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date: 23 April 2018

Class and Poverty in Southern Literature

Summary and Keywords

The South has generated a unique set of myths, which are often at odds with the dominant Puritan-bred tales of American exceptionalism. If the North had to downplay vertical visions of the social, class stratifications have always been recognized more readily in the Southern regions. Rather than disentangling race from class, however, these categories were seen as closely connected in the antebellum slave-holding South. Even after the end of slavery, class was never solely an economic category; surprisingly close to notions of caste, class dynamics came fully entrenched with cultural distinctions, which more often than not were cast in the language of blood ties—the rhetoric of race. As a result, strong values were attributed to these distinctions. And although the North, too, assessed the rich and the poor in the stern moral vocabulary, the influence of pseudo-scientific Eugenics studies and other factors added a new dimension to this moralizing of the hierarchic order in the South. This had repercussions on the way the poor were perceived. The allegedly chivalrous planter aristocracy at the top found their counterpart at the low end of the stratum in a form of abject poverty. Some poor whites were located just a notch above the black citizenry whose exclusion dramatically exceeded went beyond economic hardship. It proved to be a proximity structuring the cultural imaginary to come. Intricately linked to the logic of racism, a slur such as “white trash” introduced a categorical difference into whiteness—the good, reformable poor were pitted against the hopeless “dirty” poor—thriving on stereotypes similar to the dehumanizing depictions of African Americans and begging the question of reciprocity between “them” and “us.”

From the Old South to the New South, literature has fulfilled a variety of functions in this regard. Often, it was complicit in maintaining the biases of this peculiar culture of poverty, by revitalizing the stock of stereotypes of poor whites, or by downplaying the terror of the plantations and naturalizing the hierarchies between the classes. At times, it also subverted the household representations and created ambiguous tales of class and life in poverty; at others, writers aimed at a more truthful account, or tried to tell tales of solidarity. The literary history of white poverty is only the most consistent tale to be told when it comes to Southern writing. While not unrelated, another tradition has come to the fore when African American writers were able to create and publish their own accounts of black life. Ever since Jim Crow laws created a black underclass in the Reconstruction period, depictions of their life experiences included economic hardships as well. Tied to different genres and poetological interests, black writers engaged in a reflection of the twin exclusions of race and class. Finally, in the so-called Postsouth era, the literature of poverty has been rejuvenated by a more self-reflexive aesthetics that moves beyond the earlier concerns of Southern literature.

Keywords: class, multiculturalism, abject poverty, white trash, reciprocity, Postsouth, Great Depression, socioeconomic suffering

Class Matters

In Keywords, his influential “Vocabulary of Culture and Society,” Raymond Williams presents class as a rather complex category with a long history of semantic shifts: the term’s use “as a general word for a group or division became more and more common” only in late-17th-century Europe, when it was not yet restricted to the social realm.1 Once this delimitation had taken hold, the word had to compete with rival terms designating social division, especially with “rank and order” as more familiar alternatives but also with “estate and degree,” which were “still more common than class” until the late 18th century. As it is used in the 21st century, class is the name habitually given to a number of related divisions within Western capitalist societies.2 While the nature of modern stratification into lower or working class, middle class, and upper class seems acceptable enough, Williams ends his entry with the reminder that the terminological range encompasses three levels: group, rank, and formation. One of the problems, however, is that “these variable meanings” may create a semantic fuzziness as they can be “in operation” simultaneously, “usually without clear distinction.”3 The South is no exception to this rule.

Rank still allows for an acknowledgement of the inherited nature of social divisions—a fact that contradicts seminal American self-descriptions and points to the ambiguity of this concept. This semantic facet of class may thus be well established as an important analytical tool in academic discourse, while it has been reluctantly adopted or even considered alien to the understanding of America outside of university departments. In fact, the popular and persistent notion of an American exceptionalism relies on a categorical transatlantic difference: “Unlike Europe’s old countries, with their feudal pasts and monarchical legacies, the United States, it has often been said, is a land of unlimited economic and geographical mobility.”4 Such a promise of social mobility is incompatible with strict class structures and the limitations these put on the flexibility envisioned by the so-called American Dream. Contradicting the mobility class theoretically affords, the idea of the divide separating the different groups is projected as one of essence rather than a relational position. It is quite telling in this regard that in the South, stratification approximated the logic of distinct castes more than anything else, or “a system of social hierarchy more rigid than class and governed by law, custom and/or religion.”5

Accordingly, class articulations in the South often project divisions as unchangeable facts of life, giving way to a rather orderly sense of position: “On the bottom of the heap were most colored people,” a Flannery O’Connor character observes, finding “next to them—not above, just away from—the white-trash,” while “above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners.”6 The catalog continues with “people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.”7 If one adds the numbers of slaves owned to the list, this would be a neat index of the Old South. Yet, the old is seen through the eyes of the New South in O’Connor’s “Revelation,” things have changed, and a nostalgic tone tinges this stratified logic: “some of the people with good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well.”8

In this excerpt, the swiftness with which landownership—the idea of real estate—merges with the fluidity of money, that most fluid and semantically empty of media, becomes apparent. The latter—at least ideally—signifies the modern permeability, while the land, stubborn in its physical reality, comes with a history now prone to dissolve. Bigger houses suggest the separation from inside and outside as well as the idea of readability of wealth, distinction, and decorum. The mournful tone is contingent upon the social position, of course, and upon the benefits of the old order that have long begun to crumble. “Revelation” thus brings to the fore the glorification of an assumed past grandeur, downplaying the social ills that generated Southern life. As a literary text, it conjures up the confusion of a region that inevitably will modernize in both economic and cultural registers. Southern letters—mostly prose fiction with the occasional play and poem—were keenly attentive to the top and bottom of the social imaginary, habitually focusing on the decay of aristocratic families and the lives of the lowly.

But there is one more important element: the naturalization of the social order had been contingent on the rhetoric of race—on the “good blood” that runs in respectable families—and it is exactly this strong symbolic link that is successively untied with “colored people” entering the citizenry in the New South. What sets one group apart from the other is less the sheer fact of income or possession but rather the fundamental difference of race along with the value judgments attached to those differences. In a peculiar blend of class and race, it is not only African Americans, however, who have been excluded from the good society: with the term “white trash” O’Connor summons up one of the oldest Southern stereotypes for poor whites. Seen in this light, these poor are not simply lacking in the economic dimension; they are represented as being so far beyond what is considered decency that they, too, are cast as a different breed.

Given this unique culturalization of poverty, it is no wonder that most literary and non-literary discourses have focused less on the familiar notions of class structure or class consciousness. A class can be a strictly economic category, Williams reminds us, a group consisting of those who share a given economic situation; but it can also be thought of as a formation. Only in the latter—a “perceived economic relationship”—can a unique class consciousness emerge.9 In this case, a social group becomes self-aware of its position in relation to its social antagonists, and thus a mere “class in itself” turns into a “class for itself,” which is the catalyst of organizing according to common class interests. Marx put his hopes in the proletariat, the working class. Located at the bottom, they will most likely develop a class consciousness and attempt to challenge social inequality. Once we accept the repertoire with which poverty is semantically enriched in the South, however, the consciousness—if evolving at all—will be shaped by different senses of inequality: economic adversity will find its rival in the hardships created by hateful representation.

Potential class conflict meets the politics of recognition, and part of what makes class and poverty in the South such a rewarding topic is that it uncovers different political imaginaries. “In the U.S. inequality is considered primarily as a civil-rights problem” rather than “a problem of just distribution,” Winfried Fluck and Welf Werner reason. They elaborate:

Economic inequality manifests itself in class status, whereas being treated differently due to one’s “race” or gender status is rooted in one’s belonging to a specific cultural group, in belonging to a specific identity category. Class differences can, in principle, be overcome. In turn, even if one tries with all one’s might, to be a woman or black is a difference that cannot be overcome. As a consequence, measures taken against this ‘unfair’ form of structural inequality can find general agreement with the American public. By contrast, the state’s attempts to tackle economic or social inequality are habitually seen as unfair, for they are perceived as changing core principles that should be binding for all.10

Both black struggles for emancipation in the postbellum South, as well as the struggles of those “not above, just away from” African Americans in the social hierarchy, will have to be seen in these twin perspectives. Thus, class and race may not follow the same logic, yet in the South they would appear to be intricately entwined. Poverty, in turn, as a kind of “socioeconomic suffering,” is best analyzed with help of “the peculiar dialectics of poverty as a category—its position between material and nonmaterial, objective and subjective criteria.”11 While it is concerned with material realities, Southern literature pays significant attention to the non-material aspect, the thick description generated by its culture of poverty.

Abject White Poverty

The cultural creation of a bad and depraved poor beyond hope or reciprocity has a long tradition in the South, and this “trashing” of poverty can be traced back to the colonial era. Even though there is still some doubt about the exact origins of “poor white trash” and similar semantics, such terms have been in circulation in an aristocratic, slaveholding society. The idiom had a dual function: serving as a tool for the rich gentility to distance them from the lower classes, it helped them to obscure their shared European ancestry. Yet black slaves, too, used it as a moral marker to set themselves apart from people even lower in status than themselves. It is a boundary maintenance that strongly infiltrated the literary imagination.

One of the most decisive documents was not published until 1841, yet William Byrd II’s History of the Dividing Line was instrumental in establishing a poor white stock figure: the lubber. Byrd, who “headed a commission to survey the boundary between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia” may never have anticipated the wider publication, and yet his introduction of this figure and its “moral and physical defects. . . became reference points for the entire class of poor Whites.”12 Interestingly, part of the laziness attributed to the lubbers is a result of the malaria that was endemic to the region he studied and seen as a poor man’s disease. “They are devoured by musketas all the Summer, and have Agues every Spring and Fall,” Byrd claims, “which Corrupt all the Juices of their Bodies, give them a cadaverous complexion and besides a lazy, creeping Habit, which they never get rid of.”13 Byrd’s representations exceeded such plausible explanations for dysfunction, however, as his lubbers “were not only lazy but dissolute.”14 The list of wrongful behavior and lifestyle is a long one, and it includes sexual licentiousness, uncleanliness, lack of religious sentiment, and a strong penchant for alcohol.

Once established as stock figure, the poor white stereotype has reappeared in many forms and functions in the 19th century. It fueled the gentlemanly visions of plantation novels as the complete other to the aristocratic order. The lubber also returned in the August Baldwin Longstreet’s tales, in which the backwoods nature of Georgia clay eaters is on display. The oddness of these characters is highlighted by the fact that—in contrast to the literary English of the framing—we get to hear “a comic dialect eventually considered typically Southern by everyone except Southerners.”15 Most consistently, perhaps, it has been used as a satirical means in humorist sketches, as in the Southwestern frontier tales of Johnson Jones Hooper and others. And while these “disreputable symbols of Southerners beyond the pale” were hardly fulfilling realist promises, “the comic laughter hid a profound uneasiness that the South was Lubberland, or at least it would be if poor whites ever crawled out of the muck and took over.”16 The lubber stereotype was not restricted to the South, however. Increasingly, Northerners took account of this figure, and repeatedly they did so in order to demonstrate the evils of the slaveholding South. This also entailed a territorial fine tuning, as Robert Jacobs explains. He points to the case of Frederick Law Olmsted who, interested “to find degenerate poor Whites only in the slave districts,” isolated the mountain regions “where slaves were few,” and the people rather “hospitable, well-fed” and even “quite well read.”17 Still, the blend of contextual data such as diet and moral assessment furthered the storehouse of stereotypes. Diverse in temperament, other observers completed the catalog in the antebellum period when in the 1850s the abolitionist James R. Gilmore chronicled the “open violation of almost all laws, human and divine,” adding incest as the final breach of morals: “Fathers cohabit with daughters, brothers with sisters, and husbands sell or barter away their wives, just as they would their jack knives or their rusty rifles.”18

Twentieth-century literature perpetuated the symbolic excess, and it worked through the fears and anxieties that created the stereotype. Yet, if it did so, it was within new genres such as the Southern Gothic that the poor white stock figures came to be employed. Moreover, with a literature less pragmatic in design, authors as stylistically varied as Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and William Faulkner created a kind of writing far more varied and ambiguous in its representation of class and poverty than seen in any Southern fiction before. When elements of the familiar repertoire found their way onto the pages of these authors, its functions are manifold and often complicated by the refined narrative strategies at work. Faulkner’s fictional universe—a mythical Mississippi county called Yoknapatawpha—is the most obvious case in point. Populated by Southerners of all kinds and classes, it seeps with stories of decline and uplift. Since Faulkner returned to the same characters over and over again, the family tales of his short stories and novels intersect, already suggesting the interrelatedness of class matters. The Nobel Prize winner could thus trace the deterioration of old aristocratic families such as the Compsons (The Sound and the Fury, 1929) while tracking the rise of poor white Thomas Sutpen to gentry in his 1936 Absalom, Absalom! Or he would blend bizarre humor and gothic elements as in his tale of the Bundrens, who set out on a funeral journey in As I Lay Dying (1930). Here, the splintering of perspectives into numerous parts with variable focalizers alone works against any stable sense of stereotype, transcending by its rural modernist techniques any straightforward notion of white trash.

The Sutpen stories also reveal how class issues are involved in questions of identity. And it is here that the cultural transactions of the trash trope come into play again. In his reading of Absalom, Absalom! Alfred Hönnighausen unburies the “positive relation” between Sutpen and Wash Jones, his “redneck retainer” in which “plantation aristocrats were to keep blacks in their inferior position to help poor whites keep their self-esteem.”19 In “Wash” a short story published two years prior to Absalom, Absalom!, we are allowed into this haunted sense of self by an elongated flashback. Hardly a tale of growing class consciousness, Wash needs to affirm the racist order of slavery—with his white master dominating blacks—to maintain an always precarious identity. Sutpen, in turn, does not hold his worker in any higher esteem than his slaves. Instead, he himself “magnifies racial difference” in order to purge the shame of his own poor past, projecting it on a person at the bottom of the hierarchy.20

The mechanics of identity behind “Wash” find an echo in a little parable called “Two Men and a Bargain.” Published in 1943 in a small literary magazine called South Today and later collected in Killers of the Dream (1949), Lillian Smith’s stories present a strange symbolic transaction across class lines. The bargain alluded to in the title invokes nothing short of a Southern white conspiracy against the ex-slaves that would prevent them from entering the competition, and thus turn into a serious rival for the poor whites. “There’s two big jobs down here that need doing,” the rich man explains, “somebody’s got to tend to the living and somebody’s got to tend to the nigger.”21 And while he sees Mr. Poor White as “too no-count to learn (else you’d be making money same way I make it): things about jobs and credit, prices, hours, wages, votes, and so on,” what “any white man can” understand is “how to handle the black man.” This, then, is the bargain: “You boss the nigger, and I’ll boss the money.” While cast in a vocabulary of economic gain at first—the jobs are secured through racial exclusion—the benefit still includes a sense of supremacy, as it allows bossing around for all whites. Southern class relations are maintained by white supremacy after all.

Faulkner grew up in a post–Civil War South obsessed with the past while having a keen sense of the inevitability of change. It was this peculiar cultural context in which these tales emerged. Still, triangulations between decent whites, white trash, and blacks can be found in many later stories of the South. They live on in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction in the 1950s and early 1960s with her “profoundly conservative, violent, and xenophobic poor-white characters” and her acute awareness for shifting stratifications. In “Revelation” Mrs. Turnip, a middle-class woman, finds herself pondering “who she might have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself.” Lying awake at night, she imagines Jesus presenting her a choice to “either be a nigger or white-trash.”22 Urged to take a side, she wants him to “make me a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one.” Again, the danger of corruption is close to home in a changing society, and these changes included religious sentiments to the Catholic writer from Georgia: “Her rednecks and aristocrats alike point inadvertently to a godless world.”23 It was To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), however, in which the most famous (and, to some, the thorniest) deal came into being. Teresa Godwin Phelps was the first to address the biases of the novel from a class-based perspective in her groundbreaking 1994 essay “The Margins of Maycomb.” Lee, Phelps argues, directs our desire toward Atticus, the self-reliant liberal lawyer and hero of the story, but in order to do so she needs us put down other characters. Now, however, the excluded happen to be lower-class whites, stigmatized by the familiar repertoire of stereotypes.24 Set in the Depression era, Harper Lee’s bestseller about the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman, has been read as “a melodrama that combines uplifting anti-racist sentiment with the most snobbish kind of ‘classism.’”25 This is a rather harsh verdict, yet the novel works with a rather clear-cut distinction between good and bad poor, indeed. While this is hardly a new asset, in Lee’s case it has been instrumental in playing out one social ill against another: racism versus rigid class stratification. The good poor can still be reached by the voice of reason—Atticus Finch’s color-blind appeal to civil rights keeps them from lynching the accused. The novel, however, “transfers dehumanizing stereotypes. . .from black Southerners to poor white Southerners,” and if we want to continue to cherish Lee’s classic “for its sensitive treatment of adolescence and racism in an Alabama town,” we must turn a blind eye toward the problematic continuation of what Lind calls the “White Trash Gothic” tradition.26 It is an evasion, we should add, that tends to sacrifice the material realities that a socioeconomic class analysis could detect.

While hardly a dominant strain of American writing, such an analysis can most consistently be found in the proletarian literature of the 1930s. This was a time of crisis when radical agendas entered mainstream culture as never before. In the South, female authors such as Grace Lumpkin or Myra Page introduced the model of activist-writer to the South. Devoid of the Gothic eccentricities, novels such as Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread or Page’s Gathering Storm: A Story of the Black Belt (both published in 1932) were heavily influenced by materialist interpretations of society, and they made use of social realist techniques to grasp the complexities of life. In To Make My Bread, Lumpkin traces the hardships of a family of Appalachian mountaineers who have to face drastic economic changes that bring them to a mill town. The novel has a sharp eye for the growing radicalization of the characters that turn from apolitical farmers and hunters to workers and strikers fighting the injustices of an exploitative system. Drawing on their own life experience as female radicals, Lumpkin and Page were also keenly interested in cross-racial solidarity. Page had already interwoven the stories of a black and a white family in her debut, and even if “she interiorized the white characters more fully than she did the black,” as Barbara Foley concedes, Gathering Storm features “key motivating roles” of the latter; Lumpkin followed this pattern in her second novel A Sign for Cain (1935), which is a text that “places the politics of building multiracial unity at center stage,” for example, by depicting the mutual efforts of a black and a white Communist to politicize a multiracial group of sharecroppers.27 If there is a time-honored debate as to the literary merits of these overtly political novels—even critics applauding their ideological outlook have found flaws in the aesthetic design—their cultural work has been much approved: “These books indicated a proletarian turn in Southern literature that shifted projections of Southern poverty from abject ridicule to sympathy.”28 It is because class structures rather than cultural differences are seen to be the dominant factor in these stories that the often hurtful set of stereotypes can be dismantled.

Black Poverties

White paucity as abject poverty thrived on a racialized kind of othering: a projection that, at its most extreme, repeated the racist black versus white distinction within whiteness. It created a race apart that did not show any of the random differences in pigmentation but that copied the familiar set of exclusions: black to white is as white trash is to the white norm. This semantics of abject poverty also found its way into the first African American literary genre: the slave narrative. While not employed as consistently, it fulfilled the same contrastive function here: the slave narrative helped create a moral divide by setting apart a group considered below even their own subjugated group. Thus, blackness has always been deeply involved in the creation of Southern culture and its imagination of white poverty.

In literary efforts, however, African American authors of the South created a unique literary tradition, with class perspectives reflecting (and contributing to) the emancipatory struggles at large in a variety of ways. More than simply a possible theme for fiction writers, one of the key issues was the relation of class to racial exclusion. Sometimes, their writing would reflect the systematic exclusions as in The Marrow of Tradition (1901), in which Charles Chesnutt reflects the effects of the Reconstruction-era Black Codes. A set of arbitrary laws, these were instrumental in creating a leased convict labor “in which contractors leased inmates from the states” for lack of facilities; it was a practice that “created a revenue stream for the states and an incentive to incarcerate as many men as possible.”29 If narratives such as Chesnutt’s help us to understand the troublesome history of U.S. exploitation and incarceration with its unique blend of race and class, there are stories that interrogate the often short-lived attempts at interracial class solidarity. It is hardly a coincidence that Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland—with its ongoing inquiry into the ideas of progress—was published two years after the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. When Ruth, the granddaughter of the poverty-stricken Grange ponders his neighbors, a poor white family, she is able to break with the baggage of stereotyping and thus suggests a new future of interracial class politics.

If slavery, as Paul Gilroy has argued, is very much part of the history of capitalism, an “inner essence” of labor exploitation even, “the casting of capitalism as an unwelcome and disruptive latecomer” in the South will fail to convince.30 Slavery along with its horrendous racial logic is a system “that paved the way for laboring under capitalism.”31 It was W. E. B. Du Bois who in his book on the Reconstruction era considered the slaveholders first and foremost as capitalist rather than simply an aristocratic elite. Yet, “[if] the slaveholders were capitalists, it followed that the labourers were proletarians,” and, accordingly, the first chapter of Du Bois’s study refers to “The Black Worker” rather than to black slaves.32

It makes all the difference whether one considers the black population as an ethnicity with a unique cultural difference (as in the currently dominant identity politics) or as a force whose class is the essential element in their situation. An unresolved issue in academia and beyond, its foundational dispute in African American literature surfaced in the late 1930s when Mississippi-born Richard Wright made his case for a “Blueprint for Negro Writing” that would transcend the folkloristic sense of belonging into a socialist fight for equality. Wright’s dialectical arguments saw the resilience of African American folk culture as a starting point that would soon have to be moved beyond the narrow confines of a life world. The writer’s task is to give guidance, to find perspective, and project a future of emancipation and freedom. At the opposite end, Zora Neale Hurston refused to accept these lofty goals as abstractions. Firmly rooted in folklore—which, as anthropologist and collector of tales she studied—Hurston considered black culture as an end in itself. If the politics of the Alabama-born writer are ambiguous, it is safe to say that she understood radical left-wing class rhetoric as an imposition from the outside, a violation of a black cultural difference. Written in the McCarthy era, her 1951 “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” is one of the most explicit condemnations of organized Leftism by any black writer. It is possible, however, to see her earlier affirmation of black difference as a forerunner of the politics of recognition that shaped New Left identity politics.

Far from being merely political, their differences were reflected aesthetically in their literature. For Wright naturalism was the obvious choice, taking sides with the poor black underdogs, while chronicling the downward drift of these characters’ lives as a necessary fate in a hostile environment. Even the migration up North that historically promised a better future cannot finally contradict such devastating story lines. If Native Son (1940) subscribed to this naturalist program, Wright’s autobiography Black Boy, published five years later, explained the growing class awareness and is considered “a classic account of black self-making that expands the concerns of the ex-slave narrative, with its movement from dehumanizing captivity to the fulfillment of freedom.”33 Hurston’s more celebratory fiction about black life did not shy away from depicting poverty and despair; yet, readers mostly take the resilience of black characters from her writing. The naturalist protest paradigm appeared to Hurston as simply another instance of what she dubbed the “sobbing school of Negrohood,” creating a victim stance of the “tragically colored” that would, at best, result in pity by a party seeking to (aesthetically and politically) represent the allegedly downtrodden. “I was poor but I certainly did not feel pitiful,” Hurston reasoned, and thus instead of Wright’s call for trans-ethnic class consciousness she would—especially in her earlier work—ask for a celebration an participatory, authentic black culture that already comes with the tools for survival. This culture is sketched not only as incompatible with left-wing class struggles; it simultaneously is decidedly non-bourgeois, as bourgeois culture for Hurston is essentially white. In this way, Hurston dodges class considerations completely, and thus she paves the way for a politics of recognition that often is at odds with an analysis of socioeconomic inequalities.

If dialectical generalization and folkloristic sense of belonging were two extremes of fictionally rendering the black experience, the neo-picaresque novel proved to be a convincing third model. Whether or not this generic popularity has resulted from the fact that “Southern black life naturally translates into picaresque literature” part of its appeal to black writers in the 20th century lies in its inherent narrative reflection of exclusion.34 The picaro, located on the margins of society, is pulled into different kinds of exploitive schemes which, at times, promise him inclusion only to exclude him again in the end. Not all have made use of these generic conventions as thoroughly as Ralph Ellison in his classic Invisible Man; but, as J. Lee Greene has revealed, Jean Toomer’s Cane, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, or Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman feature a more than random interest in the picaresque. In Johnson’s case it is the genre’s loosely episodic structure as well as its spatial dimension that allows the antihero to navigate “practically all socio-economic levels of black and white society.”35

As the picaro’s life is about situational adaptability to the rules of changing social milieus rather than Bildungsroman-like development, a full-fledged class consciousness is nowhere in sight. Yet, the reflexive gap separating the narrating from the experiencing “I” in the telling of his story allows for a surprising awareness of social stratification. Southern black society is “divided into three classes, not so much in respect to themselves as in respect to their relations with the whites.”36 Johnson casts the first in proto-naturalist light: among “the desperate class” are “the men who work in the lumber and turpentine camps, the ex-convicts, the bar room-loafers.” As sheer “creatures of condition” (if “not at all a hopeless class”), they have not yet risen above the miserable circumstances they were born in. Their hatred is as much directed at anything white “and in return they are loathed by the whites,” who tend to “regard them just about as a man would a vicious mule, a thing to be worked, driven and beaten, and killed for kicking.” The members of the second class “are connected with the whites by domestic service,” and it is this everyday connection and the knowledge that comes with it that allows for a different race relation with “little or no friction.” It is the third class, “independent workmen and tradesmen” and “educated colored people” which are the most refined, yet as they “live in a little world of their own” this class is “as far removed from the whites as the members of the first class.” The ex-colored man’s quest for selfhood—another generic facet of the neo-picaresque—thus has generated a class-related heuristics that, next to the vertical logic of stratification, makes graspable interracial feelings of structure.

Poverty and Reciprocity

It is testament to the ambiguity of the Southern Renaissance that one of the strongest efforts to revise notions of Southern poor whites and to ameliorate their lives involved a man who was deeply steeped in the tradition Lind condemns. Born in White Oak, Georgia, in 1903, Erskine Caldwell was a most prolific writer. Among his twenty-five novels the best known have been published fairly early in the sixty years of his career. Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre both could feed on the knowledge gained as a teenager during the trips with his father Ira, a conservative Presbyterian minister and teacher. The sheer neediness of the poor tenant farmers they encountered made for the stuff of his writing. Yet, if this firsthand knowledge provided the material for the realist depictions of sharecroppers and farm hands, there was the rivaling strand of trashing representations in his fictional writing. This element, too, might have had a real-life source, for Caldwell’s father had written about “The Bunglers,” a dysfunctional in the journal Eugenics in 1929, and “reluctantly suggested selective sterilization as a means to slow the proliferation of desperate lives.”37

From 1880 to 1920, the Eugenics Family Studies presented pseudo-scientific research: families such as “The Jukes” or “the Kallikas” were studied to validate “that large numbers of rural poor whites were ‘genetically defective.’”38 Never fully committed to these crude studies nor to the horrendous social technologies propagated by the U.S. Eugenics Records Office (ERO), Ira Caldwell took an ambivalent position on these issues. This ambivalence was passed on to his son. In one of his rare explicit comments on the program, Erskine Caldwell “appears to endorse (in passing) a very limited eugenics politic of extreme and anomalous individuals while insisting that the main problem requires a wider range of solutions, largely economic in nature.”39 The novels, however, mirror this indecisiveness, alternating between economic insights and determinist positions on the one hand and the stock images of “human debasement, degeneracy and deprivation” on the other.40 If the former highlights the common humanity, and attributes the difference of the poor to their upbringing and status, the latter establishes a fundamental boundary separating “them” (e.g., the Lesters in Tobacco Road) from “us” readers for good.

Caldwell wanted to be “the people’s writer, the champion of the poor, the outcast, and the neglected,” and it may be true that his interest in class issues was unrivaled by his Southern peers.41 Yet, the problem of representation—to both make present what is absent and to speak for those who cannot articulate themselves—returned with peculiar force when turning to nonfiction. How to depict those in need, their poverty and their suffering, without victimizing them a second time by choice of the wrong means? How to avoid the absolute othering implicit in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which caused a worldwide crisis that triggering the Great Depression? Poverty could not be considered a marginal problem any longer. It had become a fact of American life, with one fourth of Americans unemployed. If such statistics alone asked for a change in perception of poverty, it was natural disasters that had caused the ruin of the farmland, leaving sharecroppers with nothing. The Roosevelt administration responded with a whole series of programs, and it was especially the Second New Deal (1935–1938), which included aids to tenant farmers. The South, Roosevelt claimed in 1938, was “America’s number one economic problem.” If the success and legitimacy of such programs is heatedly debated even in the 21st century, it was here, with signs of growth only slowly manifest, that the whole concept of socioeconomic suffering was reconfigured and re-semanticized.

Although most of the attempts to represent poverty anew in word and image share this ameliorative quest, the effects of these efforts are quite diverse. Two of the best-known documentary works of that period reveal this heterogeneity. Published in 1937, You Have Seen Their Faces, a joint effort of writer Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White, reached a remarkably wide audience. It was topped in popularity and critical esteem by a book it helped inspire: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. Although both works tried to restore the reciprocity making the needy “poor like us,” they present a rather different aesthetic approach.42 In retrospect, Caldwell and Bourke-White have been criticized for “privileg[ing] their own authorial and artistic interpretation of what they see, denying their subjects the ability to articulate their own plight.” This gap is enhanced (and even co-created) by the sentimentalism at work in You Have Seen Their Faces. A traditional strategy of strong viewer involvement in depictions of poverty, photographic sentimentalism aims for “feelings of compassion,” but also “of solidarity” for “fear that we may someday be in a similar position.”43 Doing so, it “is built on assumptions of superiority and inferiority,” creating an asymmetry between viewer and viewed whose perceived situation of lack always runs close to suggest inferiority.44 Most critics agree that Caldwell was not fully successful in countering this visual impact, with his fictional captions to photos of black and white sharecroppers that “suggest a stoic and near tragic dignity in their suffering.”45 The main text, however, recognizes the threat of sentimentalism in an en passant note, and—like his fiction—is hard to pinpoint: an uniquely disparate blend of metaphorical language (“the rape of the soil in the South”), straightforward description of individual fates, and analytical observations of “the institution of sharecropping,” which “does things to men as well as to land.”46

The most consistent interrogation of the problems of portraying poverty saw the light of day when Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published. Initiated by Fortune magazine and soon part of the FSA funded documentation of Southern poverty, Evans and Agee zoomed in on the life of three white tenant families in Alabama. In their respective media, both writer and photographer aimed for a rawness of representation that should counter what both saw as sentimentalist excess and finally document reality as unmediated as possible. Agee was especially awestruck by Evans’s work, praising him for his precision and for the fact that “the actual is not at all transformed; it is reflected and recorded, within the limits of the camera with all possible accuracy.”47 Indeed, by strategies of decontextualization, Evans would present the families as individuals. Literally at eye level, he also avoids Bourke-White’s low-angle shots and thus provokes “a clear parity between the subject and the viewer.”48 If we can trust his intermedial assessment, Agee’s own means, the written word, seems lacking, and consequently the writer wished he could dodge symbolism altogether: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” Agee reasons, so that instead of words we would encounter “fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, limps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odor, plates of food and of excrement.”49

This ethos of anti-representation is not only paradoxical but would also seem detrimental to a class analysis or a consistent tale capable of matching the FSA’s demand for populist perspectives. Agee’s hyper-reflexive account, drawing “sharp attention to his outsider perspective,” does consider class mostly as the privilege he brings to the scene, not as criteria for social analysis.50 The poor tenant farmers are not presented as members of a class but as genuinely authentic beings, and thus it is Agee (and the readers) who could distort this truth. Since the book’s main concern is the cultural reflection of representational conventions and the creation of a genuine reciprocity between “us” and “them,” the key terms are dignity and respect. In the political divide between class-based and identity politics Let Us Now Praise Famous Men tends to fall on the side of the latter.

Traditional left-wing perspectives do not share these concerns for authenticity or dignity, nor do writers hesitate to become spokespersons for those in need. One year after Evans and Agee, Richard Wright published a photo essay that also included Edwin Rosskam’s selection of FSA photographs (including Evans). More straightforward in chronicling the plight of poor blacks, 12 Million Black Voices does not long for the distance that had been on display in the other two intermedial efforts. Instead Wright emphasizes the similarity of black experiences between racism and poverty, and this allows for “the continual employment of ‘us,’ ‘we,’ and ‘our’”—possessive pronouns that cancel the gap between author and those he represents, and enforce the protest shared by them.51 Although the historical scope is enormous, the great migration of Southern blacks to the North again is a key focus—as it already was in Native Son or in his autobiography Black Boy (1945). Far from presenting the urban sites as a safe haven, Wright reveals the dreadful living conditions in the Northern cities, and projects a rather gloomy future for black who would continue to live in such unhealthy environments.

Postsouthern Negotiations

The South is, as most scholars would agree, a construct as much as a reality, and instead of a singular South, a number of traditions and histories have been projected. The presence of a unique black contribution to Southern letters can attest to that fact, and we could invoke a specific gendered South, or zoom in into the subregions. The most dramatic deconstruction tackled the very notion of “Southernness” itself. The neologism “postsouthern” has been coined to mark off both “the end of a distinctive southern (literary) history”—most notably the aesthetic heights of the Southern Renaissance—and “the incorporation of regional identity into a supposedly homogenized nation.”52 Any talk about “the South” had to come to terms with the fact that its distinctiveness could be challenged. Yet scholars have long learned to live with the paradoxical task of interpreting discourses of the end of any given history as itself part of that very history, and the South is no exception to this rule.

The South continues to be imagined into existence even when we have doubts about its reality in the first place. One way of writing Southern literature without such a binding idea took the form of a transatlantic anthology. When the British magazine Granta collected new writings from America in its 1983 issue on “Dirty Realism” the majority of authors were born in the South. The dirtiness evoked by the label may have evoked the abject poverty of the white trash variant at first, but writers such as Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, or Bobbie Ann Mason were hardly inclined to perpetuate such stereotyping. Instead, their texts created what critics have called a form of “Kmart Realism” as it habitually evoked the banality of postsouthern suburbia and the empty promise of consumerism.53 Focusing on the all-too-ordinary lives of blue-collar America, the characters populating the pages tried hard to make a decent living with poverty always a threat if not reality. Some scholars have read these stories as reflections of the Reagan era with its cutbacks in social welfare or of the middle-class fears of social decline; others tried to locate the aesthetic efforts as inner-literary reactions to a postmodernism that had lost its powers to surprise.54

In any event, the short fiction collected in Ford’s Rock Springs (1987), Phillips’s Fast Lanes (1984), or Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) did not simply resort to the representational promises of realism; frequently, they displayed an acute awareness of the postmodern distrust of straightforward storytelling. The result was a minimalist style that oscillated between mimesis and anti-mimesis, between narrative impulse and its suspension. If this technique was perfected by Raymond Carver, his Southern colleagues could rely on a specific intertextual resonance: the peculiarity of place, so dominant in Southern literature, is cancelled in these writings, yet it lives on as an echo even where, as in Rock Spring, the focus is not on the South at all. In the same way, Ford’s dysfunctional families whose plights are chronicled challenge the older firm sense of belonging. Of these authors, Kentucky-born Mason is the most consistently concerned with the postsouthern plight of poor (and often female) whites. “Still Life with Watermelon” is a good example for her narrative strategies. It deals with unemployment and the psychological damages caused by “socioeconomic suffering” in a society in which Southern rootedness has given way to nationwide late capitalist consumerism.55 Simultaneously, Mason offers brief glimpses of self-reflection, little epiphanies of the everyday that allow us to see her characters as more than blind victims of circumstances, even though their self-understanding usually leads nowhere. At least, it does not live up to readers’ more middle-class notions of “making it.” “Still Life” dramatizes this temporary awareness by having the main character, Louise, turn to amateur painting. While never reaching full erudition of art history of becoming a skilled artist, her creativity and growing sense for form finding takes her beyond her roommate’s mere consumption of popular media.

Postsouthern writing has also been defined by its playful turn toward pastiche and parody, thus fulfilling criteria more thoroughly in tune with postmodernism. Although its sensibilities are different from the Southern Renaissance, works of this period have provided rich models for intertextual revisions. If postmodern playfulness is not the most likely bedfellow for class concerns, there are exceptions to this rule. The most important of these is 2011’s Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, with its focus on a poor black family in Mississippi during the time of Hurricane Katrina. Winner of the 2012 National Book Award, the novel “signifies in postsouthern fashion on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying” while not losing sight of the hardships, nor shying away from the dysfunctional aspects of some protagonists.56 The fact that the fifteen-year-old narrator Esch is well read in Greek mythology further strengthens this juxtaposition of ludic intermediality and thematic gravity.

“White Trash” has also made a comeback, both in academia and in the literary marketplace. If in Southern writing so far it has been used by others as a term of exclusion, it has now turned into a mode for self-definition and inclusion. To understand these potentially explosive shifts, one has to trace back the shift in the political imaginary. In its early instances diverse ethnicities were placed in a situation of rivalry as legitimate and important minors to the invisible center: white America. Once whiteness becomes visible, however, as one ethnicity among others, a new set of dynamics will be triggered. In an interesting twist, “white trash” has come to occupy a peculiar speaking position, “a term that names what seems unnamable: a race (white) which is used to code wealth is coupled with an insult (trash) which means, in this instance economic waste.”57 Just like other minorities have found representation in an increasingly cultural politics of recognition, thus countering the former exclusion, the white poor are reconstituted as authentic speakers whose right to narrate follows the logic of multiculturalism to its logical end. This is a lesson with explosive implications, as the 2016 presidential election has shown, for now the “me-too-claims to victim status” are open for (poor) whites as well.58

At the dawning of the 21th century, authors such as Dorothy Allison could have neither foreseen nor—as a queer writer from South Carolina—wished for these developments. The way she adopts the hateful slur, self-identifying as white trash, in many ways resembles the black resignification of the N-word. Allison counters “the inescapable fact of being born poor in a poor condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow oddly deserved, has dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it.”59 While presenting herself as a working-class storyteller, this class aspect takes a back seat in her short fiction collection Trash (1988), and the critically acclaimed novels Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and Cavedweller (1998) that followed. She does talk about poverty as part of daily life, too, but the main focus of her writing is on the feelings of shame and guilt it generates rather than economic inequality. Working with and against the myths of the poor, Allison directly confronts not only the stereotypes but also actual self-hatred, drug abuse, and even incest. What separates her from other theories of difference is her willingness to share this life story, to make it available, and thus to reestablish the reciprocity the slur originally has made unthinkable. This explains the importance storytelling has as a theme of her fiction—a sheltered form of communication conceived as inclusive, capable of bridging the gap between people from different backgrounds.

Allison is the most explicit when it comes to this act of self-identification. Known as the Rough South or Grit Lit movement, others have paved the way for a more positive rendition of white poverty: authors such as Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown have presented an insider view of white underclass life that affirms a strong sense of belonging while not shying away from the brutality of existence. In fact, this is a literature unconcerned with middle-class decorum, as the unflinching representation of violence and sexuality attest. In his preface to Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, Tom Franklin defines the genre as “the dirty South seen without romanticism or the false nostalgia of Gone with the Wind fans. People who are interested in the South as it really is, not moonlight and magnolia.”60 Indeed, it is the authenticity that is often praised: a literature bred from experience as its “practitioners. . .come from the very landscape they describe.”61 To talk about character is to talk about place, then, and the subtitle of Crews’s autobiography A Childhood (1978) illuminates this fact: to narrate a past self will, in his case, simultaneously have to be “The Biography of a Place”—a place devoid of the spiritual and epiphanic promises the Southern Gothic storytellers still held. Yet, at the same time, it depicts a stubborn resilience of the inhabitants of these places for whom, as Crews’s epitaph has it, “Survival is triumph enough.”62

While stylistically there is a certain variety from author to author, the quintessential Grit Lit perspective presents “somebody up from the ground saying, ‘Hold on, I aint dead yet.’”63 This insistence on the endurance has affected the basic inventory of poor whites in Southern fiction. Formerly cast as “comic, villain, or victim” by authors “from middle-or upper-class backgrounds” these writers have transcended such limitations in their quest for more realistic portrayals.64 What sets the Grit Lit authors apart from an author like Allison is that it is a “generally male-centered” fiction, but also the fact that the view from within is rather infrequently corrected by distance, both spatial and emotional, to the places they intimately know. This might have already changed with a second- and third-generation of Grit Lit writers such as Tom Franklin or Rick Bragg who continued to depict the “dirty South,” but often did so while benefitting from better education as their literary progenitors—a fact that they might “feel vaguely guilty about” and “a level less pure than our older, grittier counterparts.”65

A quite different and far more aggressive stance came in form of Jim Goad’s Redneck Manifesto (1997) that tries, as the subtitle reveals, to show How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats. From a roughly libertarian perspective Goad offers a blend of autobiography and cultural essays to correct Southern history. His interest in doing so has nothing to do with Agrarian nostalgia; instead he wants to demonize liberal multiculturalism for its exclusion of poor whites. But while he at times invokes class-consciousness to explain his growing awareness of his own family’s disadvantage, it is not to engender distributive justice: “I am not asking for food stamps.”66 The recent interest in historical criticism on or life stories by this group—autobiographies such as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy or White Trash, Nancy Isenberg’s “400-year untold history of class in America”—is only the final stage of this surprising shift in cultural representation. It has been prepared in literature and, even more importantly, in pop-related sites where white trash made its mark as popular “unpopular culture.”67 In order to do so, it has shed its contextual embeddedness in the South and has turned into a nationwide semantics and iconography.

According to Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray, “The U.S. has an extremely impoverished political language of class,” and thus “certain racial representations are used as allegories for it.”68 As allegories such texts indirectly “describe the existence of class antagonisms in the U.S.” Race, then, would indeed be the “modality in which class is lived” in these tales of socioeconomic suffering—and still, the question for the future of Southern studies is whether the allegoresis (i.e., the keys we find to make readable such texts) will read class as a socioeconomic category or as a model for identity claims.

Discussion of the Literature

As concepts in scholarly analyses class and poverty highlight social difference and inequality, and, more often than not, they necessitate the acceptance of historical change. The beginnings of academic discourses on Southern literature, however, tried to create an image of the region as one based on social cohesion and of a stubborn, timeless essence. The Agrarians, a group of Nashville intellectuals and academics reacted to the threat of modernization—which they equated with Northern-style industrialization—by invoking a sense of an Old South that had to be safeguarded against the “economic evils . . . in the wake of the machines.” These evils, they argued in 1930, would engender “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.”69 The agrarian way of life they championed was hardly without inequalities itself—the obvious racial exclusions but also the quasi-aristocratic naturalization of difference. And so they had to imagine the South as a place “not of poverty but of resistance to materialism,” and its strong castelike system as “benign paternalism.”70

Growing out of the Fugitives, a poetic movement in the 1920s, critics such as John Crowe Ransom or Allen Tate argued for a notion of literature that helped restore a set of values and qualities (e.g. a strong sense of place, and the allegedly “universal” codes of honor or chivalry toward women). This attempt at a mythmaking practice was not without peers, of course, as the interest in the populist writing of the 1930s might attest. Still, for the formation of Southern studies as a literary discipline, these decontextualizing practices (which would generate the formalism of the New Criticism in the 1940s) proved to be successful enough so that later generations of critics did accept it as guideline even when taking a more liberal approach.71 The “Rubin-Simpson Generation”—Louis D. Rubin and Lewis P. Simpson but also C. Hugh Holman—would present a broader vision, correcting some of the omissions of their elders.72 Yet, they, too, would present the South as an unbroken tradition, and in their academic efforts to re-create the Southern Renascence they would privilege the gothic literature of Faulkner and O’Connor as quintessentially definitive in The Literature of the Modern South (subtitle of Rubin’s Southern Renascence [1953]). Safely at the center of this Southern canon, Faulkner’s writing had put to practice “the political, social, and aesthetic principles of Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Davidson.”73 This aesthetic bias excluded a more thorough engagement with socioecomonic realities, and thus, if class and poverty were picked as theme it was to work on the stock figure of the poor white trash rather than with a coherent theoretical vocabulary.

The occasional work on proletarian fiction and on African American literature notwithstanding, it took until the 1980s until such work would be done on a more consistent level.74 Their agendas were seldom connected to traditional left-wing politics. As academics influenced by cultural studies and deconstruction, a group of New Southern studies scholars first dismantled any notion of a homogeneous South as an entity. Michael Kreyling and others questioned older critics’ handling of “historical continuity as nonproblematic, seamless, untroubled by ‘forgetting,’ and immune from vexing question of gender, sexuality, race, and class” and then set out to reconstruct different lineages and contexts.75 In his Writing the South (1986), Richard Gray supplemented the paternalist Agrarian version of mythmaking with a populist mode centered on the yeoman farmer. The mechanics of identity were delineated beyond the mere notion of stereotypical white poverty; habitually, these studies were not explicitly concerned with the South as real or imaginary place but traced a nationwide obsession with the intersection of race and class.76 The emergence of the so-called White Trash school (Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray, John Hartigan) at times went from unlinking whiteness and wealth to a more positive identity politics. Here, multiculturalism found a new site of articulation: the political recognition of poor whites.77 Finally, class issues took a global turn with scholars interested in the emergent post-South paradigm as these “have become increasingly suspicious of arguments that do not at least gesture toward the totality of global capitalism” as a horizon of criticism.78

Southern Spaces: Online journals with a broad span that bring together expert voices in articles and reviews.

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Further Reading

Atkinson, Ted. “Labor.” In Keywords for Southern Studies. Edited by Scott Romine and Jennifer Rae Greeson, 40–51. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Bourgeois, Philippe. “Culture of Poverty.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Edited by N. J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 11904–11907. Oxford: Pergamon, 2001.Find this resource:

Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Fender, Stephen. Nature, Class, and New Deal Literature: The Country Poor in the Great Depression. London: Routledge, 2011.Find this resource:

Hall, Stuart. “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance.” In Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Edited by Houston A. Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg. 16–60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Hartigan, John. Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2005.Find this resource:

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin, 2016.Find this resource:

James, Darius, and Jim Goad. “Pale Face, Red Neck.” Transition 73 (1997): 204–217.Find this resource:

Jones, Gavin. American Hungers. The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. New York: Metropolitan, 2006.Find this resource:

Romine, Scott, and Jennifer Rae Greeson. Keywords for Southern Studies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Schneck, Peter. “The Purity of Poverty: Walker Evans and Iconographic Autonomy.” In Iconographies of Power: The Politics and Poetics of Visual Representation. Edited by Ulla Haselstein, Berndt Ostendorf, and Peter Schneck, 131–171. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag, 2003.Find this resource:

Theroux, Paul. Deep South. New York: Mariner, 2016.Find this resource:

Woodward, C. Vann. The Burden of Southern History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Wray, Matt, and Annalee Newitz, eds. White Trash: Race and Class in America. New York: Routledge, 1997.Find this resource:

Zacharasiewicz, Waldemar, ed. The Many Souths: Class in Southern Culture. Tübingen: Stauffenberg Verlag, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) Raymond Williams, “Class.” Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana), 68, quote at 60.

(2.) While only a few would doubt their existence, it is still part of an ongoing discussion among sociologists, historians, and political theorists whether class stratification really is the primary distinction of the social. Others, such as systems theorists, see this hierarchical order as a secondary effect of the functional differentiation of spheres.

(3.) Williams, “Class,” 60.

(4.) Eric Lott, “Class.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 45.

(5.) Valerie N. Matthews, “Caste.” The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs, eds. Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 129–130.

(6.) Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation.” Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), 195.

(7.) O’Connor, “Revelation,” 195.

(8.) O’Connor, “Revelation,” 196.

(9.) Williams, “Class,” 69.

(10.) Winfried Fluck and Welf Werner, “Einführung.” Wie viel Ungleichheit verträgt die Demokratie? Armut und Reichtum in den USA, eds. Winfried Fluck and Welf Werner (Frankfurt: Campus, 2003), 17, author’s translation.

(11.) Gavin Jones, American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 3.

(12.) Lothar Hönnighausen, Faulkner: Masks and Metaphors (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 177.

(13.) William Byrd, William Byrd’s Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (New York: Dover, 1967), 74.

(14.) Robert D. Jacobs, “Tobacco Road: Low Life and the Comic Tradition.” The American South: Portrait of a Culture, ed. Louis D. Rubin Jr. (Washington, DC: Voice of America Forum Series, 1979), 217.

(15.) Jacobs, “Tobacco Road,” 219.

(16.) Charles Reagan Wilson, “Saturated Southerners: The South’s Poor Whites and Southern Regional Consciousness.” The Many Souths: Class in Southern Culture, ed. Waldemar Zacharasiewicz (Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenberg Verlag, 2003), 133.

(17.) Jacobs, “Tobacco Road,” 222.

(18.) Quoted in Jacobs, “Tobacco Road,” 224.

(19.) Hönnighausen, Faulkner: Masks and Metaphors, 177.

(20.) Pia Masiero Marcolin, “‘White Trash’: The Exemplary Naming of a Class in William Faulkner’s ‘Wash’.” The Many Souths: Class in Southern Culture, 60.

(21.) Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (New York: Norton 1994), 176.

(22.) O’Connor, “Revelation,” 195.

(23.) G. W. Koon, “Flannery O’Connor.” New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, vol. 9: Literature, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 380.

(24.) Teresa Godwin Phelps, “The Margins of Maycomb. A Rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Alabama Law Review 45.2 (1994): 511–530.

(25.) Michael Lind, “White Trash Gothic,” The Smart Set.

(26.) Lind, “White Trash Gothic,”

(27.) Barbara Foley, Radical Representations. Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 198.

(28.) David A. Davis, “Southern Modernists and Modernity.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South, ed. Sharon Monteith (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 97.

(29.) Davis, “Southern Modernists and Modernity,” 100.

(30.) Paul Gilory, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), 55.

(31.) Ted Atkinson, “Labor.” Keywords for Southern Studies, eds. Scott Romine and Jennifer Rae Greeson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 41.

(32.) Noel Ignatiev, “‘The American Blindspot’: Reconstruction According to Eric Foner and W.E.B. Du Bois.” Labour/Le Travail 31 (Spring 1993): 243–244.

(33.) Jones, American Hungers, 107.

(34.) J. Lee Greene, “The Pain and the Beauty: The South, the Black Writer, and the Conventions of the Picaresque.” The American South: Portrait of a Culture, ed. Louis D. Rubin Jr. (Washington, DC: Voice of America Forum Series, 1979), 282.

(35.) Greene, “The Pain and the Beauty,” 291.

(36.) James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (New York: Penguin, 1990), 55f. The following quotes can be found on page 57.

(37.) Sylvia J. Cook, “Erskine Caldwell: Modernism from the Bottom Up.” Reading Erskine Caldwell: New Essays, ed. Robert L. McDonald (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 70. See also Karen A. Keely, “Poverty, Sterilization, and Eugenics in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road.” Journal of American Studies 36.1 (2002): 23–42.

(38.) Newitz and Wray, “Introduction,” 2.

(39.) Cook, “Erskine Caldwell: Modernism from the Bottom Up,” 71. For a thorough discussion of the role of Eugenics in American literature see Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880–1940. Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity, eds. Lois A. Cuddy and Claire M. Roche (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2003) and Edward J. Larson’s Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

(40.) Cook, “Erskine Caldwell: Modernism from the Bottom Up,” 71.

(41.) Wayne Mixon, “Erskine Caldwell.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, vol. 9: Literature, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 211.

(42.) Winfried Fluck, “Poor Like Us. Poverty and Recognition in American Photography.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 55.1 (2010): 63–93.

(43.) Fluck, “Poor Like Us. Poverty and Recognition in American Photography,” 68.

(44.) Fluck, “Poor Like Us. Poverty and Recognition in American Photography,” 68.

(45.) Cook, “Erskine Caldwell: Modernism from the Bottom Up,” 71.

(46.) Quoted in Christoph Rieger, “Silent Spring on Tobacco Road: The Degradation of the Environment in Erskine Caldwell’s Fiction.” Reading Erskine Caldwell: New Essays, ed. Robert L. McDonald (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 135.

(47.) James Agee quoted in Fluck, “Poor Like Us. Poverty and Recognition in American Photography,” 82.

(48.) Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark. A Cultural History of the Great Depression (New York: Norton, 2009), 101.

(49.) James Agee and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York: Ballantine, 1966).

(50.) Sarah Robertson, “Poverty and Progress.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the South, ed. Sharon Monteith (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 105.

(51.) Robertson, “Poverty and Progress,” 107.

(52.) Martyn Bone, “Postsouthern.” Keywords for Southern Studies, eds. Scott Romine and Jennifer Rae Greeson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 332.

(53.) In the growing scholarship on the topic, postsouthern moment is frequently linked to the move from modernism to postmodernism. Critics such as Philip E. Simmons see Walker Percy’s 1961 The Moviegoer as “a transitional text” (p. 621) while simultaneously providing a “history of the suburbanization of the South” that has not fully cut the umbilical cord to “the values of the aristocratic, agrarian South.” (p. 603). See Simmons, “Toward the Postmodern Historical Imagination: Mass Culture in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine.” Contemporary Literature 33.4 (1992): 601–624, quoted in Bone, “Postsouthern,” 332.

(54.) See Günter Leypoldt, Casual Silences: The Poetics of Minimal Realism from Raymond Carver and the New Yorker School to Bret Easton Ellis (Trier: WVT, 2001).

(55.) Gavin Jones consistently uses the term in his important study American Hungers.

(56.) Bone, “Postsouthern,” 342.

(57.) Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray. “Introduction.” White Trash: Race and Class in America (London: Routledge, 1997), 8.

(58.) Dana D. Nelson, “Identity? Politics!” Modern Language Studies 32.1 (Spring 2002): 6.

(59.) Dorothy Allison, Trash (New York: Plume, 2002), vii.

(60.) Tom Franklin, “Preface: What is Grit Lit?” Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, eds. Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2012), viii.

(61.) Franklin, “Preface: What is Grit Lit,” vii.

(62.) Harry Crews, Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 17.

(63.) Franklin, “Preface: What is Grit Lit,” vii.

(64.) Erik Bledsoe, “The Rise of Southern Redneck and White Trash Writers.” Rough South, Rural South: Region and Class in Recent Southern Fiction, eds. Jean W. Cash and Keith Perry (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2016), 10.

(65.) Franklin, “Preface: What is Grit Lit,” viii.

(66.) Jim Goad, The Redneck Manifesto. How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 24.

(67.) John Hartigan, Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2005), 109.

(68.) Newitz and Wray. “Introduction,” 8.

(69.) Twelve Southerners, “I’ll Take My Stand.” The Oxford Book of the American South, eds. Edward L. Ayers and Bradley C. Mittendorf (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 265. For a helpful contextualization of the Agrarians see Paul V. Murphy, The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

(70.) Jennifer Rae Greeson and Scott Romine, “Introduction.” Keywords for Southern Studies, eds. Jennifer Rae Greeson and Scott Romine (Athens: University of Georgia, 2016), 3.

(71.) The Chapel Hill liberals, multidisciplinary social science research led by Howard Odum, offered an alternative. Yet, when it comes to the power of defining what Southern literature means, the more conservative camp at Vanderbilt University in Nashville took upper hand.

(72.) Fred Hobson has coined that generational marker in his essay “Of Canons and Cultural Wars. Southern Literature and Literary Scholarship after Midcentury.” The Future of Southern Letters, eds. Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 76.

(73.) Rubin quoted in Farrell O’Gorman, “The Fugitive-Agrarians and the Twentieth-Century Southern Canon.” A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America, ed. Charles L. Crow (Malden: Blackwell, 2003), 297.

(74.) Historians had a better eye for these issues, as they much earlier brought these discussions of poverty and class-related inequalities to the fore.

(75.) Michael Kreyling, Inventing Southern History (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1998), xi.

(76.) For a transitional effort between a delineation of stereotypes and a historical analysis see Sylvia Jenkins Cook, From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).

(77.) The best monograph still is John Hartigan Jr.’s Odd Tribes. Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People.

(78.) Thomas F. Haddox, “Literature.” Keywords for Southern Studies, eds. Jennifer Rae Greeson and Scott Romine (Athens: University of Georgia, 2016), 244.