Reviewed by Joshua S. Fullman
This volume follows countless others in their earnest curiosity about Southern identification and expression. For many Southerners, their region represents all that is/was great about the American heritage. For many others, it is something un-American, anti-American, or sub-human. Efforts to understand the South by both her defenders and detractors have met, not surprisingly, with inconclusive results. The editors here, taking their cue from Teresa Goddu, treat the South “as the nation’s ‘other,’ becoming the repository for everything from which the nation wants to dissociate itself. The benighted South is able to support the irrational impulses of the gothic that the nation as a whole, born of Enlightenment ideals, cannot” (Anderson qtd. 26). In short, the region is a dumping ground for everything ugly America sees in the mirror.
Thus, the student seeking a more traditional view of the Gothic in the vein of Chopin, Faulkner, or Welty may be sorely dismayed when reading this book. Though these more familiar authors are not without representation, the contributors to this volume dramatically expand their meaning of Gothic to encompass anything remotely transgressive. So too do they expand definitions of The South to include the Appalachians, the Caribbean, and the West (Anderson et.al. 3). In doing so, the editors attempt to
resist and dismantle inherited master narratives about the region and pose in good postmodern fashion the possibility of multiple micronarratives splintering off from the region’s boundary-bound master narrative of loss, death, and mourning [by] venturing into the Caribbean, Native American Studies, critical race theory, and redefinitions of horror, haunting, and affect in the aftermath of trauma (Donaldson 264).
The effect of such a big tent approach, daunting in its syntax and its scope, all but eliminates both the Southern and the Gothic from this volume as mere tangential concerns. For example, Sascha Morrell’s essay links postcolonial and Marxist theory to Melville’s characters who appear to exhibit zombie characteristics. While such studies may or may not be without intrigue, they hardly fall into the categories of Southern or Gothic literature.
If the “purpose of the Gothic is to repress that which cannot be admitted to or named” (Hirsch 79), then some of what has come to be known as Gothic is conflated in this work with horror. Though Gothic has conventionally contained elements of what may be horrific, its chief concern is not frightening its audience with gore as much as it draws attention to the darker side of human psychology and action. More appears to be said in this book about zombies and vampires than about flesh-and-blood human beings; the latter used to be the subject of literature and the former of pop fiction, but these delineations have, according to some, long outlived their usefulness. As Daniel Cross Turner disinters the Southern dead in its many forms in pop culture, including but certainly not limited to “cyborg Confederates” (53), we realize we have truly left Tara behind. Further, the analyses provided are occasionally one-sided in their depictions of a postbellum-antebellum ideal. More than one writer seems to make the mistake of defining the South primarily, if not exclusively, in relation to slavery. Every zombie must be an oppressed laborer, every swamp a slave graveyard. One might think that these critics’ images of the South have more to do with projection than description.
This assessment, I hope, does not cast an ironic pall over the entire book. Elizabeth Bradford Frye and Coleman Hutchinson synthesize poetry and photography of the Civil War in a refreshing interdisciplinary perspective which illustrates a Southern preoccupation with death. Additionally, Elsa Charléty’s contribution captures well the characterization of the Gothic South through Faulkner and Caldwell. And Brian Giezma’s fascinating essay brings epistemological order to the apocalyptic chaos of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. All in all, the volume is a bricolage of subjects at once dark, human, and grotesque.
Why the editors chose to use the Southern Gothic as a starting point only to blow it up remains elusive to this reviewer—beyond recognizing the postmodern penchant for exploding genres, definitions, and labels. Perhaps living in a globalized world decades beyond sharecropping and Jim Crow has slowly erased Southern-ness as a cultural distinctive. Perhaps the South, with its industrialized Birmingham and its urbanized Atlanta, no longer holds an aura of mystique for the far-distant Yankee. Perhaps all that remains to the South are its evangelical voting patterns, which it shares un-ubiquitously with many other states around the country. In other words, there may be no regional, haunted, Other South left to write about.
Or, more likely, we cannot write about the South without writing about ourselves.
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