Southern Studies as Area Studies: Faulkner and Provincial Nationalism during the Cold War

By Dominy, Jordan | American Studies, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Southern Studies as Area Studies: Faulkner and Provincial Nationalism during the Cold War


Dominy, Jordan, American Studies


Through a reexamination of William Faulkner's well-documented critical recovery at the hands of New Critics in the 1940s and early 1950s as an event integral to the formalization of both American literary studies and southern literary studies, tliis article argues that the advent of southern studies can best be understood as the application of area studies to the study of regional literature and culture within the United States and a nationalistic project of the Cold War. In order to understand the role Faulkner plays in tliis process, tliis article examines his prominence in Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and Robert D. Jacobs's volume of literary criticism, Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South (1953), and closely read for political and social commentary in Faulkner's novel, Intruder in the Dust (1948), wliich will be read as Faulkner's own commentary on the new area studies of the US South. Faulkner is an important figure for understanding southern studies as area studies because of his inescapable associations with regional literature and the ease with wliich he is interpreted as an author concerned with morality and individualism. Formalist scholars transformed him from an author of regional oddity and the literature of his region into subjects of national import because they were able to identify parallels between the South's racial conundrums and the moral challenges facing American democracy in light of Soviet diplomatic ambitions. In tliis manner, Faulkner became important to the American modernist canon and formed a way by wliich the recovery of his work could be extended to an entire southern literary canon, making the study of southern literature simultaneously a provincial and nationalistic project.

Indeed, few would dispute Faulkner's importance to the southern or American literary canon but he serves as an important figure in my argument about the formation of southern literary studies, not because he is a prototypical southern writer or because southern literature began with him, though this is the mythology that developed around him in the final decade of his life. Rather, Faulkner appears in the canon as a key figure among the development of southern literary studies because his work served the same important political and ideological purposes for formalist intellectuals, especially New Critics. Moreover, even Faulkner's own work engaged the notion of American exceptionalism through southern exceptionalism, the ideological causes that required a southern area studies. Tliis is the starting point for Lawrence H. Schwartz's study Creating Faulkner's Reputation (1988). While Malcolm Cowley and others would argue that Faulkner became great because he is a literary genius who would eventually have attained proper honors, Schwartz counters that Faulkner "became one of the beneficiaries of an aesthetic created by an intellectual elite committed to the survival and preeminence of the United States."1 During what Frederic Jameson identifies as the late modernist moment,2 both New Critics and the New York Intellectuals recuperated Faulkner from his prior reputation-a realist author countering modern society with tales of the barbaric, violent, and corrupt South-to a modernist literary master dealing with the moral challenges of an irrational, modern world and as key as T. S. Eliot and Jackson Pollock, whose achievements were products of the "preservation of freedom of expression under the democratic traditions of the West."3 What happens to Faulkner and southern literature during this time is parallel to what happens to abstract expressionism, as told by Serge Guilbaut.4 Rather than a school of art, though, intellectuals turned to a regional literature in which they could identify a useful aesthetic and divorce it from all political contexts and weed out unsavory political positions associated with the far left, socialism, and Marxism. This interest in the rehabilitation of Faulkner begins at the time, Schwartz explains, when scholars interested in southern literature were looking for "a great literature rooted in the regional consciousness, but one that also transcended provincial nationalism to achieve universality. …

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