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Literary Ladies of Dixie

ISSUE:  Winter 2003
The History of Southern Women’s Literature. Edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks. L.S.U. Press. $49.95. (Southern Literary Studies, Fred Hobson, Editor).

Surely a number of readers of The Virginia Quarterly Review will remember Adlai Stevenson’s great speech, “The New South,” delivered Sept. 20, 1952, at the Mosque Auditorium in Richmond. It’s the one where he bravely endorsed the Democratic Party’s strong civil rights platform plank, yet won over the hearts and minds of his listeners. It was thought that, desperate for Southern electoral votes, he would dodge the bullet and equivocate. How is this for equivocation?

In the broad field of minority rights, the Democratic Party has stated its position in its platform; a position to which I adhere. I should justly earn your contempt if I talked one way in the South and another way elsewhere. Certainly no intellectually dishonest presidential candidate could, by an alchemy of election, be converted into an honest President. I shall not go anywhere with beguiling serpent words. To paraphrase the words of Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, better to be a dog and bay the moon.

When is the last time you heard a presidential candidate who could speak the language like that? Needless to say, Stevenson managed to say a lot of other things that pleased the crowd and won applause. (“The South is a good place to take our bearings, because in no part of the country does the past—a past of great nobility and great tragedy—more sharply etch the present than in the South.”) Stevenson likewise celebrated many aspects of Southern culture, including the part played by our women writers: “Some years ago a famous American critic said that the South was a wasteland of the mind. Yet at that very moment, I am told, so many of your housewives had novels simmering with the soup—among them Gone With the Wind— that many husbands had to wait for supper.”

I don’t know how that little joke would play to a rowdy contemporary audience. At the time it elicited laughter. A contemporary crowd, though, would surely have endorsed his judgment that the Southern women writers goosed the men into greater accomplishment: “And men—in an effort perhaps to keep up with their women, among them your own Ellen Glasgow—were writing books and plays, too. So it was that the Nobel Prize for literature came to the Mississippian, William Faulkner; a prize that he accepted in an exalted address, extolling the unconquerable spirit of man.”

How many presidential candidates could casually cite the name and example of Ellen Glasgow? How many ever heard of her? Only one literary critic that I know of, R. H. W. Dillard of Hollins, whose dissertation at Virginia in the 1960’s was about Ellen Glasgow, has taken note of the direct and specific influence of her work on that of William Faulkner. Some few have noticed that, for a man who wisely avoided literary events like the plague and would go to great effort to avoid them, he came early and stayed late at the Southern Writers’ Conference of October 1931 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The gathering in question was called in honor of Ellen Glasgow who picked the invited participants. She beckoned and William Faulkner came, together with Dubose Heyward, Paul Green, Allen Tate, Carolyn Gordon, Donald Davidson, Mary Johnston, James Boyd, Struthers Burt, Josephine Pinckney, and many others including Alice Hegan Rice, author of the immensely popular Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.

Surprisingly, not much, if anything, is made of Glasgow’s influence on Faulkner, nor—as far as I can tell or find so far—is there anything about that very special and memorable celebration of Glasgow’s art in 1931 in this newly published and very valuable gathering of critical essays—The History of Southern Women’s Literature. There are a couple of illustrative reasons why this may be so. One is that ground zero of this important companion to Southern letters—and I can hardly overstate its varied usefulness to readers, students, critics and scholars—is Chapel Hill, not a bad place to begin or from which to view the rest of the literary world, but not always the dominant point of view, or, anyway, the only one, of all things bright and beautiful (and Southern). In a sense The History of Southern Women’s Literature is a companion volume to L.S.U.’s earlier The Companion to Southern Literature, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda H. MacKethan (2002). Flora is from Chapel Hill, MacKethan teaches at nearby N.C. State; both appear with pieces in the History. The Companion, a huge (more than 1000 pages) boldly inclusive and richly diverse reference book, is like the smaller (700 pages, plus) History, a cheerful and unabashed celebration of Southern literature as viewed from Chapel Hill, a well-deserved celebration to be sure, if sometimes slightly to the disadvantage of other literary centers in the South and other points of view. This is particularly the case with writers of the modern and contemporary periods. The past is alive and kicking, not fixed, but the amount of new information coming out of the past is limited. Judgments change, reputations go up and down like yo-yos, and sometimes new texts surface from the deep past (for example, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, discovered and edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.). The present, however, is constantly changing. It is hard and tricky for your basic English teacher to keep up. Why not concentrate on and give a break to the locals?

Secondly, the way that Ellen Glasgow is treated, in an excellent and sympathetic essay, “Ellen Glasgow,” by Merrill Maguire Skaggs, is indicative of a larger, if more subtle problem, if not a real flaw running through the History. Ms. Skaggs lays it right on the line in her first two sentences: “Although she was visible, glamorous, vocal, and politically active in the halls of literary power, Ellen Glasgow’s literary reputation has always been as it remains—volatile. Her reputation has been periodically diminished by changing social mores, changing literary tastes, and unsympathetic biographers.” No fault there. Except that maybe it is a little too defensive. Acknowledging that Glasgow committed the sins of being, in real life, “beautiful and witty, always perfectly groomed in the latest fashions,” and “conventionally ladylike,” and pointing out that she “took umbrage at the violence, sex and raw shock value” in the work of Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell (among others), Ms. Skaggs nonetheless makes a strong, persuasive case for a Glasgow who “is now widely accepted as the sluice gate that opened that remarkable flood of distinguished writing known as the Southern Renaissance.” Skaggs firmly identifies four of her 20 volumes of fiction as “essential to a history of Southern women’s writing.” They are: Virginia (1913), Barren Ground (1925), The Sheltered Life (1932), and Vein of Iron (1935). She also names as close contenders The Romantic Comedians (1926) and They Stooped to Folly (1929). This is a first-rate piece, one of many such that make up this fine book. The irony that Ms. Skaggs felt that she had to defend Ellen Glasgow and her life and art from anachronistic criticism that is based precisely on the kinds of judgment that the best feminist criticism has long since rendered irrelevant, does not detract from the importance of this book; though it does signify, sadly, that a lot of Southerners still feel a little out of touch, out of the loop, and feel the necessity of proving their bona fides, not so much to each other as to outsiders and strangers. A little camouflaged touch of Blanche Dubois’ need to depend on the kindness of strangers is threaded through the whole book. Well, why not? They (the Other, Yankees and such, as they say) do still take us Southerners, the men and the women alike, to be at best a kind of literary junior varsity. I mean all of us. Item, A few years ago I had a pleasant enough luncheon with a prominent feminist critic who, in the course of our desultory conversation, mentioned that she had just recently visited Jackson, Mississippi, and couldn’t for the life of her imagine why Eudora Welty lived there. “Maybe she likes it there,” I humbly suggested. She shrugged that off. “No, I think it’s the big-frog-in-the-little-pond syndrome.” Adding: “The saddest case is, of course, Flannery O’Connor. If she had only been able to keep her health, Flannery O’Connor might have made it in New York.”

See what I mean?

To honor that kind of attitude by logical argument is a waste of everybody’s precious time and energy as well as to dignify what ought to be politely ignored if not impolitely ridiculed.

Enough. Back to the book and its undeniable virtues.

Consisting of a mix of general essays and essays concerning particular writers (all of these pieces short and to the point), The History of Southern Women’s Literature is organized chronologically in four parts: “The Antebellum and Bellum South (Beginnings to 1865),” “The Postbellum South (1865—1900),” “Renaissance in the South (1900—1960),” and “The Contemporary South (1960 to the Present).” Some “token” male critics and scholars are represented, but, needless to say the contributors are overwhelmingly (and appropriately) women in a ratio of five to one. Some of the contributors are not (yet) widely known. Others—people like Doris Betts, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Lucinda MacKethan, Fred Hobson, Anne Goodwyn Jones, Sally Fitzgerald, Linda Wagner-Martin, Barbara T. Christian, Joseph M. Flora, Elizabeth Muhlenfeld, and Nancy Parrish, etc.—are certifiably literary stars. What is interesting, and a sure sign of careful editing all around, is that the essays, though sometimes (inevitably) uneven, are all of high level and quality, are each and all accessible, minimally freighted with the leaden jargon that has so often rendered our post-modern writing all but unintelligible. The general essays are lively and provocative. The roughly 50-some essays on individual Southern women writers, from Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722—1793) to Kaye Gibbons (1960-) are well done. There are outstanding pieces on Margaret Walker and Alice Walker, Elizabeth Spencer, Shirley Ann Grau, Bobbie Ann Mason, Anne Tyler, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, etc. And, as one who has written on the subject, I am happy to be able to report that, allowing for a few minor errors of fact, there is a fine essay on Mary Lee Settle by Loretta Martin Murrey. Reflecting the changing society, there are essays on various minority writers whose voices, so long unheard, have added a new resonance to Southern literature.

I strongly recommend this book. Having done so, however, I now need to add a few cautionary comments. Good as it is, The History of Southern Women’s Literature is (as they say) a mixed bag. It is best in dealing with the novel and novelists, weakest in its coverage of Southern poetry. The contemporary poetry considered is up to date, yet woefully incomplete. There are many Southern women poets who are every bit as deserving of attention, if not more so, as those here considered. For instance, if Baltimore novelist Ann Tyler can be classified as officially Southern, then why not Baltimore poets Elizabeth Spires and Josephine Jacobsen? Over all, the History is more than adequate in accurately describing what has happened; yet, curiously, the practical matters of publishing, of the complex relationship of Southern writers to the publishing world and to the paying customers are mostly ignored. Any study of post-Civil War Southern literature must take account of the fact that, until very recently, publishers in New York and Boston have had the first and the last words about the publication and fate of Southern writers. They determined and defined what are the acceptable characteristics of Southern literature. The essays here are uniformly excellent on the themes and substance of Southern writing, but weak, not fully convincing on the basics of technique. Thus, for example, when Ms. Skaggs tells us that Ellen Glasgow “was categorized among the “old-fashioned” or “outmoded”,” she does not offer any explanation of that common misjudgment. In a larger sense, the writers for this book seem to be blissfully unaware of the characteristics of avant garde writing in our time, nationally or globally, thus avoiding the trouble of making some significant distinctions concerning Southern writing. In the editorial effort to bring the South and its writers back into the national union, they tend to ignore the need to compare and contrast the subjects and the ways and means of, say, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Renata Adler, and Cynthia Ozick with their Southern counterparts, if any. Just so, there is oddly no mention at all of the distinguished Southern writer, Elizabeth Hardwick, who has earned a place of honor and power at the very center of the New York literary establishment. The “mixed” success of the History is replicated in its apparatus—the appendices and the bibliography (“Bibliography of General Secondary Sources on Southern Women’s Literature”) are excellent, useful contributions, while the index leaves a lot to be desired.

Allowing for these relatively minor quibbles, we ought to be grateful to the editors and contributors for putting together this helpful anthology and, as well, to L.S.U. Press for its multiple contributions over the years to the understanding and appreciation of Southern literature.

Finally a word of caution, occasioned by this volume and addressed to all my fellow Southern writers regardless of gender, race, creed, color, sexual preference or zip code. That we should be careful in our insistence that the new South, having passed sensitivity training with flying colors, can now justly jettison many aspects of our own heritage and history as irrelevant and even embarrassing. There is a plenty of guilt and shame and victimhood for all of us all around. But we ought not to forget the real pride we are entitled to. Adlai Stevenson remembered it eloquently that warm September night in Richmond at the Mosque:

As free men we shall always, I hope, differ on many things. But I also hope that we shall never be divided upon those concepts that are enshrined in our religious faith and the charters of our country’s greatness. No one could stand here in Richmond without reverence for those great Virginians—Washington, whose sturdy common sense was the mortar of our foundations, and Jefferson, that universal genius who, proclaiming the Rights of Man when few men had any rights anywhere, shook the earth and made this feeble country the hope of the oppressed everywhere. . . .


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