WALKING THE TIGHTROPES
The fame and infamy surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as novel and film has deflected the interest that should be taken in Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra. These first novels were written by women from Mississippi. Stockett comes from Jackson; Gwin, from Tupelo. The authors are white females. The novels deal in varying degrees with race, identity, and summer in the sovereign State of Mississippi during the 1960s. What has been missed by American readers and film spectators is an opportunity to make ethical judgments about the forking paths of contemporary American fiction. Perhaps in time The Queen of Palmyra will be subjected to sensitive, critical readings; perhaps in time readers will discover the value of a narrative that demythologizes the nostalgia-haunted reconstruction of whiteness. There is a grain of hope in knowing that two white female Southern novelists can occupy oppositional poles in attempting to say how black and white women have negotiated the combat zones of the South.
The novels are thoroughly anchored in the white female imaginary, the psyche that yearns to confess itself. That territory was plowed rather successfully by Ellen Douglas in her 1988 novel Can’t Quit You, Baby, which used clues from Willie Dixon’s blues song and from Douglas’s penchant for a kind of nude “truth” that is rare in Southern fiction. That novel helps us to understand, to some degree, why The Help cavorts in the spotlight as The Queen of Palmyra stands in the shadows.
The Help and The Queen of Palmyra expose as much about the culture-bound tastes of American readers and the bottom-line priorities of the American publishing industry (literary politics) as they do about aesthetics and ethics. It is reasonable to believe that the power of hype attached to Stockett’s novel has pushed the work to the foreground of consciousness, while the small voice of discrimination that would speak of the enlightenment in Gwin’s novel can be but faintly heard. Anyone who knows the history of Mississippi, who knows the kind of history one finds in John Dittmer’s Local People and Clyde Woods’s Development Arrested, will sense that Gwin’s use of history is more principled and sophisticated than Stockett’s. In the realm of fiction, ruthless responsibility does not yield up great profits. The real thing never does. Fiction readers wish to be entertained out of reality. Rare is the reader who can find pleasure in the unvarnished “truth,” in Gwin’s deconstructive gestures that expose the fatality of invoking the myth of the universal. The much touted “universal” is a code for affirming that “we” rather than “they” are the guardians of “the truth.” The Queen of Palmyra refuses to displace a fine specificity with the artifice of universals. Like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Gwin’s novel bravely walks the tightrope of risk; unlike Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) and The Help, The Queen of Palmyra walks the tightropes without the Southern safety nets of the orthodox. It would come as no surprise to hear a certain class of Southern white reader say that Gwin is guilty of racial treason.
Perhaps in time I shall perform a sensitive, critical reading of The Queen of Palmyra. For the moment, it is refreshing to know that a white novelist has liberated herself from the ignorance of thinking that black domestics actually “loved” those who knowingly or unwittingly dehumanized them. Stupid “love” has never found a reason to exist in Mississippi.