“Truth so mazed”: Faulkner and U.S. Plantation Fiction

[to be published in Faulkner in Context, ed. John Matthews, Cambridge University Press, c. 2014]

Reading Faulkner in historical context must include consideration of antebellum and early New South plantation fiction. Before the Civil War, representations of pastoral economies and harmony among the races played a key role in the southern counter-attack against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the most influential fictional indictment of slavery as a threat to the economic and moral fabric of the United States. After the War, during the era of Jim Crow at home and U.S. colonialism abroad, influential new narratives set on plantations by southern writers appeared to great acclaim in national magazines like Scribner’s and Harper’s. The Civil Rights era in the mid-twentieth century eventually transformed our understanding of both Faulkner and plantation fiction—most notably via new interpretive strategies inspired by black studies, feminist criticism, postcolonial theory, and the “global South” turn in U.S. studies. Broadly speaking, postwar plantation fiction’s appeal was once primarily understood as an expression of nostalgia for a pre-modern, rural, and regional past in both economic and social relations, a southern variant of dialect stories and regional realism that became known in the nineteenth century as “local color.” Since the 1980s, though, plantation fiction and local color writing has been interpreted as helping to create modernity (MacKethan, Wells). Plantation fiction helped readers manage tragedy and loss associated with the Civil War via narratives of reconciliation between northern and southern characters, and it offered a reassuring model of postslavery race and class relations.

Most recently, the transnational turn in U.S. Studies has given us new hypotheses about how a seemingly backward- and inward-looking form shaped a future-oriented, global vision. Plantation fiction during the early imperial era (the 1890s and after) modeled how to shoulder the “white man’s burden” at home and abroad. Like the South, new U.S. colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific existed in a liminal zone as a dangerous yet alluring pre-modern region within the U.S.’s expanded national boundaries (Kaplan, Smith and Cohn, Schmidt, Greeson, Ring, Wells). The South as a longstanding “exception” seemed to threaten the core values of American exceptionalism—that view that the United States collectively had a special, God-given destiny to redeem the sins of human history. Yet by the late nineteenth century those advocating for global power argued that, with its original sin of slavery expunged, the United States was now ready to uplift both the old South and its new colonies. In short, cultural historians now trace the “global scope of the local” in New South literature, as Jennifer Rae Greeson has termed it. Although many postwar plantation writers forced an aesthetic of consensus on their stories, however, we increasingly recognize that New South fiction before Faulkner was quite heterogeneous, working with a wide range of narrative modes expressing ambiguity, dissent, doubt, rage, repression, fear, and mourning sometimes encoded within the very tales that seemed most consensus-obsessed.

Two elements were particularly important to the reconstruction of the South as it occurred in post-Civil War fiction: its use of the romance genre and its popularization of the character of the black Mammy. Southern fiction’s sentimental romance plots stressed not just courtship and marriage between northern and southern characters; these tales also often tied the success of whites’s new identities to the approving nod of black servants who had once been slaves. Romantic reconciliations promoted by postwar fiction thus narrated proper forms of “free” black dependency as well as North/South reunification. The romances of this era also featured the “natural” subordination of women to men, including the necessity to protect white women’s purity from racial threats. Such romance plots proved adaptable to new colonial as well as southern settings. Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902) and The Clansman (1905) are notorious (and conflicted) in this regard, but a fascinating example that should be better known is Margaret Mitchell’s Lost Laysen, a short romance set in the South Pacific written in 1915 when she was a teenager. Laysen is obsessed with the eros of miscegenation in ways that foreshadow both Faulkner’s work and certain elements in Gone With the Wind (Williamson; Schmidt, “On Eros”; see also Porter on Faulkner and Mitchell).

The free black Mammy character central to much plantation fiction gave readers one way to mediate the obvious contradictions in the sentimental romances just described. Full of initiative and invective, the Mammy nevertheless embodied undying loyalty to her white masters. For white readers she demonstrated not just how postwar racial relations ought to work, but also what free black labor should look like (Hale; Wallace-Sanders). In Joel Chandler Harris’ “Aunt Fountain’s Prisoner” (1887), for example, “Aunt” Fountain donates her profits from selling ginger-cakes to her former owners in order to keep their plantation from being sold to pay their postwar debts; she also is instrumental in arranging the marriage between the owners’ eligible daughter and an industrious northerner who becomes the plantation’s manager and then its master. Other Harris Mammy tales are more complex, such as “The Case of Mary Ellen” (1899), in which “Aunt” Minervy Ann inspires whites secretly to violate the color line.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s portraits of black men and women, particularly in The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900) and In Old Plantation Days (1903), are similarly multivalent, offering ironic commentary on contemporary race relations even if they sometimes have antebellum settings. Dunbar’s “The Ingrate” may be read as an ironic evisceration of white paternalism, while “The Case of Ca’line,” “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph,” and “Aunt Tempe’s Revenge” all feature strong black women who get their way. “’Are you the man who owns this plantation?’” a neighbor asks in bewilderment in “Aunt Tempe’s Triumph,” to which the plantation master, whose name is Mordaunt, mordantly replies, “’I used to think so’” (Complete Stories 204). Harris is most well known for creating Uncle Remus, a character who appeared (to many white contemporaries at least) to render African-American tricksters safe for plantation fiction sentimentalism. But Harris and Dunbar arguably played just as important a role in U.S. cultural history by reworking the meaning of the Mammy as she became a major figure in U.S. popular culture. While sometimes conforming to the ideal of the loyal servant, Harris’ and Dunbar’s black elders display considerable subversive energy. These authors’ best stories engage with no little ironic force Jim Crow platitudes, prescribed gender roles, and colonial-era pieties about the “white man’s burden.”

William Faulkner’s Mammy figures, such as Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929), fit within plantation fiction’s consensus tradition. True, Dilsey has unusual humor, dignity, and tragic stoicism in dealing with the ways of white folks. But Dilsey’s portrait is not out of line with those of earlier fictional Mammies, nor is Margaret Mitchell’s Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1936). Indeed, in both Faulkner and Mitchell the Mammy figure as rebel and reconciler in the service of white self-regard achieves something like an apotheosis.

Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1942) revise plantation fiction more radically. Faulkner’s dangerous move was to read popular plots as defense mechanisms. In the process, Faulkner transformed narratives of reconciliation into tales warped by the forces of repression and resistance. Faulkner features self-divided characters attempting to impose a singular vision onto the labyrinth of history—the race purity and aristocratic standing signified by Sutpen’s 100 acres in Absalom, for example, or Ike McCaslin’s attempt to repudiate the past in “The Bear.” In each of these cases, though, the protagonist becomes embroiled in counter-narratives that cannot be controlled. Absalom undoes repression with eros, an erotic attraction to what is denied or abused, whereas Go Down, Moses’ Ike—the least driven by eros of all of Faulkner’s major characters—tries to track and expunge the lies of history as if he were stalking a bear in the woods. If Sutpen’s goal is to rewrite his own past, Ike’s goal is even more ambitious: to free himself from what James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called “the nightmare of history.”

Thomas Sutpen’s epic scheme to join the white planter class in Mississippi collapses when his “black” Haitian-born son Charles Bon shows up demanding recognition from the father and the right to marry Judith Sutpen, his unacknowledged half-sister, and then is murdered by his half-brother Henry acting in the name of the father. Early in the novel, when Judith and Henry are young children, their father stages a wrestling match in the plantation stables to demonstrate to his son his physical as well as mental racial superiority as a patriarch. Sutpen is victorious, yet his intended initiation of Henry into whiteness—what Rosa Coldfield, this section’s narrator, somewhat archly calls a “spectacle … toward the retention of supremacy, domination” (29)—goes drastically wrong in ways that foreshadow the doom of Sutpen’s entire project. Henry gets physically sick from the scene’s violence, while his sister Judith—who wasn’t supposed to be present—not only witnesses the fight but is erotically stimulated by both her father’s and his slave’s sweat- and blood-slick bodies in the firelight. The final image of the chapter stresses not just Judith’s attraction to the “caged snake” (30) of her father’s manhood, but also the ambiguity of Sutpen racial identity (at least as it is imagined by Rosa): “I was not there to see the two Sutpen faces this time—once on Judith and once on the negro girl beside her—looking down” (30). When Judith later becomes sexually attracted to Charles Bon, it is caused not just by rebellion against her father or Charles’ handsome air of worldly sophistication, but also because of the erotic charge instilled in Judith by this primal scene at the climax of Absalom’s first chapter. Absalom thus replaces the gendered white-supremacist romance of plantation fiction with a narrative driven by the eros of racial mixture. But not just that: Rosa’s erotic interest in the story she tells is feverishly denied even as it is being narrated. Rosa sees with Judith’s eyes, but in her retelling of the primal scene she tries mightily to identify with Sutpen’s wife Ellen’s outrage, not Judith’s gaze. The psychological complexities here contain Absalom in microcosm, rewriting heroic plantation plots meant to reaffirm “proper” race, class, and gender boundaries as repressed erotic transgression, transference, and introjection.

The novella “The Bear” in Go Down, Moses, written in the same decade as Absalom but published in final form in 1942, challenges plantation fiction differently, through it too features a patriarch’s erotic attraction both to blackness and to violent domination. Originally conceived as an epic story of a bear hunt in which its boy hero, Ike McCaslin, under the tutelage of Sam Fathers learns how Nature may redeem fallen human history, “The Bear” in its expanded form contains Part 4, a different kind of quest. Ike investigates the ledgers chronicling his own family’s plantation history, reading between the lines to discover silenced stories about the McCaslins and their slaves. But if Nature and Sam Fathers inspire Ike to see if time’s losses and the sins of history may be “repudiated denied and free” (281), those dusty ledgers turn out to be a formidable antagonist. Ike originally thinks that he can redeem fallen history—his grandfather Carothers McCaslin’s rape of slaves, including his own daughter, and his father’s and uncle’s compounded complicity in other injustices—but Faulkner’s narrative shows Ike to be tragically deluded.

The keyword in “The Bear” signifying time’s tragic form is “mazed”: Faulkner’s novella, like Absalom, “mazes” any straightforward truth or linear heroic narrative. “[T]he whole plantation in its mazed and intricate entirety,” the narrator calls it after Ike asserts his inheritance is so cursed that he must renounce it (298). History itself is so tangled and misunderstood that Ike’s cousin McCaslin invents a special verb to describe the mess: “Buck and Buddy to fumble-heed that truth so mazed for them” (282). Ike hopes he can buy forgiveness for his grandfather’s sins the way one pays down debts, “amortizing” them with cash to Carothers’ remaining black kin as Ike executes the old man’s will. But even as Ike carries out his plan he realizes its futility. The money won’t teach its recipients to use well their freedom; indeed it commodifies human relations just as slavery did. As Ike imagines it, Carothers’ will was “flinging almost contemptuously, as he might a cast-off hat or pair of shoes, the thousand dollars…. So I reckon that was cheaper than saying My son to a nigger” (269). Like Sutpen, Carothers refuses to acknowledge his sons.

The plantation ledgers from both slavery time and afterwards in “The Bear” emphasize white power in an unusual way: instead of the “tedious recording filling this page of wages day by day and food and clothing charged against [McCaslin blacks]” (269), they selectively record births and deaths and other life events, as if these too were property transactions. Faulkner juxtaposes the neat linearity of the ledger entries with a spot on the flooring next to the desk in the plantation office: “the scuffed patch on the floor where two decades of heavy shoes had stood while the white man at the desk added and multiplied and subtracted” (292). For Ike, these anonymous inscriptions rubbed into the wood mark the unredeemable, silent, and continuous expression of black suffering. (For more on throwaway bodies and the unnamed abject in southern fiction, see Yaeger.) Such marks and the lives they imperfectly represent can never be fully amortized; they are history’s tragic maze in physical form, forever canceling Ike’s attempts to be a Christ-like figure. This “scuffed patch” also excoriates plantation fiction lies about slavery and postslavery planter regimes treating blacks as “one of the family” and their “white man’s burden.”

Like Absalom, “The Bear” embodies mazed truth in both the micro and macro levels of its storytelling, from the gnarled syntax of its sentences to its overall structure. Ike’s wilderness training from Sam Fathers convinces him that time is redeemable if the right ritual can be found. Death may even be undone and time reversed, as in this magnificent excerpt from Ike’s meditation at Sam’s and Lion’s grave in “The Bear,” Part 5:

quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part … dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one (328-29)

In Ike’s invocation here, identities are not separate but part of an eternal cycle, and the hunt that killed Old Ben the bear replays itself eternally, reversing time’s losses, including the bear’s dismemberment and Lion’s disemboweling, while the heroic ritual of the chase continues on in its own “immutable progression,” forever a part of Nature’s rhythms of rebirth. Even a twist of tobacco, a new bandanna handkerchief, and peppermint candy—Ike’s graveside offerings honoring Sam—are “translated” (328) from store-bought commodities into a sacred gift economy where there is no death, only transformation.

Fallen human history proves more recalcitrant. “The Bear” doesn’t end with Ike safely transported into sacred time. After Ike’s encounter with a snake, an avatar of Sam Fathers’ spirit, his equilibrium is invaded by the sound of Boon hammering on a broken gun so he can slaughter squirrels trapped in a gum tree. Boon’s hoarse screams are ironically juxtaposed with the stealthy silence of legal contracts bequeathing to lumber corporations the right to divide and log the wilderness Ike so reveres. “Dont touch a one of them! They’re mine!” (331) could be the logging company’s credo, not just Boon’s. Sam’s tracking and hunting skills passed down to Ike may have proven invaluable in the forest and in Ike’s quest to decode the hidden meanings buried in his family’s ledgers. Yet in those plantation records Ike encounters a form of time that can neither be amortized—safely paid down and made past—nor cleansed through sacred ritual. Instead, Ike encounters time fallen and mazed, stubbornly entangling all involved. As Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun (1950), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner’s prose not only often muddles past, present and future; it also frequently represents an action through a kind of demonic gerund verb—always continuing and compounding itself, with no easily identifiable points where an event can be said to have begun, much less concluded. (Look at how the movement of Ike “quitting” the grave knoll is represented in the previous indented quotation, for instance.) Such constructions destabilize the nouns that would be subjects in a sentence, just as the forces of history influence human identities in unknowable ways and render them unstable, divided, opaque. Even a purported “master” can be displaced as his sentence’s sovereign subject by his slaves. Such a grammatical slave rebellion indeed occurs in what is perhaps the most Faulknerian sentence in “The Bear,” which runs in Part 4 from pages 263 to many pages thereafter (it depends how you count). The sentence begins trying to chronicle the actions of Ike’s father and uncle, Buck and Buddy McCaslin, as recreated in Ike’s imagination based on his scrutiny of the ledger data. Soon there is trouble: the sentence’s subject nouns, Buck and Buddy, are dislodged in the syntax by their “property,” a long list of McCaslin slaves, “Roscius and Phoebe and Thucydides and Eunice,” down to “the anomaly calling itself Percival Brownlee” (263). This list of myriad subject nouns is then itself pushed aside for a three-page-long parenthesis chronicling the “single page” (263) of the plantation ledger that is one source, along with family stories, for the information we are reading. This parenthesis samples ledger entries by Buck and Buddy written in the same italics used for Ike’s inner thoughts. It does not conclude until the bottom of page 265, after which we finally get the sentence’s primary verb and then another long clause modifying both that verb and the sentence’s subject nouns: “… took substance and even a sort of shadowy life with their passions and complexities too as page followed page and year year; all there, … tragedy which … could never be amortized” (265-66). The subjects who take on substance and life here in Ike’s imagination are the McCaslin slaves and their free descendants, wresting agency away from their masters and, we might even say, breaking the bounds of the parenthesis in which they were enclosed. Yet even as this lengthy sentence displaces white male power, it surely also simultaneously entangles whites and blacks in eternal struggle.

As Ike reads between the lines of the ledger entries, he finds not emerging free agency for slaves and ex-slaves but a repressed history of rape and suicide and incest—leading him to the conclusion that his family and the South itself is cursed and that all he can do is to try to renounce this inheritance. Ike’s impossible hope to extricate himself from white guilt is partly inspired by Sam Fathers’ vision of redeeming Nature. But Ike is motivated by another, surprising source—one of the heirs of Carothers’ guilt money, Lucas Beauchamp. Lucas stages his own version of a lexical slave rebellion, literally appropriating a white master’s power to rewrite his own history. He was originally named Lucius but altered its spelling while proudly keeping all of the other family names: his full name is Lucas Quintus Carothers McCaslin Beauchamp. On page 281 Ike imagines Lucas in 1874, after Buck and Buddy have both died, inserting his new name into the McCaslin ledgers and even (ironically?) using Buck and Buddy’s writerly voice. This event is the opposite of the silent patch of scuffed flooring: Lucas here signifies that he is the sole living direct male heir of the old patriarchs. In Ike’s words, “simply taking the name and changing, altering it, making it no longer the white man’s but his own, by himself composed, himself selfprogenitive and nominate, by himself ancestored, as, for all the old ledgers recorded to the contrary, old Carothers himself was” (281). Lucas gives Ike the powerful hope that he too can repudiate sin-filled McCaslin history. Yet Lucas in life hardly provides a model of responsible freedom, and the project of self-generation that Ike imagines for Lucas repeats rather than negates the failings of Lucas’ father. Ike’s attempts to leap free from reenacting family trauma also fail. The tragedy of “The Bear” is that financial transactions cannot free Ike from guilt-debt, nor can he or Lucas uncoil themselves from Carothers’ legacy simply by claiming authorship of their own lives.

The ironies or contradictions attending Ike’s and Lucas’ actions bedevil Faulkner’s authorial project as well. The genius of “The Bear” exists in highlighting such a paradox, not repressing it. Far from being selfprogenitive, the narrative voice of Faulkner’s novella finds itself recycling old assumptions and plotlines—not just those of Faulkner’s white plantation fiction predecessors, but also those of historians like William Archibald Dunning, who, in the 1890s and after as Jim Crow segregation was being instituted throughout the South, wrote accounts of the War and Reconstruction to justify new forms of white rule as a model for the nation and its new imperial colonies. Faulkner’s distinctive fictional “voice” is profoundly intertextual, not autonomous or singular.

The narrator of “The Bear,” particularly in Part 4, for instance, doesn’t just shift between McCaslin’s and Ike’s words as they debate how to understand history. At particularly tension-filled moments it also subtly morphs into an unpredictable and ideologically loaded third-person voice. Mixed with Ike’s (and Faulkner’s) progressive views of the South’s sins and need for atonement lurk many narrative memes recycled from earlier writings by whites reinterpreting the War and Reconstruction to demonstrate the tough benevolence of white rule. Ike paints a picture of heroic plantation mistresses that could have been lifted directly out of antebellum defenses of slavery as more humane than northern wage-based capitalism: “wives and daughters at least made soups and jellies for [slaves] when they were sick and carried the trays through the mud and the winter too into the stinking cabins and sat in the stinking cabins and kept fires going until crises came and passed” (285). A few pages later, Faulkner bestows third-person narrative authority onto familiar representations of Reconstruction as that “dark corrupt and bloody time.” Newly freed blacks are “those upon whom freedom and equality had been dumped overnight and without warning or preparation or any training in how to employ it or even just endure it and who misused it not as children would nor yet because they had been so long in bondage … but misused it as human beings always misuse freedom” (289). Black illiteracy making Reconstruction government a farce—a claim common to anti-Reconstruction articles, cartoons, and fiction, as Eric Foner has shown—is validated as truth via this same narrative voice, particularly in the portrait of an ex-slave not so subtly named Sickymo who became a United States marshal in Jefferson and “signed his official papers with a crude cross” (291). Faulkner’s narrator even suggests that Ku Klux Klan lynching parties were primarily composed of descendants of Union Army quartermasters and contractors who stayed after the War but soon were “engaged in a fierce economic competition of small sloven farms with the black men they were supposed to have freed” (290). True, there are some details in this Faulknerian panorama that would be at home in pro-Reconstruction literature, such as the novels of Albion Tourgée depicting terrorist acts against postwar reforms: “men shot dead in polling booths with the still wet pen in one hand and the unblotted ballot in the other” (291). But immediately after this particular detail in “The Bear” we get the clichéd portrait of Sickymo as an emblem of Reconstruction’s folly. (Compare the negative representations of Reconstruction in Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, 1938.) Faulkner’s various narrators in “The Bear” are thus full of ideological and rhetorical detritus from the U.S. past even while they borrow Biblical rhetoric to give voice to Ike McCaslin’s yearning to escape it all.

Sentimental plantation fiction about the South became popular because it gave a powerful new spin to American exceptionalism, that discourse whereby trials and suffering were converted into tests to be passed in order to reaffirm God’s favor and America’s special role in redeeming world history. Many of Faulkner’s characters are deeply invested in exceptionalist rhetoric too, as when Ike in “The Bear” invokes “that whole hopeful continent dedicated as a refuge and sanctuary of liberty and freedom from what you [McCaslin] called the old world’s worthless evening” (283). Even while calling the South cursed, Ike assumes that repudiation and atonement will somehow return fallen American history to sacred time, just as he believes the truly American self claims the right to rewrite history and become “selfprogenitive,” “by himself composed.” Yet the very texture of Faulkner’s sentences and the structure of his fictions obviate such dreams. Ike’s and McCaslin’s language—and Faulkner’s as well—remains weighed down by the ledgers and discourses of a past that is not past, haunted by the unspeakable black suffering it yearns to render as either payable debt or something redeemable by a single heroic white man’s gesture.

The somber point here is not just that Faulkner’s narrative lends its authority to familiar anti-Reconstruction clichés, but that Faulkner’s (and Ike’s) fondness for the discourses marketed by American exceptionalism and plantation fiction are mazed. Instead of simply being reaffirmed, the “facts” and narrative frames that pass for such history are placed in a vertiginous space on Faulkner’s pages where they are subjected to questioning, interpolation, revision. The true “context” of Faulkner’s plantation fiction legacy is thus neither outside of Faulkner’s texts, safely part of his and our literary past, nor definitively atoned for within his texts’ present action. Context and history in Faulkner function like his gerund verbs: they are ongoing traumas occurring on continuously contested terrain.

In mazing the past while repeating it with a difference, Faulkner opened the boundaries of the U.S. South and its history to redefinition and transformation—a shift that proved far more subversive than any claim to “redeem” it. We can thus, as we do today, engage in readings placing Faulkner in conversation with all those who trace the shadows plantation slavery’s hemispheric history casts onto our present. Gabriel García-Márquez and Édouard Glissant, for instance, but see also the other essays in this volume and, for a few examples of many cogent assessments of an “invented South” in U.S. memory, Lott, Kreyling, Hale, McPherson, Duck, Greeson, Romine, Ring, and Porter.


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Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman; An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday Page, 1905.
Duck, Leigh Anne. The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.
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Ring, Natalie J. The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
Romine, Scott. The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
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Smith, Jon, and Deborah Cohn (eds.). Look Away! The U.S. South in New World Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Weinstein, Philip M. What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Wells, Jeremy. Romances of the White Man’s Burden: Race, Empire, and the Plantation in American Literature, 1880-1936. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011.
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Yaeger, Patricia. Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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