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ZACKARY VERNON Appalachian State University The Enfreakment of Southern Memoir in Harry Crews’s A Childhood IN HER GROUNDBREAKING BOOK EXTRAORDINARY BODIES: FIGURING Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland Thomson makes a powerful critical intervention in the fields of cultural and literary studies, asserting the need to investigate “corporeal otherness”—a feature of individual and national identity formation that has not received nearly as much attention as analyses of race, gender, and sexuality (5). To this end, Thomson reveals a “socially contextualized view of disability” (6) that results from cultural and literary narratives that work to exclude certain individuals based on restrictive conceptions of normativity. In the introduction to her collection Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, Thomson similarly explains that while “exceptional,” “unexpected,” “singular,” “anomalous,” and “extraordinary” bodies have always garnered widespread attention for being “atypical” (1-2), the process of “enfreakment” occurs as a result of the“culturalritualsthatstylize,silence,differentiate,anddistance”these individuals (10).1 Because extraordinary bodies often confound categorization and engender anxiety, they can be studied as barometers of the predominant cultural preoccupations of their particular historical milieu. The landscape of Harry Crews’s fiction and nonfiction is inhabited by enfreaked individuals—those stigmatized and in some cases even exiled from their communities because of physical, psychological, or spiritual defects. In fact, in one form or another, non-normative bodies are featured prominently in most of his novels, including The Gospel Singer (1968), Naked in the Garden Hills (1969), This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven (1970), The Hawk Is Dying (1973), The Gypsy’s Cure (1974), The Knockout Artist (1988), and Scar Lover (1992) (Slay 100-01; Long 1 See also Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit and David Hevey’s The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery. 194 Zackary Vernon 215, n23). Crews’s repeated use of such characters places him within a long tradition of the gothic and grotesque in Southern literature (Spencer 134, 219, n3; McGregory 97-98).2 In the context of the American South, the genre of the grotesque began primarily with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, whose literary imagination was haunted not only by the “obscene exaggeration” that has become the genre’s hallmark (MacKethan), but also by his upbringing in Richmond, Virginia. The tradition of the Southern grotesque was reborn in writers of the early to mid-twentieth century, such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Then, in the latter half of the twentieth century, it had yet another revival; writers like Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Lewis Nordan, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, and Harry Crews appropriated the Southern grotesque and, applying it to characters from the lower and working classes, created a new genre.3 While this genre is most often referred to as “Grit Lit,” Brian Carpenter points out that this turn in Southern literature has also been labeled “Rough South,” “cracker realist,” “trailer park Gothic,” and “hick chic” (xx-xxi). Discussions of social class define this genre; even Poe’s work focuses on his “radical experience of repression and alienation (in his case, alienation from the upperclass Richmond society of his adoptive father) [which] is reflected in the nightmare landscapes that appear in his fiction” (MacKethan). Therefore, both the originator of the Southern grotesque and his literary inheritors in the Grit Lit genre share class-based anxieties that similarly motivate the production of their enfreaked works. Inadditiontoexpandingcriticalconversationsinthepastfewdecades to account for non-white and non-male voices in Southern literature, 2 Lucinda MacKethan explains that “Writers of southern Gothic or Grotesque combine comic or obscene exaggeration with sometimes gratuitous violence, often withinrepresentationsofphysicaldeformityorsexualdeviance.”JackSlay,Jr.,concludes his survey of scholarship on the grotesque by highlighting the central role of the body in the genre: “the deformed or otherwise abnormal body is a dominant component of the grotesque. The freak, by consensus, is wholly grotesque” (100). 3 William M. Moss argues that Crews departs from the grotesque tradition because he “shares the vision neither of Caldwell nor of O’Connor” (39). This line of argumentation both is and is not accurate. Crews does differ substantively from Caldwell and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 193-211
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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