Cotton's Queer Relations

Cotton's Queer Relations: Same-Sex Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern Plantation, 1936-1968

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Cotton's Queer Relations
    Book Description:

    Finally breaking through heterosexual clichés of flirtatious belles and cavaliers, sinister black rapists and lusty "Jezebels," Cotton's Queer Relations exposes the queer dynamics embedded in myths of the southern plantation. Focusing on works by Ernest J. Gaines, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Katherine Anne Porter, Margaret Walker, William Styron, and Arna Bontemps, Michael P. Bibler shows how each one uses figures of same-sex intimacy to suggest a more progressive alternative to the pervasive inequalities tied historically and symbolically to the South's most iconic institution.

    Bibler looks specifically at relationships between white men of the planter class, between plantation mistresses and black maids, and between black men, arguing that while the texts portray the plantation as a rigid hierarchy of differences, these queer relations privilege a notion of sexual sameness that joins the individuals as equals in a system where equality is rare indeed. Bibler reveals how these models of queer egalitarianism attempt to reconcile the plantation's regional legacies with national debates about equality and democracy, particularly during the eras of the New Deal, World War II, and the civil rights movement. Cotton's Queer Relations charts bold new territory in southern studies and queer studies alike, bringing together history and cultural theory to offer innovative readings of classic southern texts.

    A book in the American Literatures Initiative (ALI), a collaborative publishing project supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For more information, please visit

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2984-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XII)
  4. Introduction: In the Kitchens and on the Verandas
    (pp. 1-24)

    For some people, the image of the southern plantation might call to mind genteel belles and cavaliers flirting on the veranda of a stately mansion. For others, it might signify a sadistic white slave-master systematically raping his black concubine in one of the cabins out back. Yet these are simply different inflections of the same plantation mythology, and together they reveal the extent to which that mythology operates as a powerful and elaborate discourse about race, sex, and sexuality in American culture. The contemporary artist Kara Walker forces us to confront this sexual dynamic of the plantation myth with her...

  5. 1 Nation and Plantation between Gone with the Wind and Black Power: The Example of Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust
    (pp. 25-60)

    This chapter explains how the attention to questions of sameness and difference in plantation literature from the 1930s through the 1960s reflects and engages the social, political, and economic changes that transformed the South during those years. By looking at these decades together, I deviate from the more common practice of grouping twentieth-century American literature into periods punctuated by the two world wars. Instead, I follow the lead of many historians of the South by treating World War II as part of a larger period of change that began in the Great Depression and continued until the end of the...

  6. PART ONE Planters and Lovers
    • 2 Intraracial Homoeroticism and the Loopholes of Taboo in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
      (pp. 63-95)

      This chapter and the next explore the queer relations between white men of the planter class in William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!(1936) and Tennessee Williams’sCat on a Hot Tin Roof(1955). There has already been much criticism devoted to both of these texts, even concerning their representations of homosexuality. But in these two chapters, I examine what critics have so far left unconsidered: the link between each text’s preoccupation with the southern plantation and its implicit, but ambivalent sanctioning of love between elite white men. Within the plantation settings of these texts, these elite men can enjoy a powerfully...

    • 3 Homo-ness and Fluidity in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
      (pp. 96-120)

      Although it is set ninety years after the end of the Civil War, Tennessee Williams’sCat on a Hot Tin Roof(1955) is in many ways a rewriting of Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!(1936). The two patriarchs, Thomas Sutpen and Big Daddy Pollitt, are wealthy Mississippi planters who rose to their success from nothing, and both men are fairly obsessed about making sure that their estates will pass smoothly to their chosen heirs, Henry and Brick. However, Henry’s and Brick’s latent homosexuality threatens to spoil their fathers’ designs by raising the strong possibility that these sons will become the last of...

  7. PART TWO The Southern Kitchen Romance
    • 4 A Queer Sense of Justice in Lillian Hellman’s Dramas of the Hubbard Family
      (pp. 123-149)

      If the hierarchies of the southern plantation create the potential for white men of the planter class to enjoy a homosexual relationship with each other, as Faulkner’s novel and Williams’s play suggest, we might expect that the plantation’s power structures would not tolerate openly sexual relations between women because their sexual autonomy would challenge masculine authority. Although individual women relate to power differently according to the variables of race and class, it stands to reason that the subordination of all women within the meta-plantation’s networks of patriarchy and paternalism would make female homosexuality a threat to those hierarchies. However, as...

    • 5 Katherine Anne Porter, Margaret Walker, and the Uncomfortable Compromise of Black Women’s Autonomy
      (pp. 150-178)

      Lillian Hellman queers the relationship between mistress and servant in order to imagine the possibilities for fighting southern racism. Yet she implicitly perpetuates a white fantasy in which the African American woman remains subordinate to the white woman’s desires and expectations. Katherine Anne Porter’s short-story cycleThe Old Order(1944)¹ similarly looks at the relationship between mistress and servant to imagine what an egalitarian community between white and black women could look like, in this case focusing on the white grandmother Sophia Jane Gay and her black companion, Nannie. Like Hellman’s Lavinia and Coralee, Sophia Jane and Nannie’s relationship can...

  8. PART THREE The Queer Black Fraternity
    • 6 Sex, Community, and Rebellion in William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner
      (pp. 181-209)

      Whereas Lillian Hellman, Katherine Anne Porter, and, to a lesser extent, Margaret Walker offer ambivalent depictions of intimacy and equality between black and white women, plantation texts of this period that focus on black men propose a model of same-sex intimacy that distinctly challenges white supremacy. I have already offered some analysis of these kinds of black male relations in chapter 1 in my discussion of the two homosexual “punks” John and Freddie in Ernest J. Gaines’sOf Love and Dust(1967). John and Freddie do not revolt against the establishment, instead enjoying a relative peace and freedom to live...

    • 7 Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder: Between Masculine Politics and Feminine Difference
      (pp. 210-233)

      Arna Bontemps’sBlack Thunderwas initially published in 1936, the same year asGone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!Marking the other endpoint of my study, it was reprinted in 1968 with a new introduction, right in the midst of, and probably as a response to, the controversy surrounding The Confessions of Nat Turner.¹ Indeed, if John Oliver Killens’s essay inWilliam Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond(1968) is any indication, many people in the late 1960s felt that Bontemps’s novel offered a more honest and realistic representation of slave rebellion than Styron’s text: “If Styron really...

  9. Conclusion: On the Southern Plantation, Real Love Is Always Ambivalent
    (pp. 234-248)

    Since I began working on this project, I have become attuned to the surprising frequency with which references to the southern plantation turn up in all kinds of contemporary literary and cultural texts, even ones that otherwise have nothing to do with the plantation, or slavery, or the South, or even the issue of race. These references raise interesting questions about why the plantation myth is still so viable in the twenty-first century, and what kinds of politics are at stake in the many different uses of that myth. Some critics have explored the plantation myth’s ongoing influence by looking...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 249-268)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-288)
  12. Index
    (pp. 289-298)