"Benevolence" in James Wilcox’s "Modern Baptists"

A couple of weeks ago, I noted some similarities between James Wilcox’s Modern Baptists (1983), Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Today, I want to look at the African American presence in two of Wilcox’s novels: Modern Baptists and Hunk City (2007). I have covered this topic in relation to Percy’s novel before, and you can see those posts on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog.

In Wilcox’s first novel, African American characters exist on the periphery, present only in relation to the white characters. This reminds me, sort of, of the way that T. Geronimo Johnson presents the inhabitants of the Gully in Welcome to Braggsville (2015). The citizens of the Gully do become more fully realized later in the novel, but the initial discussions of them create a sense of mystery regarding who they are. I am not comparing the way that Wilcox and Johnson present their African American characters as a one-to-one correlation. I am just saying that I see similarities, possibly because I read them in such close proximity to one another. 
The first reference to an African American presence in Wilcox’s novel comes in the first chapter when the narrator discusses the train tracks, the tracks that have not seen a train since 1908. After that time, when the lumber company moved out, “the railroad became nothing but a dividing line between the side of town where Mr. Pickens lived and the side of town where Mrs. Wedge went every Thursday to pick up her maid” (8). Rather than having any of the action on the “other side of the track,” the entirety of the novel takes place in the white section of town.

Throughout the novel, only one African American really plays more than just a role on the edges. The Keely’s maid Moab shows up at various times in the novel; however, she does not say anything except a couple of lines at the very end. Elsewhere, Mr. Ray, Ms. Jenks’ handyman, gets mentioned periodically. Donna Lee worries about him, continually asking how he is doing and blaming Ms. Jenks for his sickly condition. However, she never attempts to either call on or see Mr. Ray. In fact, at the party at the end of the novel, Donna Lee tells Ms. Jenks to give Ray her love. The narrator then comments: “She knew Mr. Ray was lonely and in pain. But somehow she had never got around to [visiting him]. There was always so much work to do” (225). Donna Lee’s benevolence has its limits.

During an interview with John Lowe, Wilcox comments on Donna Lee’s motivation in the novel. When asked if Southerners have more humility than others, Wilcox responded:

In one narrow sense, yes. When I went up to Yale at first, being polite and deferential was not the norm. Any categorical statement is suspect, but Henry Adams points out the tremendous difference between the South (which he did not particularly like) and the East, where people think they can fix everything–total self-reliance. A lot of my comedy comes from people like Donna Lee, who is Emersonian. She’s rejected all the things that she finds distressing about the Old South, and is going to be self-reliant and get her friends to be that way. 

Donna Lee feels like she can, and should, fix everything. In many ways, she reminds me of the “benevolent” characters in Antebellum novels who espouse compassion and aid only for the sake of making themselves feel better or to boost their social standing. For Donna Lee, I feel her impetus is the former. She wants to help Moab and Mr. Ray; however, she doesn’t  understand the multitude of factors that cause the racial problems on the periphery of the novel. 

As Donna Lee and her parents follow Moab in the grocery store, the narrator talks about Donna Lee’s interactions with Moab and how those interactions disappointed her. Donna Lee “had tried many times to start up a conversation with [Moab], not like her mother, just gab about petty household matters. Moab’s silence hurt Donna Lee and made her wonder about herself” (140). Rather than trying to understand why Moab doesn’t speak with her, Donna Lee becomes self-centered and focuses on how she feels hurt. By doing this, Donna Lee separates herself even more from the community (as a whole) that she wants to help. 

At the end of the novel, when some in the community gather to raise money for Josie Wayne Bickwell Recreation Center, Moab says her only lines in the novel. Donna Lee approaches the woman and demands that she speaks with her. Moab simply whispers to a shrub, “I seen a woman sit upon a scarlet-colored beast, and upon her forehead was a name written . . .” (228). Confused, Donna Lee then asks Moab what she means. Moab calls Donna Lee scared and says, “Moab, she just a straw in the wind” (229). Donna Lee remains confused, finally leaving the lady with her nieces and nephews. 

Through her actions. Donna Lee becomes like the city of Tula Springs after desegregation. Even though she espouses a heart of benevolence, she fails to help anyone. Donna Lee lives her life, daily espousing her concern for others, but when it comes down to it, she acts like Tula Springs who “[f]ifteen years ago, when blacks could no longer be excluded from Josie Wayne, . . . discovered it had no more funds for the center’s upkeep” (177). Donna Lee, for all of her blistering, does not have the funds (time) to help Mr. Ray or to really converse with and understand Moab’s life. 

I’ll save a discussion of Hunk City for the next post. That novel expands upon some of the topics discussed here. What are your thoughts? Again, let me know in the comments to below. 

Lowe, John. “An Interview With James Wilcox: January 1997[*].” Mississippi Quarterly 52.4 (1999): 617-663. 
Wilcox, James. Modern Baptists. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. 



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