Disabling History: Contemporary Southern Literature's Solution

By Frega, Donnalee; Craft, Brigette | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Disabling History: Contemporary Southern Literature's Solution


Frega, Donnalee, Craft, Brigette, The Southern Literary Journal


It's damn terrible the way the human race don't know how to act around somebody that ain't the average talking Joe.... I figured it out pretty much: Thousands of years ago they had to kill people that was screwed up, so now some of that instinct is still in the blood, and people feel guilty that they want to kill you, so they act funny. (250)

In this excerpt from Clyde Edgerton's The Floatplane Notebooks, the character of Meredith Copeland has returned home from Vietnam in a wheelchair, his arm and leg amputated, his brain damaged. What is particularly interesting about his frustrated commentary is his reference to the "average talking Joe," his emphasis on his inability to speak. "The worst thing is not being able to talk.... rather be anything but dead than the way I am right now," he laments (220-21). Like so many of his contemporaries in new Southern novels, Meredith finds himself silently locked in unshared memories of the past ("It's like I'm walking around in dark halls" [240]), struggling to use the strong feeling these stories generate as a passport to self-realization.

Increasingly, contemporary Southern writers are portraying the inability to narrate as the ultimate incapacity and are filling their novels with a broad range of physically disabled characters who have difficulty telling or even understanding their life stories--or making others care if they do. Not only do these controversial works contain narratives of physical disability, but disability expresses itself as narrative, a story which either impairs or inappropriately empowers those who confront voiceless characters. For example, although Meredith's first visitor in the VA hospital at Da Nang is his cousin and closest childhood friend Mark, the two never meet solely because Meredith is voiceless. "Meredith can't talk. Can't talk," Mark frets. "If he wakes up, I will be drawn down into his eyes. I will be turned upside down, held there and shaken and turned sideways and spun, so I turn my back on him and walk away to make it through this myself" (213). One might assume that the family and personal history the two boys share would provide a strong emotional connection, yet exactly the opposite is true. Meredith's inability to talk completely incapacitates both characters. History itself has become a disability as one struggles to remember and the other to forget their connection.

Disability, particularly physical disability, has long been used as a narrative tool in the tradition of the Southern grotesque, but the impetus behind its use has changed significantly with contemporary authors. The Southern grotesque has roots as far back as Edgar Allan Poe and the Southwestern Humorists, but it took its firmest hold in the minds of those writing after World War II. (1) According to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., many of the writers of this time used the grotesque to try "to find their place in an apparently meaningless and absurd universe" (466). The sense of alienation from the outside modern world is hardly unique to this period in Southern letters--the literature between the two world wars, for example, was in large part an attempt to shore up and recover the memory of the South against the increasing modernization of the world. Writers like Allen Tate and William Faulkner initiated the Southern Renaissance in an attempt to oppose modernity through "a recovery--a restoration, perhaps a reconstruction--of memory and history" (Simpson 70), just as their followers would later institute the School of the Grotesque in their reaction to what seemed to be a God-forsaken world. (2)

Many of the authors writing after World War II did not share in Tate's and Faulkner's sense of the restorative power of the imagination, however. Lewis P. Simpson argues that the literature of the 1950s and 1960s reveals a "reduction of faith in the redemptive power of the moral order of memory and history" (93). These writers turned to the individual, not to the past, to find meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, and they found a unique vehicle to express their sense of the absurdity of the world in the grotesque figure or situation. …

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