Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Josephine Humphreys's 'Rich in Love': Redefining Southern Fiction

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Josephine Humphreys's 'Rich in Love': Redefining Southern Fiction

Article excerpt

LUCILLE ODOM, THE NARRATOR OF Rich in Love (1987), confides in the reader as she studies her identity, "But I was angling for a view of something else, a look inward,"(1) and her words resonate with the question that readers and critics of contemporary Southern fiction must address: is there really still such a thing as "Southern literature," or are we angling for a view of something else? The explosion of new Southern fiction, a large portion of which has been written by women, is requiring a reexamination of the characteristics that have defined the Southern narrative for so long: love of place; reverence for land and family; reliance upon community; awareness of the tragic nature of history; the redemptive power of memory; and, of course, the litany of William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the heroic code of courage and honor and pride. Using reversals and modified versions of these Southern narrative trademarks, contemporary Southern writers are fashioning different narrative voices to depict the changing landscape of the contemporary, or postmodern South.

In "Fee, Fie, Faux Faulkner: Parody and Postmodernism in Southern Literature,"(2) Michael Kreyling, building on views of some other critics of Southern and contemporary literature states that the "South" itself is a cultural construct, that what makes Southern writers seemingly mimetic of their predecessors is not their common "Southernness," or a shared set of assumptions, but a conscious parodic response to the anxiety of influence. Although this argument admits entry to contemporary writers Reynolds Price, William Styron, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Barry Hannah, and Peter Taylor, all of whom have proven that they are capable of sounding Faulknerian and undercutting these conventions through parody, it leaves little room for those who have been criticized for not sounding Faulknerian, those who do not sustain a tragic sense of the inexorable nature of time and history, and who have been called overly reliant upon current iconography, Food Marts, Bruce Springsteen, Thriftway. T. S. Eliot has said of the artist, "You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead."(3) But to set these contemporary writers among the dead is to hold a wake for the living, to undertake a journey as farcical as the Bundrens' in As I Lay Dying.

It is important also to consider that the critics who actually established Southern literature as distinguishable from American literature, who gave name to its characteristics and created a discourse through which to communicate their observations -- Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Lewis P. Simpson, C. Hugh Holman, and their predecessors, the Agrarians, Fugitives and New Critics -- were male scholars steeped in the patriarchal traditions of the South. In other words, the very standards that were created to delineate a Southern literature were generated, at least initially, out of a very specific perspective.

This is not to say that these scholars have stood in the way of literary progress; Louis D. Rubin, Jr., for example, has been very instrumental in establishing the careers of contemporary Southern writers such as Clyde Edgerton, Fred Chappell, Jill McCorkle and Kaye Gibbons. But the practice of judging contemporary Southern fiction in the light of ambitions first realized by Faulkner still limits the writer to a specific set of assumptions. While Fred Hobson, writing about post-1950 Southern literature,(4) is careful to praise writers whose work sets out to do different things, there is still an implicit and underlying regret that more Southerners aren't making the great attempt -- as Thomas Wolfe did in Look Homeward, Angel. It seems more accurate to say that one way of telling about the South has given way to others.

History -- the way it happens, the way it is passed down and told, and the identity of the storyteller or historian -- has long been a concern of the Southern writer. …

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