Surviving the Family Romance? Southern Realism and the Labor of Incest

By Harkins, Gillian | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Surviving the Family Romance? Southern Realism and the Labor of Incest


Harkins, Gillian, The Southern Literary Journal


That our true stories may be violent, distasteful, painful, stunning, and haunting, I do not doubt. But our true stories will be literature.

--Dorothy Allison, "Believing in Literature"

Incest has had a long literary career, marking the intersection of kinship, narrative, and nation in the United States. From Charles Brockton Brown's Wieland (1798) to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), the specter of incest has been used across literary genres and periods to bespeak a crisis in the changing symbolic romance joining that ever unenviable couple, family and nation. But, according to Katie Roiphe in her 1995 Harper's article "Making the Incest Scene," at the end of the twentieth century the role of incest in United States literature suddenly and dramatically changed. Whereas once the specter of incest was used to symbolize a crisis in national family life, it is now the reality of incest that seems to hold the nation captive. As Roiphe quotes from Sapphire's incest novel Push (1996), "We is a nation of raped children." "Whatever the truth of that," Roiphe quips in response, "we are certainly a nation that wants to read about them" (68).

This revelation that the United States is a "nation of raped children" is, in Roiphe's snide synopsis, accurate only if reading about something makes it a reality. Incest narratives exemplify a new national trend for critics such as James Kincaid and Laura Miller, who argue that sexually shocking, tabloid-style revelations were the stock-in-trade of the publishing and popular culture industry of the 1990s. According to critics of this 1990s boom, a new cultural market in incest conflates the literary scene with the social real, producing a transformation in the traditional referents of the American family romance. In place of a literature symbolizing the link between family and nation as a prohibition against incest, in the late twentieth century it is the presumed social reality of incest that drives national literary markets. These new family romances share a singular drive toward what Roiphe calls "a bargain-basement epiphany" or a kind of "psychological lightning" (68). Such a formal repetitiveness trains readers to experience realism as contemporaneous "reality," seducing them into a shared experiential reading that uses the literal and literalizing trope of incest to translate revelatory shock into comforting predictability. As Roiphe summarizes the telos of these new family romances: "the entire story is reduced to a riddle, and incest is the answer" (68).

Roiphe's claim that the United States is experiencing a boom in realist incest literature bears an odd relation to the history of literary writing on incest in one particular variety of American literature: that of the U.S. South. Roiphe's genealogy of the incest novel begins with a great English tradition such as the sibling incest in Daniel Defoe's Mall Flanders (1722), transmuted by the "gothic imaginations" (68) of southern writers such as William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, literalized in the 1970s by emerging black women writers such as Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye 1970) and Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 1971), and then popularized by a wide range of mainstream authors in the 1990s. That this genealogy somehow now becomes "national" marks an interesting turning point in the significance--or signification--of incest. Once, incest contributed to romantic aesthetics and ideologies, taken up and transmuted to fit the "horrors" of U.S. racism and its haunting of the American South. (1) Now it has become part of "everybody's family romance," a form of realist narrative that joins together the multicultural nation through the traumatic survival of incest, creating a form I call survivor realism. Here I will turn to Dorothy Allison's 1992 novel Bastard Out of Carolina to make this point, asking how literary genealogies of incest are used to constitute new realist--and nationalist--formations of family romance.

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