- Precious Perversions: Humor, Homosexuality, and the Southern Literary Canon by Tison Pugh
Southern regional literary studies is a vibrant and well-developed field. In the past two decades, Thadious M. Davis, Tara McPherson, Patricia Yaeger, and Richard Gray, among others, have published major studies. This body of scholarship charts an understanding of southern regionalism that expands the canon by departing, at least somewhat, from parochialism and insularity. In the last dozen years alone, Louisiana State University Press has advanced the field with several publications, including Scott Romine's The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction, Michael Kreyling's The South That Wasn't There: Postsouthern Memory and History, Martyn Bone's The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction, Douglas L. Mitchell's A Disturbing and Alien Memory: Southern Novelists Writing History, Robert H. Brinkmeyer's The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930–1950, and Ashley Craig Lancaster's The Angelic Mother and the Predatory Seductress: Poor White Women in Southern Literature of the Great Depression.
Tison Pugh's Precious Perversions further contributes to this expanded canon by examining several works of queer southern humor. Much like other studies that explore the effects of southern history on modern and contemporary literature, Pugh demonstrates how long-held cultural mores influence the type of humor deployed by southern writers: "The South relies on its mythologies to whitewash its truths, and part of the social construction of southern identity denies the possibility of homosexuality and other such ostensible 'perversions'" (3). As a result, Pugh notes, wide swaths of southern literature elide or belittle queer experience. He argues that humor not only helped develop queer community in the American South but also that it "rewrote the paradigms of southern literature" (11). To set up his analysis, Pugh asks four main questions: "Against this backdrop of prejudice and exclusion, what do southern queers find funny about the South, and how do they create laughter in response to its stifling traditions? How do these authors reformulate the southern literary canon in light of queer desire and humor, and how does the southern literary canon resist or facilitate its reconstitution?" (6). Pugh begins to answer these questions in chapters devoted to queer southerners Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Florence King, Rita Mae Brown, Dorothy Allison, and David Sedaris, and he closes with a conclusion evaluating their effect on the southern literary canon. [End Page 189]
The first two chapters of Precious Perversions explore the role of camp in queer southern humor, beginning with the first chapter's survey of several plays by Tennessee Williams. Pugh catalogs several instances in which Williams expressed distaste for camp stylistics, which Pugh suggests were an attempt to broaden his appeal and avoid being classified as "an exclusively homosexual writer" (23). He argues that the comic undertones of Williams's plays invite camp performances and, reading several plays in terms of camp and sadomasochism, finds in that combination an "undercurrent of transgression and latent humor" (41). In chapter 2, Pugh claims that Truman Capote similarly subverts social norms, though he approaches Capote's work through the lens of genre play. While this chapter addresses a wide range of Capote's writing, it primarily examines the screenplay for Beat the Devil, the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, and his unfinished, posthumously published novel Answered Prayers, arguing that their camp elements show how Capote tweaks the forms and expectations of the southern gothic novel. According to Pugh, "Capote's moments of gothic excess encourage readers to see the landscape as horrific but with an undercurrent of sly humor" (57).
Chapters 3 and 4 share the second half of their titles, "the Gender Politics of Southern Humor," and they both investigate the structures of women's comedy. Exploring the queer conservatism of National Review columnist Florence King's memoir, nonfiction, and essays, Pugh argues in chapter 3 that King's comic writing exposes the South's "queer underbelly" (86). He specifically attends to her repeated jokes about sexual violence and rape, noting that "King's humor...