In Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel,
Margaret Leonard says, "Never mind about algebra here.
That's for poor folks. There's no need for
algebra where two and two make five." Moments of mathematical
reckoning like this pervade twentieth-century southern literature,
says Melanie R. Benson. In fiction by a large, diverse group of
authors, including William Faulkner, Anita Loos, William Attaway,
Dorothy Allison, and Lan Cao, Benson identifies a
calculation-obsessed, anxiety-ridden discourse in which numbers are
employed to determine social and racial hierarchies and establish
individual worth and identity.
This "narcissistic fetish of number" speaks to a tangle of
desires and denials rooted in the history of the South, capitalism,
and colonialism. No one evades participation in these "disturbing
equations," says Benson, wherein longing for increase,
accumulation, and superiority collides with repudiation of the
means by which material wealth is attained. Writers from
marginalized groups--including African Americans, Native Americans,
women, immigrants, and the poor--have deeply internalized and
co-opted methods and tropes of the master narrative even as they
have struggled to wield new voices unmarked by the discourse of the
Having nominally emerged from slavery's legacy, the
South is now situated in the agonized space between free market
capitalism and social progressivism. Elite southerners work to
distance themselves from capitalism's dehumanizing
mechanisms, while the marginalized yearn to realize the uniquely
American narrative of accumulation and ascent. The fetish of
numbers emerges to signify the futility of both.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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