"I Can't Believe It Was Really Real": Violence, Vietnam, and Bringing War Home in Bobbie Ann Mason's in Country

Article excerpt

In Witnessing, a 2004 collection of essays, Ellen Douglas reflects on her writing life and notes the degree to which it was marked by the difficult struggle to "take possession of our personal pasts [and] our history" (19). For Douglas, taking "possession" means actively working through the past, freeing oneself from persistent patterns of repression and repetition to ultimately find a way of authentically being "a whole human being," not merely a product "of someone else's corrupt imaginings" (113). (1) Drawing upon Salman Rushdie's meditations in Shame (1983) on "the problem of history: what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists upon relinquishing," Douglas urges us to create our own "imaginary countries" (113), rather than repeat the "corrupt imaginings" that we have been urged to believe in. In speaking of the struggle to "take possession" of the past rather than repeat its ruinous patterns, she highlights the role of narrative in the process of historical healing and individual self-formation and underlines the ways writers can bear witness to this struggle. Yet her essays are a meditation upon the difficulty of this task; as she acknowledges, she can hear an "echo ... in my own voice" (121) of past histories still not worked through, an echo that weaves into her work "over and over again patterns that we may not perceive" (109). As she forthrightly admits, "The nature of our history and our national character reinforces our tendency to ignore or to destroy the past" (18).

The sense that lost histories still linger and that "the past isn't even past" is vividly felt in the sense of inherited historical consciousness in contemporary southern writing and the narrative patterns that emerge from that sense of latency. The advent of trauma studies potentially gives to southern studies a new language for understanding how southern literature continually repeats, revisits, and reworks old injuries. Trauma studies, as delineated by Shoshana Felman (1992), Cathy Caruth (1995, 1996), and Ruth Leys (2001), offers a means of examining what Caruth has called "insistent reenactments" of an original wounding that do not "simply serve as a record of the past but precisely [register] the force of an experience that is not yet fully owned" (151). As Christina Zwarg has argued, it is the emergence of trauma studies that has made it possible "to reenlist psychoanalysis in the work of cultural critique" (1). Positioning southern studies in relation to trauma studies is a move that can potentially help to provide a vocabulary to articulate the manner in which the U.S. South has been fetishized, demonized, mystified, and made the object of nostalgia. As Barbara Ladd writes in a recent edition of PMLA, "Memory continues to be important in the determination of southernists to interpret or reproduce orality and performance, to attend to what writing erases or elides, and especially to attend to what United States historiography (plain and literary) has obscured in its commitment to cultural naturalism. The field is increasingly energized by the effort to reconceptualize memory, history, place, family, kinship, and community in ways that do not reify the shifting subject and subjects of discourse" (1636).

Several recent studies have gestured toward the potential usefulness of trauma studies in articulating the South as a site of cultural and psychological conflict. Texts such as Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson's edited collection Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (1997), the recent work of Patricia Yaeger in Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990 (2000), and the sociologist Avery F. Gordon's Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1996) find articulation for trauma's eerie ability to escape our ability to rationalize or analyze it by using the language of the supernatural and the spectacular, describing trauma and its effects through metaphors of "haunting. …