2.2 Grappling with the Grotesque: How a Seminar in Southern Literature Changed my Perspective on Humanity/ies
ENG 591: Seminar in Southern Literature
University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio
In Spring 2010, I was completing the first year of my Master’s program in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Dayton. Though I had already taken a few literature courses during my undergraduate program, I still felt very much like a literary outsider. I was the student who, when asked to discuss a piece of literature, would respond: “I really liked the novel” or “It was a fun read.” Those aren’t exactly the phrases of a literature scholar.
Then I enrolled in a seminar on southern literature. This course was different from the literature courses I had previously taken. There was no broad, sweeping overview of centuries’ worth of literature; there was no reading of only snippets of novels while ignoring larger contexts; there was no discussing texts without situating them within theory and broader political, cultural, and ethical discussions. In this course I found myself entering a conversation with literature and joining in a discourse community that had felt so foreign until then.
This entering a conversation was one of the course objectives, as was considering possible configurations of twenty-first-century southern literature as it responds to the new South. Achieving these objectives was certainly not an easy feat. In fact, just understanding the objectives was a challenge. The course required an academic vigor that I was barely prepared to keep pace with. The syllabus alone set the tone, boasting several pages of contextualization of the course and the role we as students would play while enrolled:
This seminar examines contemporary southern literature as cultural discourse through an examination of its contexts, controversies, continuities and breaks with traditional southern literary themes, forms, and content [...] After establishing the influence of these modernist writers on the southern literary canon, we will closely examine works by writers who challenge and transcend established notions of southern fiction and create enduring, iconoclastic works [...] The course ends with a consideration of new spaces and new narrative possibilities these writers are creating for other writers of southern literature.
It was within this context that my seminar class navigated a range of texts so diverse yet incredibly moving that I often found myself rethinking what it means to write and value literature. In addition to Matthew Guinn’s After Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South, a theory book on southern modernism, my classmates and I read six novels and one narrative non-fiction book:
Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina (1992)
Harry Crews, Body (1990)
Kaye Gibbons, Charms for the Easy Life (1993)
Randall Kenan, A Visitation of Spirits (1989)
Bobbie Ann Mason, An Atomic Romance (2005)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
Dave Eggers, Zeuiton (2009)
This selection of books was one of the coolest parts of the course. I found it refreshing that we read texts not written by the “heavy hitters” of southern literature, authors such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Cleanth Brooks – authors who shaped and defined the genre. Instead, we read works by perhaps lesser-known and underappreciated authors who challenged traditional expectations and motifs established by those “heavy hitters.” These texts were written to be accessible, even though they were crafted with a blend of love and terror that forced me to reconsider what it means to be human. Because many of the novels are considered southern gothic or grotesque, humanity was often called into question. It wasn’t unusual for me and fellow classmates to close a book part way through finishing a page, close our eyes, and calm ourselves down after reading about the molesting of a young girl or the roasting of a baby on a spit. Although the story lines were often horrific, these texts made us think; they made us feel.
But the coolest part of this class – and the aspect that made it stand out compared to the other literature course I had taken – was our discussions of these texts. While class discussions are not unique to any literature course, the content of our discussions frequently pushed the boundaries of literary conversations I had grown accustomed to. All our discussions came down to this question: What does it mean to be human?
In my experience, the defining of our humanity treads a thin line with the definitions of animalism and anarchy. We questioned natural-born race and man-made poverty. We explored themes of inherit evil and survivalist instincts. We talked about maternal love and familial hatred. We argued over violence as self-expression and sexuality. Our discussions of violence and sexuality were particularly interesting and enlightening. As this class took place in a Marianist institution, discussing such topics went against the Catholic values of the university, the same values many of my classmates held. On more than one occasion, our professor suggested something that enraged half the class; in particular, I remember the time she said that we’re all born bisexual, and it’s the way we are raised and the influences we face that help us ultimately determine our sexuality. One student put her head down after that, while another walked out. I thought it was great: this was the first time I had been in a class with such passion.
That passion encouraged me. The quiet, not-quite-sure-of-herself, non-literature major inside me rejoiced when I realized I was capable of not only grappling with these ideas but of articulating a personal understanding of them as well. For my final seminar paper, I pursued an avenue of inquiry I had never explored before: violence as self-identity formation. The seminar showed me that in southern (grotesque) literature, female characters often are subjected to acts of domestic violence. Through an analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Harry Crews’s Body, and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, I argued that this violence is a means through which the characters come to terms with their self-worth and that the violence leads them toward a (re)evaluation of themselves as women. Before taking this seminar, I would have never imagined I could write about the potential upside to violence. Yet, this seminar created the space for me to challenge myself and to consider how I could break against my old way of thinking. Reading and discussing non-traditional authors who wrote stories about non-traditional subjects and who pushed boundaries encouraged me to push some boundaries of my own.
While my contributions to the class and the final seminar paper certainly weren’t groundbreaking, they serve as evidence that the seminar on southern literature produced a semi-literate critic out of someone who previously had been unable to articulate anything more than “Cool book.” So although this seminar was not a life-changing, career-defining course for me, it presented me with an enjoyable challenge. For literature students who have an interest in how texts can agitate against tradition and can reflect the darkness in humanity we often strive so hard to bury, take a course like this one: You’ll find yourself grappling with the grotesque in ways that will both excite and perhaps terrify you.
Jennifer England is in her second year of the Ph.D. program in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at New Mexico State University. Her research areas include sustainability rhetorics and environmental literacy. She has taught first-year composition and currently teaches an upper-level writing course, Green Rhetoric in the Media.