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Abstracts: Volume 90, Numbers 2 & 3 (2011)

Special Issue
Edited by Harilaos Stecopoulos

"Introduction: The New Southern Studies and the New Modernist Studies" by Harilaos Stecopoulos

"Willa Cather and the Burden of Southern History" by John T. Matthews

In Cather's My Ántonia Jim Burden contends with memories that cloud the narrative of individual and national fulfillment he seeks to tell. At one point, a counter-memory of the South disrupts his tale of mid-western beatitude. An appearance of the pianist Blind d'Arnault puts the plantation past—the commoditization of black bodies, white dependence on black labor, sexual violence, and the persistence of racial exploitation after emancipation—out in the open, where the text acknowledges this national foundation, even as Jim's narrative struggles to disavow it. The modern nation's enabling reality requires the narrative fetishization of unwanted knowledge. By contrast, in Sapphira and the Slave Girl Cather admits the painful historical realities of plantation society and disarticulates them from any narrative of national disavowal. The result is a discomposed work that refuses the sort of modernist aesthetic that might have allowed ideological and narrative dismantling to reinforce one another.

"The Poetics of Labor in Jean Rhys's Global Modernism" by Mary Lou Emery

If we read Rhys's fiction--the "Continental" novels and short stories as well as those set in the Caribbean--in the context of the Americas and the plantation system, a global vision of modernity emerges, spanning the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. In this vision, colonialist stereotypes of idle and lazy West Indians are displayed in dynamic interaction with scenes of actual toil and servitude that appear everywhere in Rhys's fiction. Through a distinctly Caribbean modernist style, her narratives link the labor politics of Dominica where Rhys grew up with the subjectivities of working women across centuries and extending from the Caribbean, to England, Europe, and the Southern U.S. This essay analyzes Rhys's novels of the late 1920s and 1930s, then focuses on Voyage in the Dark, the short story "Temps Perdi," and her last novel Wide Sargasso Sea, discovering a poetics of labor created from the apparent indolence of the Caribbean.

"The Foreigner in Yoknapatawpha" by Heidi Kathleen Kim

In William Faulkner's Light in August, Joe Christmas manages to exist as a "foreigner" in Jefferson until he is finally racialized as black. This article compares Faulkner's depictions of Christmas and other minority characters (in The Town, Go Down, Moses, Absalom, Absalom! and others) with the historical trajectory of the Chinese population in the Mississippi Delta, suggesting that Faulkner's more flexible notions of time and historical narrative surprisingly allow other minorities, including Chinese, to exist as third parties, while sociological studies and legal cases regarding the Chinese pushed them inexorably into the black-white binary.

"Faulkner's Literary Historiography: Color, Photography, and the Accessible Past" by Peter Lurie

This paper looks at changes in visual representation in the 1930s as a means of understanding Faulkner's newly historiographic methods in this decade. The advent of Kodachrome® in 1935 as the first widely used color film stock presaged the turn toward the black-and-white documentary mode so important to the nation's efforts to "countenance," or see, the economic crises of the period. Faulkner's descriptive and representational practices in the period 1929-36 also shifted from a more pervasive use of coloration to a style like the silver halide photos prevalent in the middle nineteenth century--the period of the past-tense events in Absalom, Absalom! and of the original "documentary" photos of Matthew Brady and others. In addition to references to the daguerreotype and photographs at key points in this novel--or to Kodak in Light in August--Absalom uses a sustained metaphor of the illuminating "glare" or flash of understanding that Walter Benjamin used to describe the photographic quality of history. The essay uses Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" to explain this pattern in Faulkner's writing and his arrival in Absalom at a full-blown historicist fiction, one that takes the full measure of time's rupture and of characters' efforts to understand material history in the face of Sutpen's designs on time and his dynasty's continuum.

"Peripatetic Modernism, or, Joe Christmas's Father" by Leigh Anne Duck

This essay argues for attending to travel--a theme long important in modernist studies, and increasingly so in Southern studies--in its most modest manifestations. In representing movement across rural locales, William Faulkner suggests that conventions are challenged not only by modernization but also by the necessity of translation, a process through which an erstwhile norm can be revealed as contingent and even insufficient. In the case of Light in August, attending to the characters' travels reveals that the novel does not simply critique the consuming illogic of Jim Crow's racial dyad as constructed in closed Southern spaces, but reveals how encountering a broader world confronts that system with racial and ethnic arrays that cannot be located within its binary.

"Queer Antiracism and the Forgotten Fiction of Murrell Edmunds, a Southern 'Revolutionary'" by Michael P. Bibler

Born to an aristocratic Virginia family, Murrell Edmunds (1898–1981) devoted his life to writing books that explicitly challenged the South's racial, sexual, and economic inequalities, yet his name is virtually nonexistent in the pages of literary history and criticism. Examining his novels Sojourn among Shadows (1936) and Time's Laughter in Their Ears (1946), this essay shows how Edmunds portrayed homoerotic intimacy between men as a queer force that turns alienation into a "useable affect" capable of fostering identifications among all oppressed people and thus impelling a liberal critique of the South's coercive mechanisms of categorization and exclusion. In addition to expanding modernist, Southern, and gay literary canons, Edmunds's work reveals new ways to understand the larger ideological connections between queerness, liberalism, and civil rights.

"Creating the Circum-Caribbean Imaginary: DuBose Heyward's and Paul Robeson's Revision of The Emperor Jones" by John Lowe

Until lately, hybrid collaborative texts that involve writers from discrete regions, ethnicities, and a variety of genres have fallen between the stools of traditional categories of classification. In our new era of transnational studies, we can begin to understand the mechanisms that have always been employed in the creation of transnational art forms. A key example is the film that was made of Eugene O'Neill's pathbreaking 1920 play, The Emperor Jones. When he agreed to allow a movie to be made of the play, he requested that Dubose Heyward be the screenwriter. Heyward's play Porgy, based on his novel by the same name, had impressed O'Neill when he saw it in New York, and he instinctively knew that Heyward could unite the South, the Caribbean, and diasporan cultures for audiences. This paper shows how Heyward's new first half of the film introduced Brutus Jones in the context of his Southern background, followed by his participation in the exciting modernist scene of Harlem, and how this contributed to a richer presentation of the links between the South and the Caribbean in the 1933 film, especially as the role was interpreted by Paul Robeson, whose transnational career gave a new dimension to the African diaspora.

"Afterword: New Studies" by Catherine Gunther Kodat

The Afterword explores how the volume's essays adroitly draw on critical approaches developed within the New Modernist and New Southern Studies to produce fresh readings of work by canonical twentieth-century writers and to introduce work by hitherto neglected authors (e.g., Murrell Edmunds). The contributors' strong emphasis on narrative literature prompts some musings on the place of poetry within contemporary U.S. literary studies--musings that include a consideration of the work of Melvin B. Tolson and its claim on the interpretive protocols that emerge at the intersection of the New Modernist and New Southern Studies.