- Dangerously Smooth Spaces in Cynthia Shearer’s The Celestial Jukebox
Cynthia Shearer’s The Celestial Jukebox (2005) offers readers a radically unconventional perspective on the Mississippi Delta region of the United States, an area described by historian James C. Cobb as the “most Southern place on Earth.”1 As Barbara Ladd notes, however, the US South has functioned as a “transnational center” and a “multinational crossroads” (56) for some time, given that “movements of people between the Deep South and the Caribbean and Africa are nothing new” (53). Indeed, Shearer’s novel moves beyond recent inroads to recovering the voices of African Americans and women in Southern literature to further assert the importance of other minorities in the historical and contemporary US South, demonstrating that a multicultural South has existed for some time; she also explores the current transformations taking place as new migrants settle in the fictional Mississippi Delta town of Madagascar.
This article examines the space of this small town as a site for negotiation between the competing forces of cultural homogenization and heterogenization. Resisting the conventional role of the State, Madagascar is presented as an oasis of Deleuze and Guattarian smooth space in which residents of various origins collaborate to create a common community to fit their needs. Likewise, the character Boubacar, a young Mauritanian refugee, negotiates multiple cultural spheres and questions the ideological messages he receives both within his diasporic community and the majority culture of his host society. Boubacar seeks to maximize autonomy and move about freely within the smooth space of Madagascar and the surrounding region. By privileging mobility, continually adapting to new circumstances, and eschewing state and social structures that can circumscribe choice and self-determination, Boubacar acts most closely as the rhizomatic nomad privileged by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Nevertheless, the depiction of this Mississippi town and the path taken by Boubacar highlight the important risks of rhizomatic space and trajectories, concerns mostly downplayed by Deleuze and Guattari. The relatively unrestricted space of Madagascar offers flexibility for the community to [End Page 199] improvise creative solutions for its needs and freedom for Boubacar to choose his own path. This text demonstrates that the rhizome simultaneously engenders insecurity and solitude, requiring the townspeople to remain vigilant against internal threats of violence and steadfast in the face of isolation from mainstream society.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, literature of the US South has been dominated by Southern Agrarianism and subsequent Agrarian-inflected movements. The Agrarian manifesto, a collection of essays titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, was published in 1930 by twelve white Vanderbilt-educated writers as a response to contemporary detractors of the region. According to J. A. Bryant, Jr., the essays valorize an antebellum white aristocratic South, depicting it as a harmonious agrarian society with strong religious values, distinct from and superior to other US regions (45). A younger proponent of the movement, literary historian Richard M. Weaver, Jr., furthered the earlier generation’s cause, proposing the US South as the last bastion of Western Christian civilization and declaring the region as the source of cultural salvation for the US, with sense of place, family, and religion as its pillars (Kreyling 23). However, Southern historians and writers have since struggled to reconcile this idealized vision of the South with the region’s legacy of slavery and rebellion.
Through the mid- to late-twentieth century, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., described by Michael Kreyling as the “primary architect and developer of Southern literary studies in the twentieth-century” (41), endeavored to temper the conservative agenda of the Agrarians by more objectively acknowledging the impact of history on literature (33). Rubin maintained that their work was an attempt to protect the South from the dehumanizing possibilities of industrialism (Bryant 47). As noted by Matthew Guinn, Rubin and the “Rubin generation” of scholars privileged a particular vision of the South that focused on the use of “Southern” motifs of history, place, and community, yet neglected to account for external influences and trends in Southern texts and for works that did not fit pre-established expectations (x).
Contemporary critics such as Kreyling, Guinn, and...