Disturbing Calculations
The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912–2002

Melanie Benson Taylor

Reveals affinities between antebellum southern and modern American capitalist psychology


"Benson provides incisive readings of southern literature over the last century that point to the dangers of facile assumptions about the South's newness. Disturbing Calculations confronts the quest for autonomy, community, and revitalized humanity with bald and sobering honesty, allowing us to see the shortcomings of literary culture in helping human communities move away from the dehumanizing legacies of slavery's troubling marriage with capitalism. Written with exceptional grace and passion, Benson's work is a required checkpoint for any future well-intended attempts to rethink southern literature."
—George Handley, author of New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott

"This study is both highly original and absolutely persuasive. In her analysis of how southern elites employ a language of mathematics and calculation to naturalize social hierarchies and maintain corrupt economies, Benson identifies what emerges irrepressibly as a central theme and tactic of southern culture. The wonder is that we hadn’t noticed it before. Gracefully written and elegantly theorized, this is a substantial contribution to the field."
—Scott Romine, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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In Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, Margaret Leonard says, “Never mind about algebra here. That’s for poor folks. There’s no need for algebra where two and two make five.” Moments of mathematical reckoning like this pervade twentieth-century southern literature, says Melanie Benson Taylor. In fiction by a large, diverse group of authors, including William Faulkner, Anita Loos, William Attaway, Dorothy Allison, and Lan Cao, Taylor identifies a calculation-obsessed, anxiety-ridden discourse in which numbers are employed to determine social and racial hierarchies and establish individual worth and identity.

This “narcissistic fetish of number” speaks to a tangle of desires and denials rooted in the history of the South, capitalism, and colonialism. No one evades participation in these “disturbing equations,” says Taylor, wherein longing for increase, accumulation, and superiority collides with repudiation of the means by which material wealth is attained. Writers from marginalized groups—including African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and the poor—have deeply internalized and co-opted methods and tropes of the master narrative even as they have struggled to wield new voices unmarked by the discourse of the colonizer.

Having nominally emerged from slavery’s legacy, the South is now situated in the agonized space between free market capitalism and social progressivism. Elite southerners work to distance themselves from capitalism’s dehumanizing mechanisms, while the marginalized yearn to realize the uniquely American narrative of accumulation and ascent. The fetish of numbers emerges to signify the futility of both.

The New Southern Studies

Page count: 280 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Melanie Benson Taylor is an assistant professor of English and Native American studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912–2002 and Reconstructing the Native South: American Indian Literature and the Lost Cause (both Georgia).