Reworking the garden: revisions of the pastoral tradition in twentieth-century Southern poetry

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Sally L. Smits Masten (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Karen Kilcup

Abstract: This dissertation illuminates how twentieth-century southern poetry revises the pastoral tradition. I argue that in its particular capacity to imagine a perfected world, the pastoral may delineate and advocate for our highest ideals—including genuine community, reverence for the land, and gender, racial, and socioeconomic equality. But the pastoral’s idyllic world may also reinscribe the South’s worst problems—including social injustice and exploitation of the natural world—by ignoring them altogether or by weaving them into a fabric of fictive nostalgia. These two possibilities create the central conflict that animates the pastoral, a conflict that the dissertation explores in the work of four twentieth-century southern poets—Anne Spencer, Jean Toomer, James Dickey, and Eleanor Ross Taylor. Each writer responds to specific historical iterations of the pastoral—including the potent southern myths of the plantation romance, the cult of the Lost Cause, and the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer—and each differentially transforms and revitalizes the pastoral tradition itself. Essentially, these poets create new pastoral works which fully countenance the South’s often divisive and problematic history while simultaneously seeking out restoration and redemption for and within the South. Thus, I assert that the pastoral tradition in the South is neither outdated nor mired in “moonlight and magnolias” nostalgia; rather, it enables twentieth-century southern writers to explore both a fraught history in a racially and socioeconomically divided region and a complex relationship to the natural world. “Reworking the Garden: Revisions of the Pastoral Tradition in Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry” contributes to the fields of southern and American literature, ecocriticism, rhetoric, and poetics in three ways. First, building on the foundational work of William Empson and Frank Kermode, as well as more recent scholarship by Leo Marx, Annette Kolodny, Elizabeth Jane Harrison, Lucinda MacKethan, and Lawrence Buell, this project develops a clearer definition of the pastoral in twentieth-century American and southern literature. However, I depart from these scholars in my claim that the twentieth-century southern pastoral represents not a set of conventions but rather a set of beliefs about the South and what it was, what it is, and what it could or should be. This project’s focus on southern poetry after 1900 constitutes my second contribution. Despite the long history of pastoral poetry, studies of the pastoral in the twentieth century—in southern literature and more generally—focus nearly exclusively on prose. However, I argue that the pastoral’s long association with poetry demands that we examine recent poets’ renovations and critiques of the pastoral tradition; in so doing, this project not only expands our understanding of pastoral but it also paints a more comprehensive picture of southern literature. Finally, attending closely to two important southern voices, Anne Spencer and Eleanor Ross Taylor—heretofore mostly neglected in literary scholarship—makes a third contribution. Studying these writers broadens our understanding of southern literature and the South, as each offers viewpoints that have often been elided—particularly those of black and white rural women. Additionally, placing Spencer and Taylor alongside better-known male counterparts allows us to reconsider the bases on which canons are formed, to unveil biases and omissions, and to recognize diverse perspectives in southern poetry, the pastoral, and American literature more generally. Overall, my project follows a chronological trajectory; the introduction provides a foundation for the later chapters by first tracing the history of the pastoral tradition, focusing especially on how American pastorals diverge from the European tradition, how slavery impacts southern pastoral, and how the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer becomes a rejuvenated symbol for the South in the Agrarians’ 1930 manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. Chapter one demonstrates how Anne Spencer uses pastoral idealism to imagine a more harmonious and just future for the South, while she simultaneously condemns the racial and gendered injustices of the present. Viewing Spencer’s work as pastoral provides a throughline for her diverse oeuvre and also illuminates her poetry’s political edge. The second chapter focuses on Jean Toomer’s reimagined pastoral in Cane. I contend that Toomer’s overall structure, especially the interplay between poems and sketches, challenges traditional southern pastoral mythology, especially its willful blindness concerning industrialization and racism. However, Toomer also incorporates figures of connection throughout the book to reclaim pastoral values of community, communion with the land, and spiritual redemption. Chapter three begins by establishing James Dickey’s early work as the foundation of his pastoral vision, wherein the southern wilderness provides a haven apart from war, loss, and grief. Subsequently I argue that while Dickey’s later work revises his idealized vision, recognizing the violence and suffering that underwrite the region’s history, he continues to build a new southern pastoral mythology of reconciliation. In the final chapter, I explore Eleanor Ross Taylor’s significant contributions to the pastoral tradition, as she incorporates a thoughtful reconsideration of history, a caustic wit, and sharply drawn portrayals of her ancestors’ lives—all of which challenge idyllic imaginings about the rural South. However, Taylor’s pastoral also offers redemptive moments in images that foster empathetic community and genuine emotion. Throughout this project, then, I argue that the pastoral provides a vital key to understanding southern literature, both past and present, and a new way of examining both familiar poets and lesser-known but equally essential voices.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2016
Pastoral, Poetry, Southern literature, Twentieth century
Pastoral poetry, American $y 20th century
Southern States $v Poetry
Spencer, Anne, $d 1882-1975 $x Criticism and interpretation
Toomer, Jean, $d 1894-1967 $x Criticism and interpretation
Dickey, James $x Criticism and interpretation
Taylor, Eleanor Ross, $d 1920-2011 $x Criticism and interpretation

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