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After Southern Modernism

After Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South

Matthew Guinn
Copyright Date: 2000
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    After Southern Modernism
    Book Description:

    A provocative reckoning of the challenging new direction southern literature has taken in the works of nine authors

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    The literature of the contemporary South might best be understood for its discontinuity with the literary past. At odds with traditions of the Southern Renascence, southern literature of today sharply refutes the Nashville Agrarians and shares few of Faulkner's and Welty's concerns about place, community, and history.

    This sweeping study of the literary South's new direction focuses on nine well established writers who, by breaking away from the firmly ensconced myths, have emerged as an iconoclastic generation- -- Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Bobbie Ann Mason, Larry Brown, Kaye Gibbons, Randall Kenan, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah. Resisting the modernist methods of the past, they have established their own postmodern ground beyond the shadow of their predecessors.

    This shift in authorial perspective is a significant indicator of the future of southern writing. Crews's seminal role as a ground-breaking "poor white" author, Mason's and Crews's portrayals of rural life, and Allison's and Brown's frank portrayals of the lower class pose a challenge to traditional depictions of the South. The dissenting voices of Gibbons and Kenan, who focus on gender, race, and sexuality, create fiction that is at once identifiably "southern" and also distinctly subversive. Gibbons's iconoclastic stance toward patriarchy, like the outsider's critique of community found in Kenan's work, proffers a portrait of the South unprecedented in the region's literature. Ford, McCarthy, and Hannah each approach the South's traditional notions of history and community with new irreverence and treat familiar southern topics in a distinctly postmodern manner. Whether through Ford's generic consumer landscape, the haunted netherworld of McCarthy's southern novels, or Hannah's riotous burlesque of the Civil War, these authors assail the philosophical and cultural foundations from which the Southern Renascence arose.

    Challenging the conventional conceptions of the southern canon, this is a provocative and innovative contribution to the region's literary study.

    Matthew Guinn, formerly an instructor of English at the University of Mississippi, has published articles on southern literature inSouthern Quarterly,South Atlantic Review, andResources for American Literary Study.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-889-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxx)

    Postmodernity has come late to southern literature. As recently as the 1970s critics could still expect to encounter new regional fiction that adhered to the established modernist patterns and nuances of the Southern Renascence, could still hope to weather the distant yet disquieting developments of poststructuralism anticipating that the postmodern era might pass by and leave the southern critical industry relatively unscathed. No longer: the generation that followed the Renascence and offered the traditional critic the comfort of at least attenuated modernist techniques for scrutiny (William Styron, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor) has given way to a new class of writers...

  4. ARCADY REVISITED: The Poor South of Harry Crews and Dorothy Allison
    (pp. 1-34)

    The pastoral mode traditionally has been one of the predominant motifs of southern literature. From the early days of colonial writing, the American South has been characterized as a rural region, one in which the pace of the agricultural life largely dictated the mores of civilization and its literature. During the internecine conflict of the nineteenth century, these bucolic depictions of the South intensified as ideology took an increasingly predominant role in American letters: the pastoral became a literary motif by which southerners could rebuke a rising industrial culture and declare their dissent from American society at large. The pastoral...

    (pp. 35-56)

    In the early 1980s authorship in the South took a quiet but auspicious turn: an Oxford, Mississippi, firefighter named Larry Brown sat down at a portable typewriter and began to teach himself how to write literary fiction. Like his predecessor Harry Crews—one of the many writers who had influenced him—Brown’s background was very different from those of the canonized southern literati who preceded him. Brown had grown up in relative poverty, and consequently he brought the perspective of poor-white southerners into his fiction from the vantage point of firsthand experience. Despite his lack of a formal education, Brown’s...

  6. MEDIATION, INTERPOLATION: Bobbie Ann Mason and Kaye Gibbons
    (pp. 57-90)

    So much has been made of Bobbie Ann Mason’s status as the “last southern writer” that the distinction has become almost a cliché. In many southern literature courses eitherShiloh and Other Stories or In Countryis listed as the last text in syllabi on twentieth-century writing, as if her work readily satisfies a curricular need for an ultimate expression of the southern literary consciousness—either as epitaph or coda to the Renascence. Likewise, Kaye Gibbons occupies an interstitial space in the evolving canon: with their fastidious attention to dialect, place, and local custom, her novels at the very least...

  7. ATAVISM AND THE EXPLODED METANARRATIVE: Cormac McCarthy’s Journey to Mythoclasm
    (pp. 91-109)

    In 1975 Vanderbilt critic and novelist Walter Sullivan, delivering the eighteenth annual Lamar Lectures at Mercer University, assessed the state of fiction in the modern South. His lecture was entitled “A Requiem for the Renascence,” and in reviewing contemporary southern fiction he found little cause for optimism. Southern writing, he declared, had lost its sense of the universal and consequently suffered from the “naturalistic excesses” that accompany a loss of faith (Requiem69). In contrast to Renascence authors, southern writers of the 1960s and 1970s offered no organic conception of the region, and the poetics of their works suffered from...

  8. INTO THE SUBURBS: Richard Ford’s Sportswriter as Postsouthern Expatriate
    (pp. 110-137)

    In 1996 Richard Ford received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction forIndependence Day, the sequel to his successful novelThe Sportswriter(1986). The award placed him in the company of the other prominent southern writers who had received the prize, among them Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, William Styron, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, and Peter Taylor. Yet Ford’s portrayal of Frank Bascombe, Sportswriter, hardly falls within the parameters of southern fiction represented by his Pulitzer Prize-winning predecessors from the South. The Frank Bascombe novels evince none of the importance of tradition found in the novels of Warren...

  9. SIGNIFYIN(G) IN THE SOUTH: Randall Kenan
    (pp. 138-160)

    The tenor of contemporary southern literature is more than ever one of revision and renovation—at least among white authors. Yet the revisionist innovations reshaping white literary expression have long been characteristic of African American writing; the impulse toward repudiating the dominant ideology—the catalyst of the poor-white renaissance—has shaped black American literature since its earliest phase. The close parallels between lower-class white authors and black southerners are evident in one of Zora Neale Hurston’s most influential essays, “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” If one may substitute ideological categories for racial signifiers, Hurston’s claim for black Americans seems almost universal...

    (pp. 161-179)

    The Civil War has been nearly ubiquitous in southern fiction. As Walter Sullivan has noted, “It is a fact that since 1865 Southern novelists have simply not been able to leave the Civil War alone” (“Southern Novelists" 112). Perhaps the most dramatic event in southern history, the Civil War has served the ideological purposes of generations of southern authors. It has been amenable to the configurations of writers of vastly disparate intent who nonetheless share a common perception of it as an iconic event, an incarnation of southern culture. In the nineteenth century, authors like Thomas Nelson Page and John...

  11. CONCLUSION: No Jeremiad
    (pp. 180-186)

    For nearly forty years the predominant mood of southern criticism has been, in Walter Sullivan’s memorable formulation, melancholy. As the old order has waned and been replaced by a younger generation of writers less captivated by tradition, the shape of southern fiction has become more diffuse and eclectic—to the dismay of those who would interpret southern modernism as the apotheosis of the southern literary imagination. For those of traditional inclination, the region’s contemporary fiction represents the certain sign of imaginative decline or, worse still, the very portent of barbarism. To subject the region’s cultural mythology to incisive critique is...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 187-190)
    (pp. 191-198)
  14. Index
    (pp. 199-202)