Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Saving Southern History in Caroline Gordon's Penhally

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Saving Southern History in Caroline Gordon's Penhally

Article excerpt

In the half-century following the Civil War, affluent white southern women realized that they had a view of gender conventions which no longer merged seamlessly with that of white southern men. As Anne Goodwyn Jones notes, this meant that, "[c]aught between white supremacy and female inferiority," for the first time their "loyalties to [their] race might well conflict with [their] loyalties to [their] sex" (24). Postbellum upper-middle and upper-class white southern women gradually became aware, on an unprecedented scale, not only of their "identity as female" in terms closer to those employed by bourgeois "New Women" of the North, but also that they "confronted a cultural image of themselves that served someone else's needs" (Jones 25) rather than their own. And the spirit of innovation and challenge to old mores particular to the early twentieth century helped clear the path for many women to explore that feminine image in more critical terms than they had ever been able to do before. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw argues that a significant element of the historical consciousness which helps characterize the writers of the Southern Renaissance is the "effort to understand and come to terms with the dominating image of the lady" (74). For upper-middle and upper-class white southern women writers in particular, the image of the southern lady was an entity which had to be examined in order for each of them to be able to situate herself as a "person in history, ... who has been shaped by images and myths she only partly apprehends and controls, and, at last, who in her turn will be ... a shaper of myths to come" (Prenshaw 83). Like their male contemporaries, many white southern women writers sought both a personal and a cultural identity in the stuff of southern history, and although some of them fundamentally were in sympathy with Agrarian assumptions, many times they perceived the Civil War, the loss of the Old Order, and the fallout of southern defeat somewhat differently in both cultural and personal terms. The material history they examined, the imaginative perspective from which they viewed it, and the literary and cultural conclusions they drew often differed radically from what has come to be perceived as the quintessential Southern Renaissance confrontation between old and new.

At the core of this difference in approach lay a fundamental breach between how white men and women perceived the downfall of that culture in the first place: male writers and critics often have tended to see the advent of the southern tragedy in a single, abrupt moment of apocalypse that changed their region forever and produced an inertia that made them backward-looking and loyally adherent to the old ways. In contrast, women writers more often have perceived southern history as an unfocused, unproductive clinging to a social order continually crumbling away, which prevented anyone from prospering--intellectually, spiritually, and often materially. For many white southern women writers, the conflict between old and new has been double-edged. The Civil War set in motion a drawn out, often uncomfortable process of remaking personal as well as regional identity, which demanded setting aside the old assumptions and treading on unfamiliar territory; but in addition-what might be the real crux of the tragedy for white women--this meant a continual fight against masculine cultural nostalgia if women and, ultimately, the South were to forge a viable new sense of self. While affluent white women, too, regretted the loss of their familiar ways of life, finally they could afford to be more forward-looking and optimistic about putting aside the vestiges of the old order than could the men, who felt themselves to have had much more at stake in the plantation system and hence much more to lose with its final demise.

Caroline Gordon embraced the opportunity offered by modernism to grapple with remaking white southern feminine identity in the context of values and beliefs inherited from the Old South, along the way confronting the blockade to that effort thrown up by intense masculine nostalgia for the Old Order. …

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.