Mass culture generally assumes there is a fixed, true masculinity beneath the ebb and flow of daily life. We hear of ‘real men’, ‘natural man’, the ‘deep masculine’. This idea is now shared across an impressive spectrum including the mythopoetic men’s movement, Jungian psychoanalysts, Christian fundamentalists, sociobiologists and the essentialist school of feminism.
(R.W. Connell 5)
1Masculinity is boring; or, rather, as Wan Chuan Kao remarks, particular types of masculinities may “pass themselves off as boring, unremarkable, and even invisible”. Yet the seeming boringness of masculinity, or the paradox of invisibility, is what confers power, cultural privileges and mystique on certain performances of gender, especially for men. Much work on theorizing and analyzing (white hegemonic) masculinity justly takes it as a starting point that hegemonic masculinity and whiteness retain their powers as signifiers and normative practices because they are invisible, that is opaque to analysis. The argument goes “one cannot question, let alone dismantle, what remains invisible from view” (Robinson 1).
2It has been almost 20 years now since R.W. Connell refused the seeming boringness of masculinity. By bringing men at the center of the debate on gender, Connell’s groundbreaking and inspiring work, Masculinities, aimed to make masculinity visible : her approach, recognizing the multiplicity and performativity of the masculine, not only made it useless to talk of masculinity in the singular form (Bjerre 10), but it also promoted the deconstruction of the idea of a single form of masculinity, stressing the need to embrace a spectrum of “multiple” masculinities—black as well as white, working‐class as well as middle‐class, and so on. Other scholars have since followed in Connell’s footprints. Books like Ben Knights’ Writing Masculinities (1999) and Berthold Schoene‐Harwood’s Writing Men (2000), for instance, have attempted to demolish masculinity’s normative status and explore some of the ways in which male writers can re‐imagine themselves beyond the confines of traditional gender formations (Bjerre 11).
3While such studies have been instrumental, pushing theorists, critics, or researchers to (re)think or to (re)open the debate about masculinity, the American South, maybe more than any other region in the United States, has been particularly reticent to broaden the way it considers men, preferring to naturalize a certain type of hegemonic masculinity : the beaux, cavaliers, patriarchs, planters, or gentlemen came to be emulated as the ideal of manhood in the plantation South. Consequently, and as McPherson remarks, the assumption that a white man—aristocratic at heart, Victorian in his manners, Cavalier follower of Charles I—represented a universal, ahistorical, and disembodied model of ideal manhood obviously froze the meaning of Southern white masculinity ; in turn enshrining “certain Souths and certain southerners while forgetting others” (5). The historian Stephen Berry suggests just as much, when admitting that :
the story of Southern masculinity continues to be understood better in its postures and poses, more for what it claimed to be than for what it was. In their studies of duels and barbecues, hunting and stump speaking, scholars have examined with greater penetration the archetypically masculine aspects of Southern life than the dithering dreams and doubts that surely dominated men’s inner experience of themselves. Of the consequences for the South of its hypermasculinized culture much has been suggested. Of the consequences for the men living in and through this culture little is known. Of the general tenor of men’s inner, emotional lives little has been said or written. As a result, men are denied a measure of their humanity (All That Makes a Man 11).
4The critical interrogation of Southern masculinities (in the plural form) has drawn far less commentary than attention to women or the question of race in the South, perhaps because, as the editors of Constructing Masculinity put it, “heterosexual masculinity has traditionally been structured as the normative gender and thus taken for granted,” sheltered from history and it seemed by history itself (Berger, Wallis, and Watson, « Introduction » 2). It is in this sense that John Mayfield suggests that “we know quite a bit about [Southern] women by looking at how they defined themselves in relation to men [and] we know much about slaves and free blacks based upon how they defined themselves in relation to white men,” while deploring that “patriarchy serves almost as a mathematical constant here, something by which other points can be calculated” (xiv). An analysis of how writing the masculine is/has been used not only to produce, counter-produce, but also reproduce certain forms or models of ‘Southern’ maleness, by contrast, has remained largely unquestioned.
5Recently, scholars of Southern culture and literature have begun to elaborate on masculinities in the Contemporary Southern context (cf. Trent Watts, White Masculinity in the Recent South). Making the case for men’s studies, these authors have analyzed how men are constructed and constituted at a contextual level, through situations or through their relationships. Gary Richards, in his Lovers and Beloveds, points out the importance of sexual preferences when it comes to defining southern identity and manners. Likewise in Gay Men in Modern Southern Literature, William Mark Poteet shows how specifically southern codes of masculinity are subverted by gay writers who tend to depict strong mother figures as they realize the fathers have failed them.
6These studies provide an invaluable starting point for discussion of Southern masculinity, by exploring the connections, continuities, crises and dissonances of southern male identity, or the recalcitrant (older) models of masculinity in relation to the American South. After all, and if the foundational and essential Southern Gentleman has mostly been presented as the epitome of the romantic cavalier legend, a closer scrutiny of the cavalier and genteel ethos of the time, however, does reveal the inherent ideological inconsistencies with the idea of the gentleman itself, as the ideal came to be more and more perceived as an illusion and as challenges to traditional gender stereotypes came to redefine the nature and role of the Southern Gentleman. One could ask : if Rhett Butler still appears as an emblematic figure of the “masculine south,” what do characters resembling Ashley Wilkes tell us about the South ? What about African-American men ? What about those who “pass” or “fail” as gentlemen ? Of course, these representations raise additional questions : What is the place of these odd/other/disabled/altered masculine bodies in the South (itself often considered the “odd” member of the nation’s body) ? How are the lives of men and women enhanced through challenging old/ traditional gender roles ? What are the assumptions that underlie such representations of “failed” or “disabled” masculinities ?
7The present volume endeavors to enrich the discussion of Southern masculinity and to offer a challenge to essentialist conceptions of masculinity as universal, eternal, and immutable. Rather than approach Southern masculinity as the paradigm of normalcy and universality, as a “norm” that goes unanalyzed and therefore, operates implicitly and oppressively, this collection of essays aims to examine not only the construction or constitution of an elite masculinity in the American South, but most importantly, the deconstruction of the archetypal model of masculinity in literary or visual representations that seem to emphasize the fears, unsuitability, awkwardness or even, in some cases, the total absence of the Southern gentleman figure from the most obvious and immediate medium for constructing gender—fictional, artistic, or visual art. The aim of this collection is two-fold : on the one hand, it focuses on studies that questions traditionally normative representations of masculinities and, on the other hand, it seeks to highlight new alternative representations of manhood, looking for more egalitarian models of manhood in and through literature and culture.
8The first article in this collection aims to broaden our understanding of certain masculine norms and models sustained by various discourses, practices, and texts, if not by Madeleine L’Engle’s own ancestors. Suzanne Bray’s reading of Madeleine L’Engle’s Ilsa (1946) and The Other Side of the Sun (1971) analyzes models of Southern masculinity based on the traditional gentleman figure. In Ilsa, the heroic ideal is fragmented, considered as imaginary and deceptive, while in The Other Side of the Sun it is regarded as a model that is both valid and desired, but only if inclusive of African-Americans, poor white men, women, and adolescents. The multiplicity of masculinities at stake here, contrasting with the desired ideal of the hero in L’Engle’s fiction, showcases the fragility of masculinity in Southern fiction.
9Concentrating on the hero-figure at the center of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946), Emmeline Gros’s article identifies how George Fairchild has become trapped in the role of a Southern beau unwillingly put on the pedestal of hegemonic manhood. Concentrating on the (de)construction of a masculinity sustained almost exclusively by the matriarchs of the clan, this analysis of Welty’s novel reveals that Southern masculine subjectivity constructed and sustained by a patriarchal culture (here perverted as a matriarchal culture)—infused with assumptions about male power, privilege, honor, heroism and the charismatic body—appears to be engendering varying degrees of anxiety in its Southern beaux. In a similar manner, the world of One Foot in Eden (2002) seems just as confusing to Ron Rash’s manly heroes. Like Welty, Rash highlights the extent to which the traditional definitions of both femaleness and maleness have experienced unprecedented changes. As Frédérique Spill demonstrates, while the novel depicts a man’s world characterized by manly heroes and a great deal of harshness and uncontainable violence, the novel’s male characters paradoxically appear to be wounded and dysfunctional in one way or another. Spill’s article reveals how the fiction of Hal Bennett is a useful example of transgressive challenges to conventional and unconventional stereotypes by a black Southern writer as early as 1970. The succession of homodiegetic narrators evokes a complex, kaleidoscopic depiction of southern masculinity, which is shown undoubtedly as having a hard time redefining itself.
10It is the same type of ambivalence that is explored by Inès Casas, in her article focusing on Miss Amelia, Carson McCullers’ giant amazon in The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). In creating a masculine-woman who fails in her performance of the proper Southern lady, McCullers not only showed that gender was fluid in the American South, but she also ridiculed both the myth of the Southern lady and traditional notions of manhood. In a masculine South that accepted no ambiguity, Casas explores McCullers’ belief that ambiguity (fluidity and irony) was indeed the ideal way of experiencing the South : as Casas shows, in McCullers’ hands, the masculine South becomes a world of stereotypes, of masquerades, and the constricting norms of this patriarchal society (hinging on clear-cut gender distinctions) have become blurred, ambiguous, and suspended in a liminal world of the in-between. Miss Amelia is neither woman nor man. By creating such an ambivalent heroine, McCullers acutely challenged and exposed the constricting norms of southern patriarchal society. She claimed the right to a sexual ambiguity and fluidity that escape from rigid binarisms, and fiercely denounced the insanity of conforming to an ethos that denigrates women and admires materialistic and aggressive behaviour in men.
11For Françoise Clary, the masculine South (traditionally understood as a white, heterosexual, cavalier-type South) calls for resituating the Southern male subject in due perspective. Clary argues that the reimagining of the black male subject—black masculinist writing—is at the core of Hal Bennett’s satirical writings. The article explores the two-sided views of/on black masculinity, with images alternating between the desexualized and submissive black man and the sexually-restrained, inherently criminal, black man. In her reading of Bennett, Clary explores how one could provide subversive commentary on the codes of (white) Southern manhood ; how one could demystify and deconstruct the uniform discourse of/on black masculinity (one that aimed at negating or marginalizing black manhood).
12Marcel Arbeit traces a similar desire for reformation through demystification in his critical reading of Harry Crews’s novella An American Family : The Baby with the Curious Markings (2006). Even though far from realistic fiction and close to a biting satire on the southern way of life, Crews’s main focus, for Arbeit, is the serious problem of the changing nature of traditional southern manhood – southern men face the uneasy task of adjusting to the era of gender equality without losing their manly status and identity. In this stylized self-parody, Crews portrays the decline and reinstatement of southern manhood through the main protagonist, a male southerner, the victim of the violent culture of honor, who turns weak, emotionally constipated, and feminized, and goes through hell only to reappear scarred but not broken.
13Tanya Tromble’s article, “The Southern Man through a Northern Eye”, explores the construction of Southern gentlemen in two of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels, The Accursed (2013) and Carthage (2014). For Tromble, Joyce Carol Oates deconstructs the myth of Southern masculine exceptionality by showing how a Northerner can adopt the Southern gentleman as the perfect disguise. The Southern gentleman becomes a persona one can adopt or conjure effectively, if only to emphasize the artificiality of the mythical Southern character and, ultimately, the artificiality of a masculine South.