'Sir Walter Scott disease': from 'girly-girly romance' to the 'Southern school of degeneracy'

Botting, Fred (2014) 'Sir Walter Scott disease': from 'girly-girly romance' to the 'Southern school of degeneracy'. In: Gothic Study Day; 06 Dec 2014, London, U.K.. (Unpublished)


This talk – an imaginary critical dialogue between several writers – situates the fiction of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers between two historically distinct yet strikingly polarised accounts of the South. Mark Twain’s assessment of the ‘Southern character’ takes a rational, modern – and properly anti-gothic – perspective in its criticism of customs, architecture and affectations seen to have originated in an over-identification with the fabricated world of Walter Scott’s romances. In contrast, Ellen Glasgow, herself a popular romantic novelist over-invested in all the ostentatious trappings of her native and beloved South, decries the writing of her Southern contemporaries as too Northern, industrial, modernist and degenerate in tone and form. While Glasgow seems appalled by a modern eschewal of southern romanticism among her peers (her horror occluding the more appalling cultural and historical underside of her tropes of gallantry and honour) she does acknowledge – in line with O’Connor’s subsequent observations on Southern writing – the disturbing and defining intimacy of opposing polarities: Southerners, it seems, have romance and horror, heroism and monstrosity, good and evil, threaded through every bone. For all that, Glasgow remains recalcitrantly idealistic when it comes to the South: for her, Walter Scott could never be acknowledged as the name of any disease, let alone her disease.In Faulkner’s fiction, however, the disease Twain identified decades before enters a necrotic state. A ‘pre-posterior’ reading of ‘A Rose for Emily’ draws out the extent of the necrosis, equating its spinster Southern Lady with the position advocated by Glasgow. Horrifyingly critical of southern attitudes and the delusional persistence of the nostalgia underpinning them, the subtleties of Faulkner’s turn apparently outmoded niceties into something much more perverse and revolting: a necrophilia of cultural as well as individual proportions.

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