Revisiting the Southern Grotesque: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Case of Carson McCullers

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"Any form of art can only develop by means of single mutations by individual creators. If only traditional conventions are used an art will die, and the widening of an art from is bound to seem strange at first, and awkward. Any growing thing must go through awkward stages. The creator who is misunderstood because of his breach of convention may say to himself, `I seem strange to you, but anyway I am alive.'"

-- Carson McCullers, "The Vision Shared"

Writers of the "southern grotesque" or "southern gothic"(1)--for example, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Flannery O'Connor--conjure up the strange worlds of freakish outsiders placed in lovelorn barren landscapes, penetrating heat, and closed spaces, with themes of miscegenation, sexual deviance and bloody violence. Perhaps not surprisingly, critical readers have, on the whole, concurred that the southern grotesque aligns itself with a gloomy vision of modernity, according to which the soul of man is both aimless and loveless. The grotesque worlds of southern literature, it is argued, allegorize the human condition itself as existential alienation and angst.

In my view, however, these accounts of the southern grotesque do not tally with the type of art which McCullers describes in the prefatory quotation above, as well as in other essays (for example, "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature" and "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing") and the fiction itself. McCullers, like O'Connor in "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," accentuates the vitality of the grotesque vision. Without wanting to dismiss the real pain that is so often at the heart of the southern grotesque, including McCullers' writings, I want to suggest that the grotesque is not limited to an alienating modernity. Rather, it is to do with the affirming qualities and practices of growth, promise and transformation.

What I am advocating, then, is a crucial need to revisit the grotesque. In doing so in this essay, I note different theories of the grotesque, and find Mikhail Bakhtin's conceptualization of it the most fruitful not only for describing the dynamics of McCullers' grotesque subjects, but also for promising a radically new construction of how we read the southern grotesque.(2) I then perform a reading of McCullers' novels of adolescence--The Heart of the Lonely Hunter (1940) and The Member of the Wedding (1946)--as an example of how we might reframe what I suggest are limited readings of the southern grotesque. Julia Kristeva first brought Bakhtin to the attention of western scholars with her 1969 essay, "Word, Dialogue and Novel." With the translation into English of Rabelais and His World in 1968, and The Dialogic Imagination and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics in the early 1980s, Bakhtin became a key name in literary studies, particularly in response to his theory of the novel. Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin's reading of Gargantua and Pantagruel, contains a revolutionary conceptualization of the grotesque that I suggest can free not just McCullers' fiction but much southern writing from the almost paralyzing burden of more traditional accounts of the grotesque, to celebrate, instead, McCullers' pronouncement, "but anyway I am alive."

As I have noted, most readers of the southern grotesque submit that it allegorizes a kind of existential anguish. William Van O'Connor accounts for the grotesque in southern writing as a response to a world of violence and upheaval; Joseph Millichap makes a connection between the grotesque and a dark modernism; and Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), links the grotesque with terror and violence. More specifically, McCullers' worlds are said to represent alienation, loneliness, a lack of human communication, and the failure of love.(3) Although there is no denying the validity of these constructions of the southern grotesque, I do not think they tell the full story. …