of being sent up to their deans and provosts, who can in turn take pride in the English...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 249-251
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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