Pet Book Report #2: Marking/Cutting the Southern Jeremiad

In the preface to Swallow Barn, Kennedy begins by candidly disclosing his writerly conceits; he states, nearly plaintively, that “There is a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode. Or, I might truly say, it is a book of episodes, with an occasional digression into the plot. However repugnant this plan of writing may be to the canons of criticism, yet it may, perhaps, amuse the reader even more than one less exceptional.” (Kennedy 1) Immediately, the reader is confronted with Kennedy’s authorial claim to bricolage, an episodic patchwork of anecdotes related in such a way as to constitute a coherent collection. Swallow Barn is, indeed, less a contiguous narrative than it is a group of relations, of literarily inflected recollections constructed within the circumscribed space of the realist genre. It attempts to provide a revealing caricature of plantation life; in doing so, Kennedy tokenizes blackness in the south as sombre and pitiful, a thing of misery. He relates slave culture on the plantation as an “orderly and disconsolate little republic of humoursome spirits, most pitifully out of tune.” (Kennedy 8) Kennedy is, unwittingly perhaps, performing just the sort of cutting that Fleming characterizes: “Cutting takes images whose mass production has led to their exhaustion, and brings them back to life by putting them outside the circuits of commodity production. And while it requires the destruction of one composite work, such as a book or a print or a vestment, it creates a new work, within which details of the old are revivified and given a new purpose. (Fleming 450) Although Fleming speaks more of the material act of cutting in terms of how we create collages through ostensibly “destructive” processes, I’m here appropriating the term to refer to the textual act of intersplicing those “exhausted images” of the morose slave plantation and reconstructing them within the framework of a Southern Jeremiad.
This is, of course, no apologia for Kennedy; his depictions are both crude and presumptive, hallmarks of the White Saviour complex so frequently encountered in statesman of certain stature and poise. Kennedy, mediated and remediated by the archive and the process of textual mouvance (by this, I mean the markings, inserts, “damage,” and miscellany that have come to decorate the text across time), can be conceived of as what Fleming refers to as a “work of grammar, where grammar means the organization and distribution of written information.” The grammar of the text here refers to the Derridaean theory of “no one read[ing] the same book twice.” (Fleming, 448) This text, inscribed by the “cuts” made by owner signatures, dimples specking the cardboard of the covers, mildew rotting the bifold, an inserted antiquarian’s formal appraisal of the book’s quality, shows clear signs of circulation. It has seen and been seen; it is both a pastiche of southern songs and of ownership.
It is also worth mentioning that this work represents Kennedy’s freshman attempt at writing. It is neither literary by design nor canonically destined both in authorial tone and in qualitative content. Why, then, would Kennedy not also resemble the amateurdom that Gitelman speaks of in “Amateurs Rush In?” This “affective state as well as textual commons” is Kennedy’s wheelhouse from which he operates his shaky machinery. (Gitelman, 138) It is, no doubt, a different amateurdom than that of both Lovecraft and Harrison; it is, indeed, a sort of stately DIY-ship that creates its own tradition of defiance. Despite my having demoted Kennedy as a White Saviour-type statesman, it seems apparent that Swallow Barn seems more “about itself than about literature of anything else.” (Gitelman 145). It is slavishly committed to construing an ostensibly realist portrayal, yet the more it strives the more it becomes inculcated in a genre tradition.
Yet, this text simultaneously  presents itself as a volume of certain pedigree. The antiquarian’s note relegates this text among the ranks of fellow realist writers Irving (“Sketch Book”) and Longstreet (“Georgia Scenes”). It lays claim to being one of the first efforts to truthfully relate slave life; whether it accomplishes this does not so much matter, for it enjoins in a “collective imagination” of productive communication, or what Gitelman refers to as “intersubjectivity.” One gets the feeling while handling this book that it represents a vanguard effort to change how realist chronicling takes place. By signing your initials upon the cover, by handling this book and staining it with oil, the reader commits to accepting an openly flawed, knowingly attenuated vignette of plantation life anecdotes.

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