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IZABELA HOPKINS Birmingham City University Passing Place, or the Elusive Spaces of Southern Whiteness in Thomas Nelson Page’s Red Rock and Ellen Glasgow’s The Deliverance IN HIS ATTEMPT TO DEFINE WHITENESS IN MOBY-DICK, HERMAN MELVILLE concedes that “not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul” (169). Melville struggles gamely with the proliferation of its transcultural significations that include innocence, blankness, mourning, and alterity. Though inconclusive, Melville’s endeavor to define whiteness is not a failure; rather, it reveals what Mike Hill terms the concept’s “epistemological stickiness and ontological wiggling” (3). Rather than seek a remedy, current scholarship on whiteness has succumbed to two maladies of its own. The first is the overwhelming urge to explain whiteness in conjunction with the exploitation and subjugation of the racial other resulting from Western colonialism and imperialism that has led to “commonplace” assumptions “in cultural theory that whiteness requires blackness in order to define itself” (Adams 164). The other is a tendency to generalize that results in vague definitions of whiteness as “largely an inventedconstructblendinghistory,culture,assumptions,andattitudes” (Babb 10) and “a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed” (Frankenberg 1). In attempting the impossible, which is the formulation of a universal definition, such propositions reduce the complexity of whiteness and compound its “epistemological stickiness” (Hill 3). For Peter Kolchin, the solution lies in paying closer attention to “historical and geographical context” (172). What is required is an approach to whiteness that will demonstrate its inherently differential nature through an engagement with a particular place and time. The South, as a region instrumental in “shaping American notions of race” through the presence of the peculiar institution of slavery, has inadvertently contributed to the homogenization of whiteness that reduces it to the confines of the black-white dichotomy (Kolchin 172). Confining the analysis of the construct to the post-Reconstruction South 214 Izabela Hopkins will move beyond the limitations imposed by this binary opposition and allow for an examination of the influence of the notion of place—in historical, cultural, and regional terms—on both the conceptions of the Southern variety of whiteness and its literary reconstructions. For Virginia-born Thomas Nelson Page in Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction and Ellen Glasgow in The Deliverance: A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields, the imagined space of the fictional narrative provides fertile ground for pondering this elusive concept. That both Page and Glasgow see whiteness as a place-specific construct is hardly surprising considering their shared social and cultural legacy and place among the South’s elite. What merits scrutiny, however, is the way they negotiate whiteness through a web of historically loaded tangible and phantom spaces that resist simplistic reductions to the black-white binary. To understand the significance of these spaces to Page’s and Glasgow’s interrogations of whiteness requires the formulation of a definition of Southern whiteness. Among the constituent components of whiteness, Valerie Babb includes “civility, cultivation [and] piousness,” as well as “sexual restraint” in men mirrored by the asexuality and weakness of women (68, 76). These attributes have historically been associated with the upper classes, reverberating in nostalgic echoes of courtly love and chivalry. In the South, they became part of the Southern aristocratic myth that rested on “the conviction that the region’s slaveholders had descended almost entirely from the English Cavalier aristocracy” (Watson 15). To preserve the aristocratic myth, the self-styled descendants of Cavaliers espoused the European model of parental kinship, whereby “we are defined by where and whom we came from” (Turner 48).1 Thanks to the valorization of this historic model of descent, the notions of heredity, blood, and tradition constitute inextricable components of Southern whiteness that become synonymous with hereditary gentility. And the gentleman planter and Southern belle are cast as the living embodiments of Southern whiteness who, replete with the lofty qualities of culturation, civility, chastity, and piety, serenely dwell on their plantations. The upheaval of the post-Reconstruction years—“the era [which] represented the worst abuses heaped upon a 1 For historical accounts of the founding of the colony see Theodore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 213-232
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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