Dissertation Title: “ The Southern Gentleman and the Idea of Manliness"

Committee:

Dr. Tom McHaney (PhD director, Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern Literature,), Dr. Jacques Pothier Dr. Pearl McHaney (Associate Professor of American Literature), Dr. Mathew Roudané  

 

Research Specialization:

From 1820 to 1930, the American South witnessed the emergence of a New South based on urbanization and industrialization. This South, according to the apostles and ideologues of this new order, would take the best features of the Old South and combine them with the assets of the victorious North.

If Southerners expressed fears about this seemingly unstoppable transformation of a society that they had always conceived as idyllic, they were told that economic developments would not be permitted to either contaminate the image of the Old South or to corrupt the New South as it had done the North.

While non-fictional texts of the period (letters, diaries, memoirs) offer a look at the historical, social, and mental landscape of the South’s move towards “modernity,” it is literature—sentimental novels, fiction, and drama—that eventually put voice to the tensions that developed in this South caught between myth and reality.

The icon of the Southern Belle in particular, epitomized most vividly perhaps in the film version of Atlanta writer Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, embodied, as scholars have argued, the need for the South to heal the trauma and to recapture its identity.

My research began with the heretofore-unasked question: if the Southern Belle is such an archetypal figure in both Southern fiction and history, what about her idealized counterpart, the Southern Beau?

 

Argument of Dissertation:

In my dissertation, I explore the discourses and models of manhood that were brought to bear on Southern males from the 1820s to the 1930s. I argue that those discourses remain at the heart of the stereotypical image of what is referred to as the Southern beau.

This dissertation argues that Antebellum and Postbellum Literature demonstrates a conscious, social re-evaluation of the American South. It will show that the Southern gentleman—an individual elevated to the rank of hero because conceived as having made some past or present attempt to save or preserve his world—begins to define himself against the rhetoric of duty, chivalry, and honour that demanded the sacrifice of his individuality for the good of his society.

This study views the stigmatization of various forms of masculine “difference” on the Southern décor by examining the discourse that surrounded and “formed” these men while simultaneously exposing the potential counter-narratives that attempted to disarm the harmful (and hegemonic) narrative of Southern gentility and chivalry. It looks specifically at the plantation and slave-owning Southerners, Confederate soldiers, and most generally, these male elite figures (these “beaux” encompassing bachelors, cavaliers, courtiers) found in the texts of the period and argues that they are one of the most effective lenses through which we can examine the Southern anxieties concerning the development, standardization, and superiority of the American Yankee!

 

Contribution of Dissertation:

My argument fuses emergent theories of sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, and sociological research with literary historicism. It establishes Southern American Literature as an important lens through which we can view and interpret contemporary ideologies and anxieties concerning the cultural, social, and political relationships between different groups. What happens, for instance, to the man who plagued by feelings of doubt, self-hate or guilt, internalizes all that society says a man should be? (Franklin 14).

Through its focus on a time of vigorous creative production, it also offers a new reading of the political and social effects that the transformation of the Old South had, not only on the archetypal figure of the Southern Belle, but also on her male counterpart who seems to have represented an underclass in academic research.

Individual chapters also offer new readings of the influence of Henry Grady and other ideologues’ reformation ideals on the South; the role of the South as a pre-text to narratives like Gone With the Wind for instance, and the Civil War influence on the mythical development and standardization of Southern male identity.

 

Relevance to Future Research

I deliberately chose a dissertation topic that would provide a good deal of new material and a range of publication options. Further examination on the construction of masculine identities in Southern Literature (cf. The Decline of American Gentility) is needed and will also inform the research of scholars working on issues of gender identity and Southern manhood. In addition, this dissertation recovers some American novels from relative obscurity. Moreover, this dissertation also opens the doors to a closer examination of the meaning and construction of masculinity in American literature and drama. I believe this work will not only offer valuable insight into masculine narratives of the South, but also contribute to the ongoing conversation within disciplines such as history, English, and men’s studies, regarding the nature of representation and identity formation.

 

Teaching Applications

This dissertation’s broad coverage of American literature and drama—from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie to John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, to Young Stark’s So Red the Rose and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—has prepared me to teach both specialized courses in masculine and feminine sentimental and domestic fiction, nineteenth century and twentieth-century American literature as well as broad survey courses in American literature. My treatment of several major writers as well as lesser-studied writers insures a range of expertise in the classroom.

 

Although my current focus is in the area of Southern literature and I do plan to produce considerably more scholarship on the topic, I have other interests:

  •  Victorian literature and most specifically, Jane Austen’s fiction (PhD secondary area of specialisation).
  • I have also been trained in both rhetoric and media-centered programs and enjoy using all these skills in a variety of ways. The variety of my research interests also translate in the classes I teach.

 

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