Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912-2002

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Overview


In Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, Margaret Leonard says, “Never mind about algebra here. That’s for poor folks. There’s no need for algebra where two and two make five.” Moments of mathematical reckoning like this pervade twentieth-century southern literature, says Melanie R. Benson. In fiction by a large, diverse group of authors, including William Faulkner, Anita Loos, William Attaway, Dorothy Allison, and Lan Cao, Benson identifies a calculation-obsessed, anxiety-ridden discourse in which numbers are employed to determine social and racial hierarchies and establish individual worth and identity.

This “narcissistic fetish of number” speaks to a tangle of desires and denials rooted in the history of the South, capitalism, and colonialism. No one evades participation in these “disturbing equations,” says Benson, wherein longing for increase, accumulation, and superiority collides with repudiation of the means by which material wealth is attained. Writers from marginalized groups--including African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and the poor--have deeply internalized and co-opted methods and tropes of the master narrative even as they have struggled to wield new voices unmarked by the discourse of the colonizer.

Having nominally emerged from slavery’s legacy, the South is now situated in the agonized space between free market capitalism and social progressivism. Elite southerners work to distance themselves from capitalism’s dehumanizing mechanisms, while the marginalized yearn to realize the uniquely American narrative of accumulation and ascent. The fetish of numbers emerges to signify the futility of both.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Benson provides incisive readings of southern literature over the last century that point to the dangers of facile assumptions about the South's newness. Disturbing Calculations confronts the quest for autonomy, community, and revitalized humanity with bald and sobering honesty, allowing us to see the shortcomings of literary culture in helping human communities move away from the dehumanizing legacies of slavery's troubling marriage with capitalism. Written with exceptional grace and passion, Benson's work is a required checkpoint for any future well-intended attempts to rethink southern literature."--George Handley, author of New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott

"This study is both highly original and absolutely persuasive. In her analysis of how southern elites employ a language of mathematics and calculation to naturalize social hierarchies and maintain corrupt economies, Benson identifies what emerges irrepressibly as a central theme and tactic of southern culture. The wonder is that we hadn’t noticed it before. Gracefully written and elegantly theorized, this is a substantial contribution to the field."--Scott Romine, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

"Groundbreaking, carefully researched, and highly engaging." ---Journal of Southern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820331126
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 8/15/2008
  • Series: The New Southern Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Melanie Benson Taylor is an assistant professor of English and Native American studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912–2002 and Reconstructing the Native South: American Indian Literature and the Lost Cause (both Georgia).

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction: The Fetish of Number, Narcissism, Economics, and the Twentieth-Century Southern Ego     1
The Fetish of Surplus Value: Reconstructing the White Elite in Allen Tate, William Alexander Percy, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe     27
Stealing Themselves Out of Slavery: African American Southerners in Richard Wright William Attaway, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston     59
The Measures of Love: Southern Belles and Working Girls in Frances Newman, Anita Loos, and Katherine Anne Porter     94
Contemporary Crises of Value: White Trash, Black Paralysis, and Elite Amnesia in Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, and Walker Percy     129
Re-membering the Missing: Native Americans, Immigrants, and Atlanta's Murdered Children in Louis Owens, Marilou Awiakta, Lan Cao, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, and Tayari Jones     164
Conclusion: Disturbing the Calculation     202
Notes     207
Bibliography     233
Index     253
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