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  • Reconstructing Southern Literature
  • Andrew Hoberek
Review of: Michael Kreyling, Inventing Southern Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998, and Patricia Yaeger, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930–1990. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.

At first glance, nothing seems less postmodern than southern literature, a body of writing simultaneously dominated by the legacy of Faulknerian modernism and associated with an embattled critical and institutional conservatism. The study of southern literature still seems locked in an ethos of depth, seriousness, and monocultural integrity not only at odds with the postmodern world of surfaces, free play, and global multiculturalism, but indeed designed to defend prophylatically against this world.1 Yet there’s a moment about two hundred pages into Patricia Yaeger’s groundbreaking new study of southern women’s writing, Dirt and Desire, that suggests how much those of us outside the field of southern literature have to learn from a renewed attention to southern writing. Yaeger quotes Adorno on the “incommensurab[ility]” of artworks “with historicism, which seeks to reduce them to a history external to them, rather than to pursue their genuine historical content” (182–183). Such reductive historicism, Yaeger suggests, has been the legacy of the critical tradition dominated, for the last sixty years, by the mythmaking sensibilities of Faulkner and the Agrarians: “In making history monumental,” she writes, “what is lost is a sense of its unintelligibility in the flux of experience: its rawness, its presentness” (183). This judgment, delivered almost off-handedly in the midst of a reading of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, deftly reorients our understanding of the contemporary culture wars. Complaints about critics “reduc[ing artworks] to a history external to them” issue, as we all know, from traditionalists seeking to defend the autonomy of literature from historical and political concerns. While by no means uninterested in history and politics, Yaeger’s Adornian gesture toward the specificity of the literary object suggests the extent to which some southernists have themselves sacrificed literature on the altar of their own essentialist narrative of southern history. What’s important here is not simply that Yaeger identifies the cultural right’s strategic hypocrisy. What’s important is the way her account suggests the buried kinship between southern literature and other, more recent, literatures intertwined with the politicized construction of subcultural identities. We are used to imagining identity politics and multicultural literature as products of the 1960s; could it be that these developments, so crucial to the political and aesthetic history of the twentieth century, actually have an earlier origin in the rise of a distinctly southern identity? This is the question that Yaeger’s book, and Michael Kreyling’s Inventing Southern Literature, compel us to ask, although neither formulates the question quite this way. Yet to ask the question this way—to ask whether southern literature might be understood as the origin of American multiculturalism and identity politics—not only reframes the genre but also our sense of multiculturalism and identity politics as political and literary-political phenomena. Taken together, these two books, despite their significant differences, mark a key shift in the study of southern literature, a shift that has important implications for the study of twentieth-century literature and culture more generally.

Kreyling’s book addresses the question of southern identity and its construction within and through the southern literary tradition from “the inside,” as it were. Invoking the locus classicus of an embattled southern intellectualism—Quentin Compson’s ambivalent defense of the South to his Harvard roommate, the Canadian Shreve—Kreyling refuses to side entirely either with Quentin’s defensiveness (“If one must be born in the South to participate meaningfully in its dialogue, then there is in fact only a monologue”) or with Shreve’s disdain (“On the other hand, Quentin’s roommate is no cultural prize either”; xviii). Instead, he chooses to foreground the debates and disagreements that have made up the southern critical tradition, belying the seemingly hermetic coherence that this tradition sometimes presents to those outside the field. Citing Gerald Graff, Kreyling argues that “teachers and students of southern literature have a world to gain from foregrounding the ‘conflicts’” that have shaped the study of southern...

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