Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Pretty as Pictures": Family Photography and Southern Postmemory in Porter's Old Mortality

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Pretty as Pictures": Family Photography and Southern Postmemory in Porter's Old Mortality

Article excerpt

   Men do not have with myth a relationship based    on truth but on use: they depoliticize according    to their needs.     --Roland Barthes, Mythologies 

William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) hinges on a family photograph. Unlike the intersecting and contested narratives that permeate the novel, the photograph of Charles Bon's shadow family--a woman of color and their little boy in New Orleans--supposedly conveys an accurate, trustworthy account of the past. Aunt Rosa "finds Judith standing without a tear before the closed door, holding the metal case she had given him with her picture in it but that didn't have her picture in it now but that of the octoroon and the kid" (286). Bon replaces Judith's picture with one of the octoroon woman and their son, rewriting history by bringing to light willfully submerged aspects of the family narrative. To be framed is to be inserted into history and remembered, and the novel investigates the ways that such framing exercises authority over the narratives that construct both the family and the past itself.

As the primary reader in the novel, Quentin Compson does the job of refraining. He longs to understand his regional identity and this requires the piecing together of various family histories. And yet, Quentin cannot exist apart from this history, for even as he assumes an objective pose, he remains implicated in the very structures he interrogates. Indeed, his capacity to frame the past remains faulty because his identity is largely the composition of other people's memories. The anxiety around the photograph in Absalom, Absalom! points to the ways in which visual representations construct families and also to the ways in which memory itself comes to rely upon photography. Quentin depends upon photography to imagine the family's past, even though no photograph of the Sutpen family exists. Faulkner writes, "Quentin seemed to see them, the four of them arranged into the conventional family group of the period, with formal and lifeless decorum, and seen now as the fading and ancient photograph itself would have been seen enlarged and hung on the wall ... a picture, a group which even to Quentin had a quality strange, contradictory and bizarre" (9). That Quentin imagines the Sutpens in a "conventional" photographic setting, despite the contradictory and arbitrary nature of such an arrangement, elucidates his reliance on a mode of historical imagination centered in the visual representation of the family.

Published two years after Absalom, Absalom!, Katherine Anne Porter's Old Mortality is equally preoccupied with family narratives, and with the role of photographs in particular. Like Quentin, Old Mortality's young protagonists, Maria and Miranda, obsessively seek to understand the lives of their dead relatives, and they imagine themselves intimately linked to the generations that preceded them. "Maria and Miranda, aged twelve and eight years, knew they were young, though they felt they had lived a long time. They had lived not only their own years; but their memories, it seemed to them, began years before they were born, in the lives of the grown-ups around them, old people above forty, most of them, who had a way of insisting that they too had been young once" (174). Maria and Miranda's experience of themselves as having lived the memories of other people is precisely the experience of Quentin Compson, who realizes that his story started long before he was born. As Rosa tells Quentin the story of the Sutpen family, he feels that "his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn backlooking ghosts" (7). Marianne Hirsch describes such relationships to the past as "postmemorable." According to Hirsch, "Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood or recreated" (22). …

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