Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Liberal Antiliberalism: Mailer, O'connor, and the Gender Politics of Middle-Class Ressentiment

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Liberal Antiliberalism: Mailer, O'connor, and the Gender Politics of Middle-Class Ressentiment

Article excerpt

It is safe to say that Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro" has achieved canonical status in accounts of post-World War II American masculinity.1 In what follows, I want to complicate this now automatic use of Mailer's essay to describe postwar masculinity by locating a similar dynamic in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor, like Mailer, is drawn to alienated outsiders who wreak real and symbolic violence against the postwar social order. Morris Dickstein's account of the Misfit in O'Connor's 1953 story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" as "a violent bearer of unpleasant truths to foolish people" applies equally well to many of O'Connor's characters.2 In O'Connor's fiction, however, such representatives of "rebellion, neurosis, and madness as forms of lucidity"3 tend to be not urban black men or their hipster epigones but rather poor white Southerners. And while these regional rather than racial figures are often men, O'Connor deploys them in ways that cannot be understood solely-or even primarily-as models for the compensatory reassertion of troubled white masculinity. Rather, O'Connor's decidedly Maileresque obsession with middle-class characters' humiliation (and worse) at the hands of their imagined social inferiors reveals a concern with class that she in fact shares with Mailer.

Thomas Schaub has linked Mailer and O'Connor, along with other authors, in a shared framework of Cold War-era resistance to what they perceived as the historically discredited rationalism of Marxist intellectuals and their fellow travelers/ In what follows, however, I discuss this aspect of their writing as a product of the postwar transformation of class, exploited but not generated by Cold War politics. I argue elsewhere that postwar writing, so far from eschewing questions of class and economics, actually displays an occluded but fundamental concern with the long transformation of the American middle class from small property owners to white-collar employees.5 This investment is difficult to see, however, because such writing tends-amid the economic wellbeing underwritten by the postwar boom and a strong welfare state-to displace apprehensions about middle-class proletarianization onto worries about abstract individualism. O'Connor and Mailer both participate in such transformative misreadings of class, although in ways that, I will argue in this essay, have less to do with Marxism than with forms of populist ressentiment currently being exploited by the Right. O'Connor's fiction in particular serves as an engine for the transformation of class anxiety into the regional articulation of universal values associated with (but not strictly geographically bound to) the so-called red states. If Thomas Frank is correct to argue that red-state rhetoric highjacks the ideas and investments traditionally associated with class struggle, locating dispossession not in the operations of capitalism but rather in the perverse hegemony of a coastal elite deaf to mainstream values,6 then O'Connor becomes-in direct contradiction of her reputation as an author whose theological interests epitomize postwar fictional unworldliness-the most culturally central author of the 1950s.

I am thus suggesting that the scenes of aggression that link O'Connor and Mailer have at least as much to do with class as they do with gender. In "The White Negro" Mailer does not just turn to black men to remake white men. He also turns to lower-class men-economically marginal hipsters-to remake middle-class men or, as he calls them, "Square cell[s], trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if [they are] to succeed."' In a long parenthetical, Mailer writes:

(It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong eighteen-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act-even by the logic of the psychopath-is not likely to prove very therapeutic for the victim is not an immediate equal. …

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