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  • Possessing the Past: Trauma, Imagination, and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature by Lisa Hinrichsen
  • Christopher Bundrick
Hinrichsen, Lisa. 2015. Possessing the Past: Trauma, Imagination, and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. $45.00 hc. xi + 279 pp.

As the title of the book indicates, Hinrichsen's approach to southern literature revolves around a matrix of three issues: "the relationship between trauma, fantasy, and the public sphere" (2). More fully, although Possessing the Past is concerned with the way these features point to new ways of understanding post-plantation southern literature, it also works to understand the complex interplay between them and the larger theoretical models that such a relationship suggests. The book introduces this complexity early when it acknowledges the difficulty of how to "own" southern history without asserting special mastery over the past. Building from the argument Michael Kreyling makes in his 1998 Inventing Southern Literature, Hinrichsen proposes that a psychoanalytic understanding of fantasy as elemental to the creation of southern identity will open up ways to understand "the role that mastery and ownership have played, not only in the historical reality of white dominance in the South, but also in the regard to the act of imaginatively constructing 'the South'" (2). Furthermore, Hinrichsen is clearly interested in the way fiction overlaps with politics and social structures—and she's able to move the argument beyond pure aesthetics by approaching the questions of memory in southern literature through alternative critical structures. Drawing on work from scholars such as Slavoj Žižek, Benedict Anderson, Lauren Berlant, and Leigh Anne Duck, Possessing the Past complicates its sense of memory by combining elements of trauma theory and psychoanalysis with more traditional critical approaches and proposing that we might read southern literature through a process "in which identity is reworked, destabilized, and reconstructed" (6). Hinrichsen develops support for her approach by offering close readings of such standard texts as William Faulkner's Sanctuary and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country at the same time as she reads less expected works like Erna Brodber's Louisiana and Monique Truong's Bitter in the Mouth. This is a strong hint that part of her aim is to [End Page 306] use this trauma-and-memory line to further broaden the canon of southern literature. But if so, her efforts are not so much driven by a desire for inclusion as they are motivated by her sense that recognizing the underlying structures of power and authority within the southern socio-literary complex will project our understanding far enough forward to drastically change our sense of why diversity and inclusion matter.

Chapters one and two, which offer particularly fascinating points, look at very traditional southern modernists, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. The Faulkner chapter, focusing on Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun, approaches the Dixie Limited with the idea that Faulkner manages to "shift our attention from the traumatic 'event' to its generative social context," a trick that seems to dislocate the violation and trauma within the plot, but that emphasizes "how individual acts of violence are located in and entangled with historically and socially sedimented modes of denial" (30). Stressing the role of memory (and so also forgetting), this first set of close readings signals a commitment to traditional ideas about southern literature—we're still talking about Faulkner, after all—but also gestures toward a deeper interest in changing the ways we talk about these traditions, thinking of them less as the source of exceptional identity and more as part of a larger system of social and cultural (re)production. The chapter about Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire also addresses history, but it's less concerned with ways the text emphasizes elisions of history or memory and more interested in looking at the issue from the opposite direction—how fantasy and imagination invent history. Blanche DuBois, as countless readings have pointed out, has a relaxed relationship with history and reality, but while Hinrichsen begins with the reasonably familiar argument that "the play dramatizes the impossibility for Blanche of telling history without being subsumed by it," she adds the remarkable insight that every character in...


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pp. 306-309
Launched on MUSE
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