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14. Writing the Modern South

Susan V. Donaldson

Subject Literature » American Literature

Place United States of America » American South

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1900-1999

Key-Topics novel and novella

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631206873.2009.00017.x


In the 1920s Virginia Woolf famously observed that human nature seemed to have changed around December 1910 and suggested, half-seriously, that therein lay the beginnings of modernism. Although the celebrated Postimpressionist exhibition shown that year in London partly shaped that extravagant claim, she also had in mind changes in families, marriages, and labor that were leaving their impact on other forms of human activity, from politics to literature. For writers of the US South, though, that sense of a breach in history, dividing the era of modernity from the past, could be traced back to a much more specific date – and one further back in time – January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation setting free all slaves in Confederate territory not yet under Federal control. Not until Appomattox would the full impact of emancipation be felt, but by then everyone, slaveholder and freed slave alike, knew that the end of slavery meant a radical break in time with all that had come before – from the economic modes of production to intertwined social definitions of black and white manhood and womanhood. “All that we were seemed to be passing away,” lamented one Georgia planter as quoted by historian James L. Roark in his 1977 study, Masters without Slaves , an examination of the disorientation and sense of loss that came to define the slaveholding class ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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