Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945-1971

By Davis, David A. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945-1971


Davis, David A., The Mississippi Quarterly


Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945-1971, by Brannon Costello. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. 203 pp. index. $35.00 cloth.

IN THE TRIANGULATION OF RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER, SOUTHERN LITERARY scholars have tended to privilege race and gender, focusing relatively little attention on class, even though rampant poverty and rigid social stratification in the region have exaggerated the effects of class on social structure. Brannon Costello's Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945-1971 examines a crucial facet of Southern class structure, the legitimating ideology of paternalism. He uses several Southern texts to explain how paternalism operates as a form of economic irrationality--the deliberate waste of money--to assert social dominance. Drawing from sociological theory by Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen, Costello constructs a useful apparatus for interrogating the attitudes of Southerners epitomized by William Alexander Percy's claim in Lanterns on the Levee that a wealthy white Southerner must "live habitually as a superior among inferiors" (10). Establishing and maintaining that superiority, according to Costello's analysis, requires the veiled exploitation of and benign protection of inferiors, both white and black, which proves to be difficult in the face of social upheavals such as World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of the Sunbelt.

The key to upward class mobility in the South, evidently, is the maintenance of dependents as a means of imitating the role of plantation squire to slaves or landowner to sharecroppers. Zora Neale Hurston demonstrates how this process may be enacted in miniature through the cultivation of, in her words, "pet negroes." Her novel Seraph on the Sewanee portrays a social climbing white family consciously aware of their status who cultivate dependents by intentionally wasting their resources in conspicuous acts of feigned benevolence. Costello's reading of this text exposes how the supposed aristocrats in this arrangement become slaves to their dependents.

Through his analysis of Eudora Welty's novels Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart, he explains that paternalism is a myth that covers a system of labor exploitation with a genteel facade of extended family relations. Southerners have a tendency to situate paternalism in an organic, self-generating vision of race and labor relations, but the possibility of dynamic social mobility, specifically the rise of poor white Southerners into aristocratic positions, raises the potential for distortion and parody. Flem Snopes' dramatic rise from poverty to privilege in Faulkner's The Hamlet illustrates this process, but V. K. Ratliff's problematic narration indicates that money drives only part of the process. The power that accompanies money must be dispensed in a specific way--an economically irrational way--that appears to undermine the profit motive. Flem's difficulty navigating this system and his inability to behave irrationally makes him a parodic paternalist, one who will never be accepted as an authentic aristocrat.

Ernest Gaines' novel Of Love and Dust demonstrates that paternalism can be an extremely strong power relationship. …

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