1Joyce Carol Oates’s predilection for gothic themes and the grotesque aesthetic from the beginning of her publishing career in the 1960s caused her work to be initially largely associated with that of southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in spite of the fact that very little of her work has ever been set in the South or even included southern characters. Though Oates’s thematic and aesthetic interests have remained steady throughout her career, comparisons to southern writers have largely faded over time as she has made and continued to consolidate a name for herself as a chronicler of contemporary America.
- 1 Oates also discusses her interest in boxing at some length in an interview with Gavin Cologne-Brook (...)
2In relation to Oates, the notion of masculinity calls to mind her fascination with boxing and her essays on the sport collected in On Boxing.1 In this volume, Oates explores the interconnected questions of ethnicity and masculinity which, according to Julie Sheridan, “spill over into the realm of her literary fiction” (497). For example, Sheridan reads Oates’s novel What I Lived For as “an ambitious representation of masculine identity that draws upon the considerable boxing expertise developed by Oates during the mid- to late-1980s” (497). Susana Araújo has also discussed masculinity in this novel, but with more emphasis placed on the main character’s Irish background : “Through the figure of Corky Corcoran, Oates interrogates the personal and public histories that sustain the macho façade of Irish masculinity. The crucial incongruities of Corky’s character disclose intricate links between power and gender, between sexism and homosociality, between masculinity and status, between racism and ethnical anxiety” (Araújo 167-168). Oates herself places more importance on Corky’s individuality than on his masculinity. In a 1998 interview with Gavin Cologne-Brookes, Oates claims to have identified very much with Corky Corcoran because he “makes something of himself ; he becomes a personality,” much like Marilyn Monroe about whom she was writing at the time (559).
- 2 See, for example: Christine E. Atkins, “‘This is What You Deserve’: Rape as Rite of Passage in Joyc (...)
- 3 Collected in The Wheel of Love, New York: Vanguard, 1970, 34-54.
3Outside the sphere of pugilism and related metaphors, Oates’s treatment of masculinity has not drawn much attention from critics independent of a certain masculine proclivity for violence resulting in female victimization. Indeed, Oates has been considered a feminist writer by many critics who signal out her works that give a voice to female victims.2 One of Oates’s most written about short stories, “Where Are You Going ? Where Have You Been ?,”3 tells of the diabolic Arnold Friend who, the general consensus seems to be, abducts fifteen-year-old Connie from her family home, leading her off to certain death by his hand. Oates acknowledges her “more natural instinct is to write about the aftermath of violence in the life of ‘victims’” who “are likely to be women” (Cologne-Brookes 553). However, she also insists that the challenge to the writer is “to discover and cultivate a voice that is engaging […] no matter the gender” (Johnson 395). Indeed, male characters have been central to Oates’s fiction since the very beginning. From the race car driver, Shar, of her first novel With Shuddering Fall (1964), to the adolescent narrator, Richard Everett, of Expensive People (1968), Jesse of Wonderland (1971), Xavier Kilgarvan of Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), Ian McCullough of American Appetites (1989), the psychopathic serial killer Quentin P. of Zombie (1995), Dirk, Chandler and Royall Burnaby of The Falls (2004), and Skyler Rampike of My Sister, My Love (2008), to cite just a few, Oates has depicted numerous manifestations of masculinity across historical timeframes, ages, and walks of life.
4Recently, Oates has created southern gentleman characters for essential secondary roles in two novels : The Accursed and Carthage. This article will discuss the ways in which each gentleman character is identified with notions of displacement, a situation that both enhances and erases difference, and examine the ways in which the evocation of stereotypes contributes to the identification of each character as a “southern gentleman.”
5Set in turn of the century Princeton, The Accursed (2013), the final instalment in Oates’s gothic quintet, uses a fictional Woodrow Wilson in his historical role as president of Princeton University before becoming president of the United States. Oates emphasizes Wilson’s southern origins and contrasts the stodgy southern conservatism of this “Presbyterian priest” (575) to the more liberal behavior of some of the northern characters. Nevertheless, the text reveals Wilson to have secret moral weaknesses that undermine, or perhaps confirm, the portrait drawn of him as a southern gentleman.
- 4 For example: “As The Accursed is a chronicle of, mostly, the Slade grandchildren” (36).
- 5 Unless otherwise specified, italicized passages in citations should be attributed to Oates.
6Though the narrator of The Accursed insists upon several occasions that the narrative’s main protagonists are Annabel and Josiah Slade, grandchildren of Woodrow Wilson’s revered pastor friend and mentor Winslow Slade,4 the narrative opens with a lengthy chapter entitled “Ash Wednesday Eve, 1905” devoted to Woodrow Wilson and describing his involvement in what the narrator considers to be the first manifestation of the Curse that befell the upper class families of Princeton from 1905-1906 : “This was the evening of Woodrow Wilson’s (clandestine) visit to his longtime mentor Winslow Slade, but also the evening of the day when Woodrow Wilson experienced a considerable shock to his sense of family, indeed racial identity” (9).5 This one-sentence passage constituting the whole of the chapter’s second paragraph specifies two events that occurred on the date designated by the narrator as that of the first manifestation of the Curse. Both are unusual and reinforce the out-of-sync feeling created by the mention of a curse. The passage thus implies that the secrecy of the visit between the two men and the racial unease experienced by Wilson are in some way connected to the Curse. It also constitutes the beginnings of an extensive characterization of Wilson as a diminished and displaced southern gentleman. As such, Wilson is as much a key to the story as the members of the Slade family.
- 6 Though nicknamed “Presbyterian priest” by some, Woodrow Wilson is not, in fact, a minister. He had (...)
7The clandestine nature of the visit is curious and not altogether satisfactorily explained by the reasoning that “the last thing Woodrow Wilson wanted was to be talked-of ; to be the object of speculation, crude gossip” (23). Slade and Wilson are religious men6 and one might expect them to distance themselves from concerns about petty gossip. Yet herein lies one of the first major ambiguities highlighted by Oates in her Wilson character : this Presbyterian raised, “responsible administrator” and “astute politician” is too easily susceptible to what he considers to be gossipy attacks on his dignity and pride ; “he could not bear his name, his reputation, his motives so besmirched” (23). Indeed, of the two major “problems” facing Wilson on this day, it is the seemingly pettier of the two that preoccupies his thoughts and prompts him to seek “a secret late-night meeting” with his friend (22), namely a challenge to his authority on the professional front : “Woodrow Wilson was encountering a cunning, ruthless, and unified opposition led by the politically astute Dean Andrew Fleming West, whose administrative position at the university preceded Woodrow’s inauguration as president” (23). However, Wilson’s concerns take on importance when considered in terms of his southern upbringing with its code of gentlemanliness, when viewed through the “ideology of patriarchal, hierarchical honor” which “not only fostered but featured contradictory dynamics : deference and strutting, dignified gentility and combative competitiveness” (Leverenz 84). Wilson no doubt views challenges to his social and professional status as tests of his manhood itself.
8Mention of Wilson’s professional difficulties allows Oates to introduce another troubling aspect of this character, his frail physical and mental health : “All this rankled, and was making Woodrow’s life miserable ; his primary organ of discomfort was his stomach, and intestines ; yet nearly so vulnerable, his poor aching brain that buzzed through day and night like a hive of maddened hornets” (23). The use of the demonstrative pronoun and the present continuous tense points to the professional difficulties caused by West as the origin of the digestive system ailments mentioned here. However, the relationship between Wilson’s headaches and West is less convincing due to the out-of-sync nature of the hive of hornets metaphor. In English, one typically refers to a hive of bees or a nest of hornets. Oates’s combination of one element of each designation points to two distinct idioms : “stir up a hornet’s nest” means to create a lot of trouble ; “have a bee in one’s bonnet” refers to having an obsession, and the related “put a bee in one’s bonnet” to urging someone to do something. The metaphorical meanings attached to these expressions point to a problem with the mental rather than the physical state of Wilson’s head. His adversary West may indeed be creating problems in his professional life, but if Wilson has an obsessive personality, this is a shortcoming that is uniquely his own. This encourages the reader to question whether the origin of his obsession is in some form of madness. Subsequent descriptions certainly do nothing to allay this fear. Throughout the thirty-five pages of the first chapter, the narrative frequently alludes to Wilson’s poor health. Furthermore, the ten-page “Postscript : ‘Ash Wednesday Eve, 1905’” includes a page-and-a-half-long section entitled “Woodrow Wilson’s myriad physical ailments” which enumerates a great number while also raising the question of the man’s sanity : “as early as Woodrow’s first years as president of Princeton University, the question was raised, if the man was ‘entirely’ sane, given his intense preoccupations and obsessions with enemies real and imagined ; and his frantic need never to compromise” (53). The belief voiced to his friend that his position as university president is “God-ordained” is equally worrying as he seems to feel it absolves him from any form of self-evaluation (28).
9Of the two things that have disturbed Wilson on the day in question—the news of the lynching together with the revelation of his relative’s mixed race, and the challenge to his authority as university president posed by Andrew West—it is more deeply troubling to the twenty-first century reader that Wilson does not assign more importance to the intensity of his reaction upon learning of his distant cousin Yaeger Ruggles’s racial mixity : “As Yaeger turned away contemptuously yet Woodrow saw, suddenly—saw the young man’s facial features, his lips, nose, the texture and tone of his skin, even the just-perceptible ‘kinkiness’ of his hair—saw, and, in a rush of sickening horror, understood” (19). This revelation provokes a fainting spell in Wilson, yet by the end of the day he seems to have completely forgotten it. He is much more troubled by his problems with West than by the earlier conversation with his kinsman that reveals him to be an unacknowledged racist as he is able to hide his racism from himself with the justification that he has been tricked and subjected to unjust accusations by his relative. Wilson feels “the charges Yaeger Ruggles had brought against him” about his being racist and favorable to lynching because he refuses to use his position to speak out publicly against it to be “Unfair ! And very crude !” However, his severe reaction to his cousin’s revelation—“Hideous, what Yaeger Ruggles had revealed to him !—he who had liked the young man so much, and had, precipitously perhaps, appointed him a Latin preceptor” (21)—would seem to align him more with the ideology attributed to his southern relations than with that represented by the young man :
Woodrow’s Southern relatives would have pointed out that mob violence against Negroes was a consequence of the abolition of slavery – blame, if there be blame, must be laid where it is due, with the abolitionists and war-mongers among the Republicans.
The defeat of the Confederacy was the defeat of – a way of civilization that was superior to its conqueror’s. (21)
10In the first short paragraph above, as in other examples throughout the chapter, Wilson posits himself outside the group of his “Southern relatives,” perhaps in an attempt to create distance between himself and these unpopular ideas. However, the content of the second short paragraph is more ambiguous as it stands alone and does not bear the “Woodrow’s Southern relatives would have pointed out”-qualification of the first. Indeed, the idea that this thinking can be extended to Wilson himself is previously supported in the text by the fact that though he claims to condemn lynching and all violence in general, he certainly condones and has himself engaged in the act of keeping blacks in their place. The story of Wilson’s refusal to admit a Negro boy to the university confirms this. He explained, “it is not quite the right time in history” (18). Indeed, such an act would not conform to the “place” Wilson’s upbringing taught him to be appropriate for black people : “So long as Negroes—darkies, as they were more fondly called, in Winslow’s childhood—knew their place, and were not derelict as servants and workers, Dr. Wilson had very little prejudice against them, in most respects” (18-19).
11Oates’s Woodrow Wilson of The Accursed is clearly a displaced Southerner across the border in the North ; his unease with this status can be felt on multiple levels. Wilson appears upon several occasions to be sitting on the fence, or on the border, an undecided pawn in an ideological tug-of-war. He is a Southerner living across the border in New Jersey, a northern state, where, in spite of his professional position, many in the Princeton establishment of noble old Jersey families reject him. For example, Adelaide McLean Burr mocks him for “being too poorly paid to afford a motorcar” (93) and her husband declares, “‘Dr. Wilson is one of those persons […] who may one day succeed in impressing the world, but who can’t be taken seriously in Princeton, New Jersey’” (112). He is president of a university with a “reputation as a Southern-biased, largely Presbyterian boys’ school,” but is intent on reforming it to rival Harvard University’s “paradigm of academic “excellence” (9). Yet, when Ruggles comes to ask him to speak out against the lynching of a young black man and his pregnant sister, Wilson is uncomfortable and noncommittal. Curiously, the nature of the language employed by his kinsman horrifies Wilson more than the actual content of the message itself :
Yaeger spoke in a rambling and incoherent manner of – (the term was so vulgar, Woodrow held himself stiff as if in opposition to the very sound) – an incident that had occurred the previous night in Camden, New Jersey – lynching.
And another ugly term which made Woodrow very uneasy, as parents and his Virginian and Georgian relatives were not unsympathetic to the Protestant organization’s goals if not its specific methods – Ku Klux Klan. (13)
12The language (“vulgar” term, “ugly term” rather than vulgar and ugly act) here implies that with the simple apposition of a more palatable signifier, the signified content could be rendered less shocking. For one of Wilson’s primary concerns is with appearances as indicated, for example, in the worry that his office staff might overhear the heated discussion between himself and Ruggles (14). Wilson seems to feel that if he simply masks his affinity for certain southern ways of thinking, he does not actually have to change.
13In this chapter, Oates firmly identifies Woodrow Wilson as southern. Remarks embedded in a passage about his kinsman Yaeger Ruggles, a “fellow Virginian,” impart the first background details about Wilson. “Southern” is not simply a geographical distinction for Wilson, it is also a state of mind. Though Ruggles is but “a distant cousin” whose “elderly aunt” is “a cousin of Wilson’s father’s aunt,” Wilson feels a responsibility towards him due to the importance of “this web of intricate connections [that] was very Southern” (10). In addition to a southern insistence on the importance of familial support, Wilson also indicates his belief in a superior female southern graciousness when he speaks of his wife’s desire to bear her firstborn south of the Mason-Dixon line, saying : “‘And I think that, in a way, it has made a difference—Margaret is our most gracious daughter, not nearly so—emphatic—headstrong—as the younger girls, born here in the North’” (38).
- 7 A comment on the delicious southern breakfasts prepared for the Wilson family by their black servan (...)
14In addition, his moral standards are firmly associated with the South in the depiction of his ambiguous attitude concerning questions of race. The passage describing Wilson’s “wild impulse . . . to begin singing in Yaeger’s presence, that the younger man might join him” is a good example. It comes just after a descriptive passage pointing out Ruggles’ “very dark, . . . but thick and springy” hair and identifying “something thrilling about the young man’s softly modulated baritone voice also, that seemed to remind Wilson of a beloved voice or voices of his childhood in Virginia and Georgia.” The content of their song confirms the sense that Wilson’s feeling of familiarity with Ruggles is connected to an unconscious identification of certain negro traits in the young man, revealing a paternalistic fondness7 : “But it would be a Protestant hymn Woodrow would sing with Yaeger, something melancholy, mournful, yearning, and deliciously submissive—Rock of Ages, cleft for me !” (11). One can read here an allusion to the cliché of southern slaves singing mournful yet beautiful spirituals. It is interesting that Oates has her character and/or her narrator qualify this popular hymn alluding to mainstream Protestant ideas such as sacrifice, sin, and forgiveness as “submissive.” The adjective would thus seem to apply to the act of singing rather than to the content of the hymn : the submissive nature of both negro singing and the reserved Wilson’s spontaneous outbursts of song. The hymn is a reminder to Christians of Christ’s sacrifice, yet it does not inspire Wilson to any grace of his own regarding what he perceives to be his cousin’s betrayal ; he will force Ruggles to leave the university by revoking his preceptor status, thus engaging once again in the act of keeping “darkies” in their place.
15Wilson’s desire to control both his professional environment and the status of his race can be attributed to “a shared gender code of patriarchal honor” common throughout the South (Leverenz 83). Though slavery has been abolished by the early twentieth century timeframe of this novel, Wilson’s attitudes still conform to the ideology of this system which “preserved the economic and political power of perhaps one-twentieth of adult white men by encouraging other white men to proclaim mastery over women and African Americans” (Leverenz 83-84). The overall effect, however, of Oates’s characterization of Wilson as a man whose ideas are out-of-sync with his current environment creates an image of diminished masculinity. Not only does he suffer from challenges to his authority and a weak disposition, both of which he takes pains to control without always succeeding, but, as if to drive the point home, he is subject to the further ignominy of life in a household of women : “for he had but three daughters and no son ; and now, with his wife’s chronic ill health, that had become a sort of malaise of the spirit, as well as her advancing age, it was not likely that Woodrow would ever have a son” (10-11). This passage clearly places the responsibility for any diminished manhood resulting from Wilson’s lack of male offspring on his wife and her inability to bear not only sons, but any more children at all, revealing Wilson’s latent misogynistic tendencies. The adverb “but,” here a synonym of “only,” points to the lesser nature of female offspring. The emphasis placed entirely on his wife’s health with no mention of his own is revealing for, as previously mentioned, Wilson himself suffers from more physical and mental ailments than his wife does. The desire to exercise control over women is another aspect of Wilson’s complex personality. He opposes women’s suffrage and is known for his “refusal to be swayed to any violation of his academic and moral principles, by womanly ploys.” For example, he expels a senior student “for the crime of keeping a mistress” in spite of, or perhaps because of, his mother’s pleas on his behalf (581). Nevertheless, he eventually lets himself fall under the spell of the enchanting and elusive Cybella Peck, rumored to also be the mistress of Samuel Clemens (575).
16The portrait of Wilson drawn in the first chapter and confirmed throughout the novel depicts a man subject to a childishly Manichaean understanding of the world. Leverenz points out that “childishness” is yet another “conventional” trait attributed to southern men by their northern counterparts (86). Indeed, it is a concrete act of childish behavior—“adolescent sarcasm” and pushing and shoving—that leads to the “little accident” with the jade snuffbox that releases the malevolent curse at the chapter’s close (44). Slade’s snuffbox is “an engaging object, though hardly beautiful, covered in a patina of decades, its lid engraved with a miniature yet meticulously wrought serpent that, coiled, looked as if it were about to leap out at the observer” (40). Wilson’s examination of the object is accompanied by a discussion of the eventual validity of occult practices that becomes heated and leads to the scuffle.
- 8 Wilson is not the only one at fault, but revelations about Slade are reserved for the novel’s close
17The stage for just such a situation is set earlier in the chapter when a parenthetical aside informs the reader “(since childhood in his rigid Presbyterian household, Woodrow had been prone to near-irresistible urges and impulses of every kind, to which he’d rarely given in)” (11). The implication is that the Curse originates with the moral ambiguities to be found in each of these upstanding community leaders.8 For, as I have shown, Wilson succumbs to many potential shortcomings linked to his uneasy status as an outsider, and it is their accumulation that ultimately leads to his undignified behavior in Slade’s study. In this, he is not alone, however. Though Oates evokes several southern stereotypes in the construction of The Accursed’s Wilson character, she ultimately shows there to be little difference between him and his fellow citizens of Princeton for they all engage in forms of social snobbery and fall prey to moral shortcomings.
18Carthage possesses its own displaced gentleman in the character of Part II’s “Investigator.” However, in this novel, Oates reverses the pattern of geographical displacement found with Woodrow Wilson in The Accursed. The Investigator is a Northerner living in twenty-first-century Florida who knowingly uses the stereotypical ideal of the southern gentleman as an effective disguise. A secondary character, like Wilson, he intervenes in the second of the novel’s three parts. The title of Part II, “Exile,” refers to the situations of voluntary absence from former lives and identities that the two primary protagonists have chosen for themselves. They are referred to throughout the section by the generic labels “the Investigator” and “the Intern” because they have chosen to hide their true identities by conforming to recognizable types. The Intern of this section, incognito in Florida as “Sabbath McSwain,” is the novel’s primary protagonist, Clarissa, who has fled her hometown of Carthage, New York, leaving everyone to assume she is dead. The Investigator is just as equally a fabricated identity.
- 9 The dynamic concerning the other character, the Intern, is equally as interesting, though beyond th (...)
19The recourse to generic types emphasizes the role-playing function of the characters’ identities in this part. The Investigator is so far enmeshed in a palimpsest of identities that he has come to embody a sort of plurality ; his “identity” has become hazy and ungraspable. The Intern finds “a much-creased manila envelope that contained several laminated ID cards for several ‘identities,’” but finds it difficult to establish a resemblance to the man she knows, remarking : “you could stare at the Investigator’s numerous ID photos and not be sure if they were, or were not, him. As you could observe the man himself . . . and not have the slightest idea who he was” (200). In the case of the Investigator, it seems that the generic label embodies the man’s essence much more than the appellation on any official document. “‘I am not a judge, Lieutenant. Not even a retired judge’” (274), he tells the prison guide towards the end of the tour without volunteering any information about who he, in fact, is. When the Lieutenant responds that if he is not a judge, he must be a lawyer or a professor, the Investigator chooses not to respond. In fact, he is an enigmatic liberal who has made a name for himself revealing social inequalities such as those relating to his current investigative project : death row. However, the success of his professional project hinges on the secrecy of his motivations and his chameleon-like ability to conform to the expectations of his observers. He is practiced at getting results with “his methodical ways : he inveigled people into saying far more than they believed they were saying ; volunteering to confide in him, as to a friend. He was an artist of words as another might be an artist of music” (249). Indeed, the prison tour may be understood as a performance of sorts with the Investigator in the lead role as dignified, trustworthy gentleman.9
20The action of Part II recounts a prison tour taken by the two main protagonists, notably of the tour’s final “attraction,” a visit of the execution chamber. Flashbacks provide background and slowly elucidate the events for the reader ; they eventually reveal the chronology leading from the beginning of the two protagonists’ collaboration, through their preparation for the prison tour and through the tour itself up to its culmination in the execution chamber experience and the subsequent rupture of their partnership. When the section opens upon the tour group in front of the door to the chamber, generic labels identify the characters : the Lieutenant, the Intern, the Investigator. At this point, it is clear from these labels and the further designation of their relationship as that of “employer” and “assistant” that these two latter have a professional relationship and that the Intern worries about disappointing her employer (“dared not,” “desperately hoped”) (189). In this way, Oates establishes the Investigator as an authoritative figure. The first descriptive passage concerning the Investigator uses an outsider to the pair, the Lieutenant leading the prison tour, as focalizer : “the most distinguished of the civilian visitors, a tall straight-backed white-haired gentleman in a proper suit, white dress shirt and tie, of an age beyond seventy, who resembled a retired professional man, or a judge, and who’d been taking notes in a little notebook through the tour” (191). This description immediately designates him as a “gentleman,” focusing on the man’s poise (“distinguished,” “straight-backed,” “proper suit,” “professional man”) and associating him with the color white (his hair, his shirt, his tie). Indeed, the color seems somehow intricately connected with the man’s demeanor. Subsequent descriptions of him during the prison tour refer in one way or another to his socially superior poise and usually also reference the color white. He becomes thought of by all in the group as “the white-haired gentleman in the expensive-looking suit, white shirt and tie, of whom it was rumored he was a retired judge” (241).
21In the context of the tour of the Orion Maximum Security Correctional Facility for Men at Orion, Florida, among a variety of different kinds of men, the appellation “gentleman” clearly signals out the Investigator as socially superior. The description of the Lieutenant retains the more generic word “man” : “an affable-seeming man,” “a stolid-bodied man” (189). The Intern resembles a “schoolboy” and is called “fella” by the Lieutenant (193, 192). The prisoners are “confined men” (193). Other males in the group are students or “middle-aged men” (237). Indeed, depictions of The Investigator frequently set him apart. The care with which he dresses is an example : “The Intern saw : the Investigator’s slender feet were shod in shiny-black-leather dress shoes. No one else in the tour had dressed so particularly” (195). In addition, the others in the group defer to his “dignified” nature which is further offset by the grunginess of their surroundings as they enter the execution chamber : “A tall straight-backed man, he stooped to enter. He set his foot on a grimy stone step, the first of three that descended to a grimy concrete floor as in a crude and unimproved cellar” (195).
22The first hint that something illicit is taking place comes five pages into the chapter with the revelation of the Intern’s motivations for volunteering to open the chamber door. It seems she intercepted a covert glance from her employer (193). The lexical field of spying reappears two pages later when the Investigator’s “scribbling” into his notebook gives the impression of one “writing in code” (195). The narrator virtually confirms the act of spying two pages later : “The Investigator may have switched on a (miniature) recording device carried in a fountain pen, in his lapel pocket ; the Investigator would want to see and record all that he could” (197). The modals “may” and “would,” however, retain a degree of uncertainty. It is at this point, with the visitors now shut firmly inside the execution chamber, that the text makes a chronological jump back to the Intern’s job interview with the Investigator and confirms the suspicions previously evoked : “Prof. Cornelius Hinton—this was the name on the little plaque affixed to the Investigator’s door at the Institute. / She’d assumed at the outset that yes, this was the white-haired gentleman’s name—‘Hinton.’ Later, she would learn that ‘Hinton’ was one of several working-names the Investigator used when he was incognito” (198-199).
23Thus, the Investigator’s gentlemanly veneer hides secrets, some of which are gradually brought to light as the chapter proceeds, painting a picture of a complicated and multi-faceted personality. The Investigator is a man who has made a career for himself alternating visiting professorships with undercover operations to reveal major social inequalities which he publishes anonymously in a series entitled “SHAME !” He is not against breaking the law when it runs counter to his moral code and seems to define himself as “orthogonal” to the law. In fact, “orthogonal,” meaning “intersecting or lying at right angles,” is an epithet he applies to the Intern (214). However, it seems clear that he is able to recognize this aspect of the Intern because he has also lived orthogonal to the law, breaking it when a moral imperative so required.
24The rumors that circulate about the Investigator among the group of prison visitors, based uniquely on his appearance—his look, his behavior, his sparse speech—point to the power of narrative, even when almost entirely divorced from fact as subsequent information conveys. The Intern overhears one member of the tour-group murmuring to another “that the Investigator—‘that man, there—with the white hair’—was ‘some kind of retired chief justice’” (239). In fact, the language used to describe him clearly evokes the popular southern gentleman figure of “the Colonel” discussed by Caroline Gebhard in “Reconstructing Southern Manhood : Race, Sentimentality, and Camp in the Plantation Myth.” Gebhard highlights “the popularity of ‘the Colonel’ as a postbellum reincarnation of the Cavalier or planter-aristocrat, the epitome of southern masculinity according to tradition” and explains his core characteristics : “With or without the white suit, he was ubiquitous in American fiction after the Civil War : in his ramrod posture, his integrity verging on absurdity, and above all in his unfailing sense of his own dignity, he embodied (white) southern male honor and pride, still intact despite Appomattox” (133). As seen through the eyes of the Intern at her job interview, the Investigator possesses most of the gentlemanly traits pointed to in the examples signalled out by Gebhard in the epigraphs to her article :
his fair-blue eyes weren’t those of an older man but youthful, sharp and acute. His beard was close and neatly trimmed, dazzling-white as his hair, but dense and wiry as his hair was soft, airy, and flowing. His face reminded her of an old, faded-bronze coin. His manner was brusque, matter-of-fact. His posture suggested a military bearing. Yet he was courtly, elegant. He wore a tweed sport coat over a dark turtleneck sweater that gave him the look of an older male actor in a British film of some bygone era – eagerly you would spill to such a man all your secrets, except of course such a man would not want to hear all your secrets. (204)
25The “dazzling” white of his hair contrasts with the sun-tanned hue of his skin. This emphasizes a predilection for the out-of-doors and by extension, a connection with the land. The reference to his “British” look connects him to the notion of the aristocratic ; upon another occasion, he is described as “courtly-mannered” (258). An elegance of bearing referred to as “military” complements the elegance of his dress and personal hygiene. Later on, remarks about his “narrow, long-fingered,” “graceful” hands flesh out this description (212). These are all characteristics present in the three epigraphs that Gebhard presents as examples of this popular character type. Mark Twain’s Colonel Grangerford from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wears a full suit “of a linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it” and has “long and thin” hands. Edna’s Protestant Patriarch father from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening possesses a “military bearing” and “his hair and mustache were white and silky.” Finally, Colonel Romulus Fields from James Lane Allen’s “Two Gentlemen of Kentucky” is described as representing a type that is “a cross between the aristocratic and the bucolic” (Gebhard 132). The Investigator’s gentlemanly characteristics are partly intrinsic and partly extrinsic. The above passage from Carthage shows that he generally possesses the basic traits of a gentleman ; the Intern reveals he consciously cultivates them when necessary : “The Investigator dressed well, in a gentlemanly fashion, when he wanted Professor Cornelius Hinton to present a convincing image to the public” (227). As previously-cited examples show, he chooses white elements of attire to further emphasize the common color association. The “gentleman” participating in the prison tour is thus partly artifice, though it is difficult to pinpoint the precise degree of artificiality.
26Underneath the gentleman mask, Oates reveals a Northerner undercover : “born Andrew Edgar Mackie Jr. in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 1, 1938” (221). However, the Minnesota man “abandoned” this Midwestern identity to make way for that of “Cornelius Hinton, with advanced degrees from Harvard, Cambridge University, and Columbia University” (222). Along with the name change, the Intern observes a physical transformation ; she finds it difficult to reconcile the image of the man she knows with that presented in photographs she finds from his past : “He didn’t look so much like himself – rather more like a ruddy American-simulacrum of the revolutionary Che Guevara” (230). Of course, the word “simulacrum” alerts us to the possibility that this thirty-year-old hippie look may also have been a cultivated facade.
27Parts of the Investigator’s past may remain shrouded in mystery, but what is important here and what the novel makes clear, is that the gentleman persona of the prison tour is partially conscious artifice. This is an effective choice of disguise because it evokes a familiar literary figure held to a rigid code of honor, the gentle wisdom of age, and the reassuring purity of the color white. Any signs of excess or camp in Oates’s description of the Investigator do not immediately alert us as to the character’s true nature for, as Gebhard has pointed out, excess characterizes most postwar representations of the southern Colonel (133, 137) and is thus part of the ruse of familiarity. As proof of the fact that in the Investigator’s case, “gentleman” is a disguise rather than an identity, Oates points to a major omission in his gentlemanly traits : gallantry. “He did not see her to the door. He did not mean to be gallant—that would not be a feature of their relationship” (216). Furthermore, his “idealism about race blindness” and his “faith” in the possibility of “social justice” (246) run counter to the conservatism often associated with the stereotypical southern gentleman.
- 10 For Gebhard, “the staying power of the image may be measured in the millions made by Colonel Sander (...)
28Oates’s textual play with the Investigator’s successful disguise highlights the fictionality of the culturally constructed “gentleman” figure. The character is further proof of Gebhard’s argument that “the hold of sentimental images such as the Colonel over America has proved strong” (150).10 Real individuals are complicated webs of contradictions so a persona which can be so easily donned can be but a partial picture of reality, another textual manifestation of a cultural cliché which is known to be an ambiguous construct. As Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson point out, the idea that there is “a special clarity and permanence about southern gender evident in time-honored stories of white cavaliers and belles” is an “assumption” more aligned with myth than historical reality (6-7). However, as myth, the image holds an emotional power than can be easily manipulated. Oates’s Investigator is a hard-boiled investigative southern Colonel, a unique blend which does not create much anachronistic dissonance because both types—gentleman and private eye—are firmly enmeshed in the collective imagination as associated with a strict adherence to an uncompromisingly trustworthy moral code.
29“What the Old South of the legend in its classical form was like is more or less familiar to everyone. It was a sort of stage piece out of the eighteenth century, wherein gesturing gentlemen move soft-spokenly against a background of rose gardens and duelling grounds, through always gallant deeds, and lovely ladies, in farthingales” (Cash xlix). In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash strips away this myth, effectively showing it to have “been the dream of all men and the possession of none” (xlix). However, it remains a powerful element of the collective imagination and as such can be easily conjured up by and for nearly anyone as Oates’s texts make clear at both the homo- and hetero-diegetic levels. With a southern gentleman living across the border among equally class conscious Northerners and a Northerner who has adopted the southern gentleman as the perfect disguise, Oates creates two characters on the edges of their communities, men for whom the “gentleman” is a persona they adopt to varying degrees of success as they seek each in their own way to counteract perceived evils. She deconstructs the myth of regional exceptionality in The Accursed by showing a southern gentleman and a northern pastor who fall prey to the same moral weakness. In Carthage¸ the Investigator’s ability to conjure the gentleman type so effectively emphasizes the artificiality of this mythical southern character. Both characters live somehow orthogonal to society, a characteristic which seems to embody the true essence of the gentleman.