Southern Version of Truth: Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra and Katheryn Stockett’s The Help
Curiosity about how Katheryn Stockett’s The Help (2009) and Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra (2010) represent the American South, women, race, and employment did not begin in my attention to literature and theories of gender but in life experiences. I have lived in the South since 1949; for many years my mother did domestic work in the homes of white women. My curiosity was awakened by Mother’s revelations about labor characterized by race and gender, her stories about the ways of white folk. Her oral narratives about class and race more than fifty years ago still live in my memory and affect my ideas about the elusive abstraction that is called Truth. The novels by Stockett and Gwin verify the truth of my mother’s testimonials even as they confirm how the relativity of perspectives deny, to borrow wording from the oath ritual of American justice, the possibility of obtaining “the truth and nothing but the truth” of situations marked by geography, history, and culture.
The literary origins of my interest in these novels about relationships between black and white women are not located in my readings of The Queen of Palmyra and The Help but in general readings of the literature of the American South and questions about what Southern fiction seeks to explain from the angles of racial identity. Much of Southern fiction after 1865 tends to mythologize a region of the United States. Until fairly recently, that fiction has dealt with psychological aberrations regarding the purity of whiteness and the stain of blackness and the tragic nature of what is neither black nor white but mixed. As Southern women novelists, Gwin and Stockett achieve uneven success in dealing with those aberrations.
Some years ago, a noted scholar of Southern fiction remembered a comment I had made about the work of Ellen Douglas. In an email dated March 11, 1999, Suzanne Jones requested that I comment briefly on what I liked about Douglas’ work, especially the novel Can’t Quit You Baby (1988).
I replied that one of the more productive areas of “literary race relations” is the representation of friendships between black and white women in the South, particularly the interdependence across class line. No contemporary Southern writer handles the topic better than Ellen Douglas. Using an astute narrator or self-conscious storyteller to deliver a tale of friendship in Can’t Quit You, Baby, Douglas specifies what can’t be got around on page 4: “the black woman is the white woman’s servant.” But this novel of sharing between housekeeper and employer, the domestic sharing, does get around the cliché of black/white friendship. Consider that a reader should know the unwritten subtitle of the novel, and that the subtitle is only knowable if one is familiar with Willie Dixon’s pure blues song from which Douglas’ title comes: “But I’ve got to put you down a little while.” Douglas is very honest about how race will not go away, about how it insists on being acknowledged: “To them race sounded the endlessly repeated ground bass above and entwined with which they [Cornelia the white employer and Julia the black employee] danced the passacaglia (or, as it may sometimes appear, the boogie) of their lives” (5). The possibility of communion across the racial divide is possible as long as one does not pretend the fact of friendship ever puts the divide under erasure.
Douglas will not buy into the futility of deconstructive gestures or the illusions the notion of transcending give us all too freely. She confirms in the end of the novel what lurks behind the friendship as the black woman Julia sings: “I love you darling, but I hate your treacherous low down ways.” Julia obviously wants her employer to get the message. In this sense, Douglas moves from the danger zone of the cliché (too often employed in liberal retorts to accusations of racism) that blacks and whites can love one another. They tolerate one another with qualifications. And the remark from Julia is prompted by the fact that she has never really been seen or heard outside the identity of “servant.” Even the arm of friendship is too short to box and knockout Southern (or Northern) cultural norms. Douglas’s power as a novelist is her refusal to sell us the cheap goods of transcending. As the young put it, she is intent on keeping it real.
I reminded Suzanne Jones that Elizabeth Cox’s novel Night Talk, winner of the 1998 Lillian Smith Award for fiction, was heir to Douglas’ insight about women’s friendships in racial terms. The characters in Cox’s novel are young and more nearly equals than Cornelia and Julia; nevertheless, the tensions, the possibilities of distrust, do not disappear for the new generation. Like Douglas, Cox demythologizes the sugar-coated idea of women’s friendships in the South. Ultimately, Douglas’ goodness and power are results of not stopping at the transcendent; she goes straight for the “truth.”
I preface remarks about the contemporary fiction of Stockett and Gwin with reference to novels by Douglas and Cox to underscore tradition and continuity. Despite profound social changes in the culture of the American South since 1999 and in the languages of criticism and feminist discourses, the structural permanence of race yet determines what options Gwin and Stockett had for telling a Southern version of truth. Both novelists are natives of the State of Mississippi; both set their stories in the turbulent 1960s, years when acts of racial brutality were exceptionally dramatic in Mississippi and in the United States. While much of American literature that has reference to the Sixties is associated with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, much literature of the American South is to be associated with the Apocalypse.
The critical acclaim as well as the infamy surrounding The Help as novel and film has deflected the interest due to The Queen of Palmyra. It is worth repeating that these first novels were written by women from Mississippi. Stockett grew up in Jackson; Gwin, in Tupelo. The authors are white females. The novels deal in varying degrees with race, identity, and seasons. What has been missed by some American readers and film spectators is an opportunity to make ethical judgments about the forking paths of contemporary American fiction. These novels do have aesthetic integrity, but aesthetics is not to be divorced in real time from the everyday concerns we bring to our reading of texts. The philosophy of art is always challenged by or subsumed within the phenomenology and the psychology of response.
Perhaps in time, The Queen of Palmyra will be subjected to sensitive, critical readings when the obscuring smoke of The Help clears away. Perhaps in time, readers will discover the value of a narrative that does battle with 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 articulate how black and white women have negotiated the combat zones of the South in fiction and in actuality.
The novels are thoroughly anchored in the historical shaping of the white Southern female imagination, the psyche that yearns to confess itself in its ineluctable relationship to the shaping of Southern black women’s imagination and identities. In the United States and especially in the American South, manifestations of gender positions are codependent. As I have mentioned, the territory was plowed successfully by Ellen Douglas in writing a novel that projected a kind of nude “truth” that is somewhat rare in Southern fiction. It is Douglas’ work that helps us to understand, to some degree, why The Help dances in the American spotlight as The Queen of Palmyra stands patiently in the shadows.
The two novels expose as much about the culture-bound tastes of American readers and the bottom-line priorities of the American publishing and film industries as they do about aesthetics and ethics. In short, one does not have to be a self-conscious reader or spectator in order to be immersed in literary politics. That immersion is an integral part of how “reading” is constituted by everyday life. It is reasonable to claim that the power of advertising in promoting The Help pushed the work into the foreground of consciousness, while the absence of such paratextual assistance ensures that the small voice of discernment that would speak of the enlightenment incorporated in The Queen of Palmyra remains but faintly heard.
Anyone who knows the history of Mississippi during the period of the Civil Rights Movement, who knows the “truth” as it is told in such books as John Dittmer’s Local People and Clyde Woods’ Development Arrested, recognizes that the research informing Gwin’s novel is more principled, sophisticated, and genuine than the oral history research that went into the making of Stockett’s novel. The clash of motives between Gwin and Stockett is illuminating. As a literary scholar turned novelist, Gwin knew that she had to recover and refashion information about the rituals of the Ku Klux Klan and about the surveillance work of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission to achieve verisimilitude. In contrast, as a professional journalist turned novelist, Stockett acknowledged her obligations to perpetuating “whiteness” by juggling stereotypes which emerge from twisted, racialized ideas about Southern history. Gwin sought to expose the inadequacies or falsifications involved in that sense of obligation, whereas Stockett intentionally or unintentionally confirms falsification. The creative motives of the two writers are remote from one another, but I’d suggest that they converge when we consider why women write. Whether we are scornful or appreciative, each woman write her “truth.”
In the realm of fiction, ruthless depiction of historical truth rarely yields great profits. Recall that Harriet Beecher Stowe had to “sentimentalize” the bald horrors of enslavement to achieve her abolitionist intentions. As the remarkable 19th century American novelist Henry James knew very well, the real thing never does guarantee the desired end. Fiction readers wish to be entertained out of reality not into it. Apparently, most readers simply do not find pleasure in unvarnished “truth.” They find information.
As a white Southern coming-of-age story rendered as fiction, The Queen of Palmyra echoes Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta and Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi more strongly than it does Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960). The novel skates on the thin ice of nonfiction. It challenges the very notion of “the universal” by exposing how “the universal” is ultimately a code for affirming that “we” rather than “they” are the guardians of “the truth.” The Queen of Palmyra refuses to displace hurtful specificity with the artifice of universals. Like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Gwin’s novel bravely walks the tightrope of risk without having a Southern safety net of what is orthodox from a white perspective. It would surprise no one if a certain class of Southern white reader offered the opinion that Gwin is guilty of racial treason. She has spilled too many “secrets” from the bag.
Unlike The Help, The Queen of Palmyra is ultimately disruptive at many levels. Lee Smith, author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is a bit misleading in her claim that Gwin’s novel is “the most powerful and lyrical novel about race, racism, and denial in the American South since To Kill a Mockingbird” (front cover blurb) It is the wording “the most” that is troubling, for it suggests that Lee has digested all novels dealing with themes of race, racism, and denial. The gesture is good for sales, but it does not serve us well if our objective is the pursuit of “truth.” The narrative voice of Florence Irene Forrest alternates between the purely lyric and the naively tragic as the voice of a child does rather naturally. It is the child’s innocence and inability to romanticize life that is the primal strength of her story. Her focalization is unsettling. We come to understand in detail what it means to be called “white trash” as the story progresses from innocent childhood through youth into experienced womanhood. While many white mothers in Southern fiction pretend to be incapable of rearing their children properly (that is the function of Mammy), Florence’s mother is alcoholic and struggling with demons. Her father is not merely a Ku Klux Klan member and benighted racist but also a man who has incestuous yearnings. Florence’s maternal grandparents are loving but incapable of rescuing her domestic situation. She is rescused, with tremendous qualifications by Zenie Johnson, the black woman who works for her grandmother, but the rescue and the care Florence is given is not unconditional as the fantasy of much white Southern fiction ordains. Frequently for Zenie, Florence is an unwelcomed burden. In fact, she is a thing, an object that has to be cared for.
It is most important for the story that Zenie is not portrayed as a love-dripping Mammy but as a domestic capable of having justifiable disdain for whites. Zenie will quicken Florence’s imagination with stories about the Queen of Palmyra (summarized on pages 56-57), but she will not allow Florence to possess that racially coded heirloom. The child as thing is exclude from the romance, and in a most telling instance of reverse minstrelsy, Eva Green, Zenie’s niece, transforms Florence by dint of make-up into a female in blackface. That the white child has the equal opportunity to be the object of mistreatment is the crucial point for beginning interpretation of the novel. In this sense, the novel is thoroughly atypical. Atypical too is Minrose Gwin’s thorough historical research on Mississippi race relations and the work of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to stem the tide of change and secure the reconstitution of whiteness.
These two novels by contemporary white women writers are discordant evocations of Southern “truth,” and they invite our careful reading and analysis to discover a third “truth” about modern American fiction.