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  • Kathryn Stockett’s Postmodern First Novel
  • Pearl McHaney (bio)

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Pleasure and anger are dependent on one another for heightened authenticity. But we should not stop there; we should not settle for indifference as is demonstrated by our silent acquiescence. Discussing The Help with delight and outrage seems just the right action. Artist Kara Walker often incorporates tensions in her work such as those described by McHaney.

Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress © 2002, by Kara Walker, cut paper on wall, installation dimensions variable, approximately 156" × 1,188", courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Kathryn Stockett’s first novel The Help, published in 2009, seemed destined for bestseller status. Janet Maslin, in a review for the New York Times, called it a “button-pushing, soon to be wildly popular novel,” and indeed, it stayed on the Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks. The Sunday Times (UK) christened the novel “the other side of Gone With the Wind.” Soon, Stockett’s story was translated into Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and after the film premiered in 2011, it was published in many additional languages and editions. The film adaptation not only made visual the visceral experiences of Stockett’s characters, but also created a firestorm of comments—often virulent, often without critical acuity, and often by non-readers. New, frequently one-sided debates and challenges were launched.1

The Help has garnered so much attention that many readers (and some scholars) have lost objectivity in their analyses. Two contextual stances provide grounding for this essay’s interrogation: first, a brief description of an academic panel held one year after Stockett’s novel was published, and second, the positions of various authorities, including author Toni Morrison and visual artist Kara Walker, regarding the challenges of reading race in fiction, and historians Vanessa May and Rebecca Sharpless for historical perspectives on domestic help. These preparatory references assist in considering The Help as a first novel—a species of fiction bearing both innocence and expected errors. More sophisticatedly, in the ken of a novel such as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, The Help may be understood as a postmodern historical novel as defined by Amy Elias in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction and as a poioumenon-novel as described by genre theorist Alistair Fowler. The Help deserves such serious contemplation and speculation as Stockett’s postmodern, first novel.2

Beginning the Conversations

A year after The Help was published, I included the novel in my graduate seminar on Southern Literature at Georgia State University. I wished to encourage critical discussions of this bestseller before too much time had passed, as in the forty-year span prior to when the academy struck up conversations about that other incredible bestseller Gone With the Wind. My students read the long, romanticized historical fiction with excitement (because it was au courant) and skepticism (because it was a bestseller and they, after all, were up-and-coming literary theorists). One of the students even developed a call for papers, “Rescuing Kathryn Stockett’s The Help from the Bestseller List,” for the fall 2010 South Atlantic Modern Language Association meeting. The resulting panel addressed the novel’s perpetuation and/or undermining of stereotypes, its popular genre characteristics, and representations of the female body and was a good beginning for turning critical attention to Stockett’s novel. But as the semester was ending, the students began sending me trailers for the movie adaptation of The Help. Attention shifted and new debates emerged.3

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[Kara] Walker speaks of “projecting fictions into” the “facts” a conceptual practice that I find to be particularly at work in experiencing The Help and in engaging in its examination.

Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart © 1994, by Kara Walker, cut paper on wall, installation dimensions variable, approximately 180” × 600", courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Four authorities provide further context for considering The Help as a postmodern first novel. Toni Morrison, only the second American female Nobel Laureate of Literature (after Pearl...


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