Repressions and revisions: the afterlife of slavery in Southern literature
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Though many scholars have explored the memory of slavery in Southern literature, my project expands these readings through a hybrid critical methodology from the fields of trauma studies, African American studies, historiography, and psychoanalysis to articulate how texts about the antebellum past enable later Southern authors to imagine present and future race relations in the South. I analyze how the particularities of the myriad afterlives of slavery – particularly in the economic, social, and political subjugation and terrorization of African Americans – are expressed or repressed in literature about the antebellum past, and argue that these texts demonstrate the varying processes by which white supremacy is enacted in the Jim Crow era. I argue in my first chapter that the plantation fictions of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris commingle ideologies of antebellum paternalism and contemporary white supremacy to cast the future South as one founded on the reimagining of black subservience. My second chapter examines how black authors Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Chesnutt revise plantation romance, their techniques of masking and doubling enabling them to create an alternative collective memory that exposes the trauma of slavery and the fictive constructs of paternalism. Nonetheless, their lack of success outside this accommodationist genre exposes the limitations of black voice. My third chapter considers the portrayal of race and racism in white Southern women’s writings about the Civil War; Margaret Mitchell and Caroline Gordon explore the idea of modern white female freedom as contingent upon the continued subjugation of African Americans. I argue that Mitchell’s and Gordon’s novels displace the history of slavery –in fact, erase its very presence –as a kind of fantasy of white supremacy in the 1930s. In my fourth chapter, I analyze how William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished fluctuates between anxiety about and aggrandizement of the antebellum past, thereby demonstrating the difficulties of modifying white Southern collective memory. The conclusion reads Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God through her protagonist’s constitution of a storied self, one which enables her to recuperate the traumatic past of slavery.
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