The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s

Article excerpt

The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s. By McKay Jenkins. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1999. Pp. xii, 215. Paper, $16.95, ISBN 0-8078-4777-1; cloth, $34.95, ISBN 0-8078-2491-7.)

English departments do not spend much time these days with Wilbur Joseph Cash, William Alexander Percy, Lillian Smith, or Carson McCullers. That fact alone should send serious scholars and persons of good will hurrying to reread, reconsider, and to get students to read these superb artists, each of whom could be described as working in the second generation of the Southern Literary Renaissance. McKay Jenkins has another reason for looking at the work of these writers. "Just as Percy, an effeminate man, felt estranged from his Delta community, and Lillian Smith, a lesbian, felt mocked by her North Georgia neighbors," she says, "Cash, an odd, impotent, deeply neurotic intellectual, felt out of place in the North Carolina piedmont. And it was in the language of race that he found release" (p. 73). And Jenkins finds McCullers consciously using "grotesqueries" to allow her characters to explore the homoerotic and to escape the homophobic and racist worlds that "withered" both her created characters and her observed "real-life" characters. She says that McCullers is "a vessel through which the misshapen, the lonely, the excluded, find the means to tell their stories and navigate an inhospitable world" (p. 184).

This book has an agenda and a thesis to be ridden. The agenda is to understand how completely race shaped southern minds, even and especially in the 1940s, an era that is studied less often than the more obviously violent and chaotic decades before it or the transforming decades after it. …