Between Grace and Grit: Modernity, Liminality, and Grace King

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Lute, Khristeena Marie
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Middle Tennessee State University
Critics and literary scholars typically associate American modernism with World War I and its effects on American society. Tenets of the movement, however, are evident in southern literature as early as Reconstruction; economic depression, social disillusionment, and a general sense of decay appear regularly in some southern literature texts of the late nineteenth century as well as in modernist literature of the 1920s. Southern writers use elements typically associated with Modernism, such as grotesque imagery and characterization, advanced linguistic play, narratives of community, and social liminality, decades before other national writers. Grace King, traditionally viewed as a New Orleans regionalist, is associated with a past era of pastoral novels and local color fiction, but in re-examining her work, one can identify techniques that would later be referred to as “modernist,” in particular, social liminality as described by anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner. King’s New Orleans characters express universal gender, racial, socioeconomic, and national liminalities as the South attempted to recover after the Civil War. Through the use of close readings of King’s fiction and life writing, I explore the concepts of modernity and liminality in her writing and her place among more widely celebrated modernists. Identifying and exploring King’s pre-modernist techniques can clarify how her texts, lesser known in contemporary studies, may have played a part as early mentor-texts to a major literary movement. Numerous scholars now support the notion that King did not have the economic stability to take outward, radical stances and therefore needed her writing to express her own evolving opinions on social issues; this rhetorical strategy is part of the beauty of King’s writing, a liminal ambiguity that generates a multiplicity of interpretations, and is our final link to seeing Grace King as a pre-modernist writer.