Plantation Modernism

By Cohen, Matt | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Plantation Modernism


Cohen, Matt, The Mississippi Quarterly


OF THE WRITERS WHO OFFERED TRIBUTES TO MARK TWAIN ON THE FAMOUS celebration of his seventieth birthday in 1905, one of the least likely to be recognized today is Virginia Frazer Boyle. Her poem, an unironic seven-stanza paean to Clemens (characterized as the "barefoot boy with the stone-bruised heel"), was read between humorous tributes by figures much better known to scholars of United States literature, S. Weir Mitchell and Joel Chandler Harris. To guests at the banquet Boyle would have been a familiar icon of the plantation fiction tradition. But her poem probably reminded them that she had an active career publishing non-dialect poetry in national periodicals as well. Boyle's works were resurrected briefly in the 1970s, but in a context--the reprint series The Black Heritage Library--that prompts as many questions as answers, given that she was a white writer and a Confederate memorialist. Why has Boyle--who was no flash in the pan, publishing from 1890 until the 1920s--disappeared, and what might the story of her career and writing tell us about current critical categories?

Plantation writing includes post-Civil War fiction and poetry about Southern slavery, set during the antebellum period and often using dialect. For the most part, it is negatively marked in the critical imagination as nostalgic, provincial, and, frequently, racist. Though considered a subset of the category of regionalism, except in the cases of a very small number of male writers (such as Charles Chesnutt or more recently Thomas Nelson Page) we seldom choose it as a stage for the kinds of important theoretical questions directed at regionalism, questions about the connections between literary form and cultural power. Plantation writing thus gets excluded from discussions of the aesthetic that the fin-de-siecle global political economy arguably produced and that we have come to call modernism.

As one critic summarizes it, modernism can be considered "a 'reaction formation,'" a representational field that serves as "the culture-shaping, programmatic, and situated consciousness of modernity." There are of course many critical positions on modernism, but most of them define its relationship to regionalism at best negatively: "situated," yet mobile, modernism is inter-or extra-national, cosmopolitan, forward-looking, progressive (Soja 29). Critical debates around regionalism--Amy Kaplan's focus on the national action of regionalism and Richard Brodhead's on the literary marketplace for it, for example--often limit themselves to assuming a "national" reader, a gesture that sometimes absorbs the regional into or opposes it against the national. The feminist critique of such uses of regionalism similarly nationalizes feminism by prioritizing fictional narratives whose empowering effects can be seen as progressive principally in a national or international frame. At best, plantation writing, and in particular such writing by women, functions uncomfortably within such expectations, while at worst it becomes simply a negative parameter for them. (1)

A response to this analytical knot has recently been initiated within Southern studies. Scholars have begun to read Southern writing in a transnational context, seeing the region as shaped by diasporic and extra-local affiliations with Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean no less than by the trauma of the Civil War. For Deborah Cohn and Jon Smith, editors of the influential collection of essays Look Away!, the plantation "ties the South both to the rest of the United States and to the rest of the New World" (6). (2) Americanists, they argue, must "start thinking of the Southern plantation as the New World paradigm rather than the exception within American exceptionalism" (15). The transnationalization of scholarly analysis of the south is salutary and politically significant. But at times the transnational framing has had the side effect, perhaps temporary, of restoring "major writers" to the center of analysis. …

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