Peculiar Whiteness: Racial Anxiety and Poor Whites in Southern Literature, 1900-1965 by Justin Mellette

Peculiar Whiteness: Racial Anxiety and Poor Whites in Southern Literature, 1900-1965
By Justin Mellette
University Press of Mississippi
Paperback, 212 pages

Treatment of white trash in southern literature sparks many questions

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

“Peculiar Whiteness: Racial Anxiety and Poor Whites in Southern Literature, 1900-1965” offers incisive insight into Southern life, considering the concept of “white trash” through the lens of literature.

Timing is everything in publishing, as musically and onstage. Events of January 6, 2021 at the United States Capitol reenforce realities of lumpenproletariat—incorrigible dregs of society—simultaneous with author Justin Mellette’s endeavor to eliminate the concept. Had Mellette studied Civil Rights Movement History, and learned about the hoi polloi descending upon Oxford, Mississippi, on September 30, 1962, at the time of the integration of Ole Miss, delicate brushstrokes might have been applied rather than broad brushstrokes.

This tome would better begin using its Conclusion as its Introduction. Where Mellette considers class bias and efforts to foster divisions between working class individuals, the book stands on sounder footing than where Mellette suggests that no justification exists for taking exception to uncouth, uneducated individuals who are a credit to no one, including themselves.

Mellette’s thesis is that poor whites suffer deplorable discrimination arising to the level of historic hatreds directed at African Americans—emphasizing towards whom rather than towards what. A more nuanced recognition is that the unreconstructed—doomed to perdition—are anti-intellectual and antagonistic towards post-Enlightenment principles, civil and human rights, and contemporary concepts of right and wrong. The unreconstructed thus become impediments to First World standards of living. Aversion to civilization and erudition underlies antipathy, instead of class conflict. 

Where Mellette states that, “all shades of whiteness are not created equal”, economics are not implicated per se. Lack of solidarity among white folks derives from the fact that some individuals embody the English acronym NQOTD—“Not Quite Our Type, Dear”—revulsion reflecting characteristics found without reference to race, creed, or color, et cetera.

Faulkner’s Snopes Family provides illustration. “… Faulkner introduces Gavin Stevens as a guiding force against Snopesism….

“… For Gavin, the Snopeses represent classlessness and depravity, unfit for the ‘hallowed’ lands of Jefferson. Their lack of familial bond is especially repugnant to Gavin’s old-fashioned mindset. In perhaps the trilogy’s most memorable description of the family, Gavin claims, ‘they none of them seemed to bear any specific kinship to one another; they were just Snopeses, like colonies of rats or termites are just rats and termites.’ The fact that both animals are invasive pests is significant; to Gavin, the Snopeses are unwelcome intruders, no better than vermin…. Gavin’s conception of whiteness is no longer adapted to fit the modern world, represented by the Snopeses, a family lacking the privileges and benefits of class and heritage and thus abhorrent to Gavin’s linking of whiteness with middle- and upper-class respectability.”

The issue is not class nor the demise of a plantation aristocracy whose disappearance is cataclysm equivalent to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. It is maladaptivity: Mellette pertinently notes that, “… as [Erskine] Caldwell aged, he continued to critique his native [South] for its adherence to dated economic and social paradigms that he considered unfit for the twentieth century.” Anxieties reflect fears for a future in which Gilded Age WASP patriarchy is diminished detrimentally rather than one in which a better world is realized.

Considering Charles Chesnutt’s “The Colonel’s Dream”, the conundrum is that Colonel “French, in effect, is attempting to restore/create the antebellum South of his imagination by repossessing symbols of the past to ease his own modern anxieties; the authenticity, vigor, and vitality he associates with the past serve as a panacea for the sterile and inauthentic present.”

Dichotomies between feudalism and modernity, past and future, create anomalies among various whites, rather than economics and class. Justin Mallette misses the point but raises such sufficiently compelling questions about the country’s direction that any shortcomings are irrelevant.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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