Review: Reading for the Body
Jay Watson. Reading for the Body: The Recalcitrant Materiality of Southern Fiction, 1893-1985. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2012. x + 412 pp. 978-0-8203-4338-9.
The body is the consistent, often exhilarating focus of Jay Watson’s Reading for the Body. This body imprints its environs with its fingers, projects its voice to the masses and listens to disembodied voices, bleeds when cut by its own hands or others’, suffers and dies, flees, ails, menstruates and gestates, wages war or does not, and bears the scars of that action. Working from the principle that “the symbolic domain of the body offers a powerful instrument for interrogating … [the] domains of southern culture” (9), Watson analyzes the fiction of seven canonical southern writers—Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Walker Percy. He aims “to help move the critical discussion of southern literature toward a more detailed and thoroughgoing attention to the material and cultural work performed by, through, and on southern bodies” (23).
To frame his engaging and persuasive close readings, Watson draws on an impressive array of theorists and their “versions of materialism.” The most enabling of these are “the Marxist and neo-Marxist thought of Althusser and Colette Guillaumin” and “the material culture theory and philosophy of the somatic developed by Elaine Scarry” (24-25). Watson also draws eclectically on the work of historians and fellow literary critics, with Patricia Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990 (2000) and its complementary publications deemed the “truest precursor” of Reading for the Body (24). Watson writes for fellow scholars of southern literature and smartly weaves into the study most of the energizing twenty-first-century debates within this subfield of American literary history; however, this incorporation makes for a densely allusive study—in both the main text and the 43 pages of notes—that may give justified pause to readers outside the subfield.
Launched by a nuanced reading of Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia,” Watson argues that depictions of the southern body expose the “lifeless condition of U.S. political subjectivity,” what Russ Castronovo deems “necro citizenship,” and have done so since the colonial era (11). In particular, Watson’s brief survey of the literary terrain leading up to 1893 spotlights the “hypermaterialized” (14) southern bodies of slavery, the frontier, and disability that cast the region as “a zone of temporal anteriority and developmental alterity” (11) to the abstracted national whole.
Watson organizes his chapters by author and chronology. In the first two he engagingly places southern bodies alongside modern technologies. Chapter 1 reads hands in Twain’s Puddin’head Wilson (1894) as largely “instruments of self-alienation, self-dispossession, and self-destruction” (85-86) within cultural circulations of fingerprinting and palmistry, and Chapter 2 reads voices in Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and often-neglected Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) within circulations of the phonograph and the radio. Chapter 3 interrogates the shifting racialized resonances of blood in Faulkner’s Light in August (1932); Chapter 4 convincingly argues that, over the course of the stories in Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1940), “pain becomes an active, even creative force in the construction of black subjects and in the struggle for black citizenship” (213); and Chapter 5 explores women’s “difficult embodiment” (217), especially within evolving cultural understandings of tuberculosis and influenza, in Porter’s Miranda stories. Finally, Chapter 6 sympathetically reads the quest of Mason’s young female protagonist in In Country (1985) to understand the body traumatized by war, arguing that she, like all Americans, “is already a militarized and militarizing figure” (289). Watson’s coda presents Percy’s Lancelot (1977) as a cautionary tale about privileging the body, a tale that Reading for the Body consistently heeds: “For if we are never not our bodies, it is equally true that that we are never only our bodies” (319).
Watson himself identifies the limits of his study, cautioning in his introduction that the book, despite its length, “bears no pretense of being an exhaustive one” in either the texts or the embodiments interrogated (26). The desiring body, much less the queer desiring body, for instance, is notably absent, as is the southern body outside a reified black/white racial dichotomy. Likewise, Watson stresses that “Reading for the Body is as much critical casebook as scholarly monograph,” and, despite the introduction’s provocative assertions, the study does not forcefully draw conclusions about what these representations as a whole may say about the South (27). Finally, the book’s long gestation seems to have fostered awkward moments, with Watson’s now-dated frame of the AIDS pandemic for his chapter on blood in Light in August being perhaps the most obvious.
As a set of discrete, nuanced, and eloquent readings of southern bodies, however, Reading for the Body is among the finest in contemporary southern literary studies, and Watson’s work stands shoulder to shoulder with Kathaleen E. Amende’s Desire and the Divine: Feminine Identity in White Southern Women’s Writing (2013), Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014), and other recent studies that insistently keep southern bodies at the heart of discussions about the region.