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20th c American Gothic: Georgia, Faulkner and magnolias(06 Jul 2015)
By Ms Elsa Charléty

 

And now, for our final descent in the Maelström, we must head once more into the Deep South. Our final destination will be old Dixieland: Georgia and Mississippi in the 1930’s. The reason for this stop is that the South, during the Great Depression, is where Gothic fiction takes yet another radical turn under the magnifying glass of American History.

 

Although the economic crisis affected most of the country, the South was hit hardest. The war may have ended several decades ago, but the battle for Reconstruction was still ongoing at the turn of the century. A damaged economy, a corrupted political system and a social and racial situation ready to implode at any moment had left the region unprepared to face such events.

 

The Depression was tragic for the majority of the population of the South. At the time, they were still working fields for a living, while the land still remained – even after the war had supposedly taken it away from them – in the hands of a wealthy Plantation elite. Poor whites and poor blacks alike fell into a state of poverty unprecedented in recent history.

While the landed elite and intellectual class ignored this, a handful of writers took it upon themselves to give voice to the horror and poverty that was gnawing at the South, and instead of doing so in an clean, sanitizing way, they took their pens and put down on paper everything that was not acceptable: the poverty, the racial tension, the social violence.

Rape, murders, and lynching were at the heart of this new kind of fiction that refused the ethereal clichés of South literature. Violent historical events of Southern history surfaced in scenes of collective brutality and through images of corpses, mutilated bodies and physical deformities; themes that authors like Faulkner, Caldwell or Wolfe did not shy away from.

Rather than moonlight and magnolias, these authors preferred the broken bodies and broken souls that the South had produced but tried so desperately to hide.

 

When all three authors started publishing their novels and short stories, literary critics from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line ostracized them completely. Critics from the South found them to be traitors to the Cause of the South in showing the region in such a negative light, whilst Northern journalists resented their writing for being too sensationalist and going for shock factor over beauty.

Interestingly enough, the term “Southern Gothic” was born from this critical backlash: Southern writer Ellen Glasgow coined the term in 1935 in an attempt to denounce Faulkner and Caldwell’s literature of “death, hell and the grave”. The pejorative use of the term became, in time, the trademark of a whole wave of American fiction thriving on the hate it generated.

Even though Southern Gothic might differ from traditional Gothic in style and content, its capacity to generate a feeling of awkwardness and unease for the reader makes it belong to the long lasting tradition of the bizarre and the uncanny.

 

The army of misfits of early Southern Gothic writers paved the way for the glorious failures and grotesque outcasts that would later be found in the Southern Gothic pantheon of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. They embody a new kind of Gothic that grapples with deep social and racial tensions engrained in Southern History, where the ghosts have disappeared because the past is just too real to be ignored.

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