Literary Criticism  

Southern Mothers:
Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing
Edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff
LSU Press, 2000.
ISBN: 0-8071-2400-1
The essays collected by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff shed new light on past interpretations of works by southern authors and the role of mothers in the South.  Whether rich or poor, black or white, southern mothers were limited by the traditions of confinement and an overall powerlessness in their lives.  Southern authors either rejected or embraced this culture through their women protagonist. 

The Southern Belle was treated as legend and depicted as a fragile gift of beauty to be treasured.  She could not soil her hands with the common duties, which included raising her children.  For white women who wished to express their independent thoughts and sexuality, this was a painful confinement.  A trap.  As Minerose Gwin expresses in "Hearing My Mad Mother's Voices", you feel the mother rejecting her daughter because of the limits placed on her by the role.  Yet, you feel the mother embrace the daughter in the final moment as a final plea to the daughter to escape.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening was classified in the 1970's as a woman's awakening into lesbianism.  However, Virginia Ross explores a new meaning of the story.  Ross interprets the novella as a tale of a motherless heroine trying to fill that void with the company of mothers.  She abandons her husband not just for a woman, but for a woman friend about to give birth -- an action that the heroine yearns for above all else.  

Southern Mothers is exceptional in it's examination of the slave mother and the role of the mammy.   The black mother is presented as earthy and sexual, but her role as mother is limited by her role as slave.  Unable to protect her child from being beaten or sold, the mother may choose to kill the baby.  She would often be given the plantation owner's children to watch over, but her own children were taken away or neglected by her absence. 

Betty Taylor-Thompson and Gladys Washington essay on Margaret Walker's Jubilee hopes to protect her children by bearing the product of a white man she loves.  But when he late returning from The War, she settles for another in a loveless marriage.  Jubilee's heroine Vyry is free in mind and body.  Her strength comes from the body of women who raised her -- her grandmother and aunt.  Vyry is able to pass on these lessons of self-esteem, faith, and morality to her children.

The mothers in Flannery O'Connor's stories were strong-minded widows or divorced women who found themselves in the role of farm manager as well as mother.  Forced to take on a  masculine role to provide for the family, this mother was less loving and more demanding of her children.  There is an element of art imitating life in her stories, as Flannery O'Connor was inspired by the successes and failures of her working mother.

Southern Mothers is a fascinating read as it examines the influences and changing roles of mothers in the South.  It will also make you want to reread these works for yourself.

Joyce Dixon
Southern Scribe Reviews

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