Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

She'll Take Her Stand: Gwen Bristow's Neo-Agrarianism and Visions of Modernity

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

She'll Take Her Stand: Gwen Bristow's Neo-Agrarianism and Visions of Modernity

Article excerpt

OVER THE COURSE OF HER WRITING CAREER, which began in 1915 with a feature article in The State (Columbia, South Carolina) and culminated in 1980 with Golden Dreams, Gwen Bristow produced a large and varied repertoire. In 1925, after studying a year at the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, Bristow moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, to work as a reporter for the Times Picayune. From 1925 to 1934, she covered a range of stories including high-profile court cases and investigations and local jailbreaks, murders, and sports events. In 1926 she debuted as a literary writer, publishing her only volume of poetry, The Alien and Other Poems. In 1930, Owen Davis bought the rights to The Invisible Host, the first of four mysteries Bristow co-authored with Bruce Manning, her husband, and adapted it for the stage and screen to ample critical and popular reception. Two other Bristow works were later made into movies: Tomorrow Is Forever (1943) in 1946 and Jubilee Trail (1950) in 1953. Between 1937 and 1975 seven of Bristow's novels went through several printings and foreign translations, and over the course of her career, several were featured on best-selling lists, including those of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Evening Transcript, and Publishers' Weekly. Yet despite her near constant distinction as a literary writer throughout her lifetime, Gwen Bristow remains among the neglected Southern women writers; her place in American literary discourse has been all but lost, particularly in scholarship on the 1930s, the decade of her greatest critical and popular success.

A series of related developments distinguishes the 1930s as a crucial decade in modern American and Southern histories: the devastation and recovery of the nation after the stock market crash of 1929; the social and economic upheaval in the South due to cotton overproduction and the failures of sharecropping and tenant-farming systems; Southern agitation over industrial reform; the exacerbation of race and class-related violence throughout the nation, but especially in the South; and the zenith of the Southern literary Renaissance, marked by the emergence of a number of nationally acclaimed Southern writers. It is, perhaps, the last of these phenomena that largely accounts for Bristow's current academic neglect, for her novels lack the technical polish of fiction by her more celebrated contemporaries, among whom were William Faulkner, Ellen Glasgow, Thomas Wolfe, and Zora Neale Hurston. But the need to reevaluate Bristow's merit for the contemporary study of modern American literature and history steins less from her accomplishments in literary fiction than from her contributions as cultural critic. The goal of this essay is to recover those contributions.

I argue that Bristow's reaffirmation in her waiting of her own and other white Southern women's mythic authority depended largely on her ability to perpetuate the Agrarian fantasy of the South as a "pre-modern" site, a fantasy that involved a crucial collective repression or denial of the fact that slavery was a key component in establishing U.S. modernity. (1) As I demonstrate, Bristow's blend of the conventions of Realism and Romanticism in her widely acclaimed novel Deep Summer politicizes issues of identity and performance at the core of Southern mythic discourses, especially the myth of White Southern Womanhood and the Plantation Mythology. Folded into these discourses are issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, region, and nation that have been overtly and symbolically accounted for by a range of American writers, not just those born in the South. Bristow's visions of modernity funnel the Agrarian ideology through a feminist lens, exposing myths as myths expressly to interrogate them in the framework of the developments of both her stories and her characters. By revisioning Agrarian versions of Southern history from the perspectives of economically privileged and disadvantaged white women, Bristow excavates the material base of the Agrarian order--an order that has historically exploited a network of environmental, perceptual, and cultural forces to sustain white Southern male hegemony. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.