Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

From the Summer of Faulkner to Oprah's Obama: What We Can Learn from Joe Christmas and Miss Jane Pittman

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

From the Summer of Faulkner to Oprah's Obama: What We Can Learn from Joe Christmas and Miss Jane Pittman

Article excerpt

The focus on three novels of William Faulkner for the entire summer of 2005 in Oprah's Book Club (OBC) was a monumental moment showcasing a Southern author in popular culture that provided an unprecedented opportunity to think about selected Southern fiction works in the context of a national and international television and internet media audience. Oprah Winfrey has stated that she envisions her television talk show as a large class. OBC, a veritable global institution that was nearly ten years old by the time that monthly lessons on its internet website focused on The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932), seemed to be an ideal context in which to explore a "global" author such as Faulkner. (1) The most concrete and visible sign of the imprint of the Oprah brand on Faulkner's literature, a longstanding "brand" in the American and Southern literary establishments in its own right, was the marketing of a special-edition box set that included the three Faulkner novels under study replete with the OBC logo and imprimatur.

At the time, the most salient emblems of Oprah Winfrey's distinct and multifaceted brand included her popular talk show, the O magazine, and OBC. The role that Oprah has played from the platform of her television talk show in popularizing products, particularly in the context of signature features such as "Oprah's Favorite Things," is well known. Books featured on OBC often literally changed the lives of their authors by bringing them instant fame and unprecedented book sales and resulted in an exponential increase in book sales. The marketing mechanisms linked to Oprah's platform before her global audience and her unique ability to popularize products have been described as "the Oprah effect." (2) That her impact on people has often been quite similar to her impact on products made it fascinating during the Summer of Faulkner orchestrated by her book club to anticipate how her show might potentially expand the audience for a canonical author such as Faulkner. Indeed, the unique spin that in effect yielded a repackaging of this author in the context of her book club resulted in what we might think of and what I have discussed elsewhere as "Oprah's Faulkner." (3)

Oprah's role in launching a range of personas to new heights of fame and fortune through the creation of a multiplicity of new talk shows is also well known. Above and beyond linking popular authors to the Oprah brand over the past decade through her book club, the Oprah Winfrey Show profoundly impacted the nation's political arena by featuring Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, on October 19, 2006, when he was a US Senator from Illinois promoting his book The Audacity of Hope. Oprah described Obama on her website as "her favorite senator" (significantly coding him in the lingo of the "My Favorite Things" shows) and mentioned her hope that he would become a candidate for president of the United States ("Keeping Hope Alive"). Subsequently, the book rocketed to the top spot on the New York Times bestseller's list. This book was not officially featured on OBC, yet the powerful enterprise no doubt helped to establish the marketing context and background for Oprah's introduction of Obama as an author for her global audience.

It is most significant that a reference to a novel in the genres of both African American and Southern literature mediated Oprah's actual endorsement of Obama as a presidential candidate. In offering a rationale for her support of Obama as the Democratic Party's candidate for the presidency, as opposed to New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, Oprah famously invoked Ernest J. Gaines's 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the related 1974 television movie starring Cicely Tyson. By extension, the dilemma in making a choice between Obama and Clinton recast the notorious "double bind" that black women, including black feminists, have often faced in matters related to race and gender. …

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