Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins and the Modern Conservative Identity

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins and the Modern Conservative Identity

Article excerpt

Walker Percy's novel Love in the Ruins (1971) reveals the complications of American suburban politics at the height of the Cold War and of the civil rights movement in the United States, a moment during which racial anxieties became disguised as political moderation. Written in the wake of Richard Nixon's successful 1968 run for the presidency, during which his campaign suggested sympathy with white southern suburban segregationists to gain popularity in the South (an area where Republican candidates historically performed poorly), Love in the Ruins portrays a polarized suburban population in the South of a politically fractured United States: a mishmash of southerners and nonsoutherners, conservatives and liberals, living together united in their racism. The novel's suburban Cold War dystopia depicts a post-South in which political ideology, socioeconomic realities, and literary and popular media portrayals of southernness supplant any geographic or cultural understanding of place as the basis for southern identity. (1) Love in the Ruins not only portrays the postsouthern but also forecasts the current red state-blue state political map of the United States in its sheer politicization of nearly every individual and community in the novel, paralleling the spread of conservative politics to the white suburban middle class in the 1960s. This southern identity and politics became suburban identity and politics, uniting communities across the United States not by geography but by ideology, and suburban political moderation morphed into modern conservatism--moral and social conservatism coupled with financial neoliberalism. The novels emphasis on lampooning extreme political viewpoints and portraying racial strife (long associated with the South but present now in suburbs) as merely a symptom of such ideological extremes suggests an attempt to divorce geography from sensibilities and values long associated with the South. In the depiction of suburban politics, the book ultimately points toward Percy's own satirical but quite telling revision of the southern identity, one in which personal connections to ideologies play a prominent role once southern identity has been separated from concerns of place. Ultimately, Love in the Ruins paints portraits of Americans--not necessarily southerners--participating in cultures and practices associated with the United States South through media representations, televised events, real estate developments, and other reproductions of the South.

Love in the Ruins satirizes devotion to hyperbolic political views through caricatures of materialistic suburban dwellers, yet throughout the novel Percy also expresses anxiety about current social trends, exhibiting a realization that the former foundations of the U.S. South are eroding. Michael Kobre argues that Percy really was of two minds and traditions. Percy was raised in the Old South and its traditional mores, "yet Percy also recognized that the severe and honorable traditions he had inherited were increasingly outdated in a New South that was, in his own words, 'happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican" (4). Indeed, Percy's own vision of this New South is remarkably in line with historical studies that explore the roles suburbs played in the turn toward modern Republican conservatism in the U.S. South in the twenty-five years after the end of World War II. During the postwar expansion of industry to the region, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Memphis became centers of commerce attracting more and more southerners--white and black alike--to their metropolitan regions, individuals who decided to give factory and office work a go as opposed to remaining to compete with increasingly larger commercial farms. Brown v. Board of Education undoubtedly influenced patterns of suburban growth as did the white flight from urban centers. Particularly relevant to Percy's imagined suburbs is historian Kevin Kruse's exploration of white flight out of Atlanta and the political identity that developed out of the manner in which whites fought to preserve segregation. …

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