Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South

Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South

Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South

Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South

Synopsis

This innovative book charts what has been a largely unexplored literary landscape, looking at the work of such diverse writers as the gens de couleur libre poets of antebellum New Orleans, Kate Chopin, Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, Margaret Mitchell, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and John Kennedy Toole. Haddox shows that Catholicism and its Church have always been a presence, albeit in different ways, in the southern cultural tradition. For some, Catholicism has been associated with miscegenation and with the political aspirations of African-Americans; for others, it has served as the model for the feudal and patriarchal society that some southern whites sought to establish; for still others, it has presented a gorgeous aesthetic spectacle associated with decadence and homoeroticism; and for still others, it has marked a quotidian, do-it-yourself "lifestyle" attractive for its lack of concern with southern anxieties about honor. By focusing on the shifting and contradictory ways Catholicism has signified within southern literature and culture, Fears and Fascinations contributes to a more nuanced understanding of American and southern literary and cultural history. Thomas F. Haddox is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has published articles in American Literature, Mosaic, Modern Language Quarterly, Southern Quarterly, Mississippi Quarterly, and Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Excerpt

“He is the one who is curious to me.” Jason Compson Sr.'s offhand remark about Charles Bon identifies a persistent source of fascination in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! “Curious” Bon certainly is: as Thomas Sutpen's unacknowledged son and wrecker of his dynastic “design,” a man of French ethnicity and uncertain race, a languorous and fatalistic decadent, and “a Catholic of sorts” (aa 94), he astonishes Yoknapatawpha County and provokes widely divergent responses from the novel's characters. On the one hand, Bon suggests to some the horror of miscegenation— “the nigger that's going to sleep with your sister” (aa 358), as Quentin and Shreve imagine him telling Henry Sutpen—and embodies what the white South both disavows and fears that it might become. Yet “Charles the Good” is also an object of desire and envy, representing European standards of refinement and exposing the pretensions of the South's uncouth would-be aristocrats, who build elegant plantation homes and fashion themselves as lords of the manor to hide the fact that they have broken with a genuinely feudal culture. As Jason Sr. suggests, Bon fascinates and frightens those “who have not quite yet emerged from barbarism, who two thousand years hence will still be throwing triumphantly off the yoke of Latin culture and intelligence of which they were never in any great permanent danger to begin with” (aa 94). By bringing into sharp relief several of the white South's obsessions—racial mixing, decadence, nostalgia for lost cultural glories, and fear of cultural inferiority—Bon crystallizes, in a powerful but contradictory way, the anxieties and investments that surround any narrative of identity.

What accounts for these contradictory responses to Bon? Certainly the fact that the novel's narrators reconstruct Bon's story from incomplete (and sometimes dubious) information and often revise their judgments contributes to the sense of contradiction. More fundamentally, however, of all the markers of Bon's difference, only his Catholicism binds together the rest and offers an adequate explanation for the full range of his significations. Though Bon's faith in Catholicism has lapsed, Catholic practices and associ-

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