Expanding Southern Whiteness: Reconceptualizing Ethnic Difference in the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers

By Wu, Cynthia | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Expanding Southern Whiteness: Reconceptualizing Ethnic Difference in the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers


Wu, Cynthia, The Southern Literary Journal


In Carson McCullers' 1936 collection of short stories, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories, issues of ethnic difference, white racialization, and the negotiation of identifies play a central role. This is not surprising, considering that the loosely imagined body of texts known as "the Southern Renaissance" has a strong preoccupation with these themes. Southern writers, both Anglo- and African American, have long fore-grounded the "race question" in representing and imagining the New South following the Civil War, and McCullers is no exception. Her characters grapple with what it means to be white in the South, what it means not to be white, and what it means to challenge or comply with the standards of whiteness. However, what differentiates The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories from most other pieces of southern literature is the relative absence of African American characters. If, as many theorists of race in the United States have pointed out, notions of "black" and notions of "white" are mutually constitutive and exist in a hierarchical binary, can whiteness ever be reconceptualized in a way that does not define it against and above blackness? In other words, can "white" exist apart from "black"?

I argue that McCullers attempts to answer "yes" to such questions by introducing European immigrant characters into southern fiction. This gesture interrogates white southern identity through means other than comparisons to black southern identity. It is important to note that the absence of African American characters in this collection of stories is not an oversight that resulted from presenting some new form of ethnic difference. Rather, this absence is functional. It serves to isolate and explore in some depth a new valance of race emerging in the New South without having to revert to the well-trodden path of imagining racialization within the black-white binary.

McCullers' conceptual replacement of the African American with the European immigrant in her examination of racial and ethnic difference has its counterpart in southern labor history. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, many southern states launched campaigns to attract European immigrants in response to the labor shortages caused by black migration to the West and Southwest immediately after the Civil War and to the North during the Great Migration. For a South struggling to rebuild itself both economically and ideologically, European immigrant labor seemed a viable and even more favorable replacement for black labor.

An avid recruiter of European immigrant labor in the years immediately following the Civil War, Richard Hathaway Edmonds founded a white-supremacist newsletter called the Manufacturers' Record to provide coverage on southern industry and capitalism. Edmonds launched the aggressive campaign to recruit laborers from Europe as a way to compensate for the declining black laborer population in the South. However, he intended for only immigrants of Anglo- and northern European stock to fulfill his goals. By the 1880s, the wave of immigrants from these areas gave way to those from eastern and southern Europe. This new influx of immigrants, Edmonds believed, did not assimilate properly and threatened the Anglo-European racial integrity of the South. By the 1920s, the Manufacturers' Record reversed its stance toward immigration, embracing nativist sentiments along with the rest of the United States and becoming one of the most vocal anti-immigrant publications.

Even if the South's desire for white immigrant labor had not been conflicted from the start, the region's attractiveness to European newcomers paled in comparison to that of the North. Southern historian Martha G. Synott argues that the South's attempt to lure and retain immigrants was doomed from the beginning because it lacked the high wages and inexpensive land that could be found in the North. And from the point of view of the employers, southern landowners were more willing to exploit black labor because of their impression that Jim Crow laws regulated the autonomy of blacks, making them more docile and reliable than immigrants.

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