Date of Award

8-2004

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Mary E. Papke

Committee Members

Charles J. Maland, Thomas Haddock, Lorri Glover

Abstract

Plantation Airs explores a crucial aspect of the complicated intersection of race and class in the post-World War II South. Many factors, such as wealth and family, determine an individual’s class – a complicated and highly contested term, especially in the South. However, I argue that one important and often overlooked determinant of class is the performance of attitudes and behaviors associated with a romanticized image of the agrarian, antebellum South, especially racial paternalism. Fred Hobson has argued that Southern literary scholarship has been conspicuously silent about class; my dissertation strives to correct that omission. Drawing from historical scholarship and the class stratification theories of Thorstein Veblen, Max Weber, and Pierre Bourdieu, I establish the ways in which a form of antebellum agrarian values continued to shape the political and social life of the South well into the twentieth century. However, as the texts I consider reveal, the performance of racial paternalism that whites used as a tool to validate their claims to aristocracy or to increase their social mobility became complicated in the wake of the New Deal and World War II. The South experienced widespread social changes, including the growing independence of African Americas and the increasing business and urban orientation of the region. These alterations did not escape the notice of the region’s writers, who produced a rich and diverse body of literature that demonstrated a keen awareness of the ways in which these changes disrupted the deeply embedded structures governing the relationship between race and class. In each chapter I examine novels by Zora Neale Hurston (Seraph of the Suwanee), Eudora Welty (Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart), William Faulkner (The Mansion), Ernest J. Gains (Of Love and Dust), and Walker Percy (The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins) that respond to the collapse of paternalism as a means of determining class. I argue that class was a key issue for these authors; their texts reveal how supposedly essential class identities depend upon a strictly codified set of racial performances and suggest alternate, more equitable models of race and class identity.

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