Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"You Have Even Been to Lady School": Pierre Bourdieu, Lee Smith, and New Gender Theory for Southern Literature

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"You Have Even Been to Lady School": Pierre Bourdieu, Lee Smith, and New Gender Theory for Southern Literature

Article excerpt

Literary Theory and Southern Literary Studies

As Carol Ann Johnston and others (1) have noted, "many influential critical voices in Southern literary studies remain untrusting of critical theory" (272). For scholars who came of age in the last decades of the twentieth century, critical theory may most often mean that familiar doctoral curriculum of Saussure, Lacan, Derrida, Cixous, Butler, and other linguistic, psychoanalytic, post-structuralist, and feminist theorists, many of whom seem to play a relatively minor role in Southern studies today. The contrast between learning about the revolution of Theory in graduate school and entering a discipline in which this type of theory is not prevalent can lead to a sense of disconnection and disjunction, especially for the emerging scholar of Southern literature who has sampled other fields.

In Inventing Southern Literature, Michael Kreyling observes that

   The "old pattern" of the New Critics has held sway until the
   current age of "theory," the advent of which has opened cracks in
   heretofore solid literary edifices. Southern literary study seems
   to have resisted theory with particular fervor. To be sure, theory
   (like any "new" strategy for looking at the familiar--like New
   Criticism itself in the 1930s and 1940s) is a threat. But to what?
   (36)

Significantly, Kreyling links New Criticism to the more current mode of theory, reminding us of Southern literature's tradition of embracing new approaches as he questions the later resistance. Within the roots of this resistance lies the idea that Southern studies is a discipline with a longstanding tradition of its own embedded theories and theorists, a discipline that elevates these theorists almost to the level of its major writers, as Carol Manning notes:

   The reputations of the scholars who have chiefly shaped our
   thinking about Southern literature--Allan Tate, Hugh Holman, Louis
   D. Rubin, Jr., Lewis P. Simpson, to name a few--rival the
   reputations of many of the artists about whom they write. We might
   safely say that the critical theory on the Southern Renaissance has
   itself become part of the Southern Renaissance. (37)

From this vantage point, it may seem backward to claim that the field of Southern literary studies somehow lacks or neglects theory and needs to play catch-up by working through linguistic, psychoanalytic, post-structural, and postmodern theories. However, just as Manning examines the sometimes closed circuit between Southern writers and theorists as the foundation for an argument about gender, and just as Kreyling builds an argument about the repression of sexism (as well as racism) within a Southern literary tradition resistant to new theory, I wish to call for greater attention to gender theory in Southern studies. I also want to make more explicit the connections between long-term and widespread resistance to theory within Southern literary studies and later calls for greater attention to gender theory, such as those made frequently in Welty studies. (2)

An advantage of working within disciplines that exhibit a high level of interaction with linguistic, psychoanalytic, and post-structural theory--such as Victorian or Renaissance studies--is that they use this interaction to forge new models of gender criticism. One result of the resistance to theory within Southern studies may be that we lack some of the theory-based gender criticism that evolved within other disciplines. (3) Rather than reach back to the 1980s and 90s heyday of theoretical approaches in order to build new gender criticism approaches, however, I argue that Southern studies might investigate other theoretical options with the same spirit of openness that has both embraced and interrogated global Southern studies and material culture approaches in recent years. We can continue the field's strong tradition of doing what works for and with Southern literature, rather than replicating the scholarship of other disciplines. …

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