Reconstructing and Learning from the Past in Attica Locke’s "The Cutting Season"

Attica Locke

At the beginning of Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Mary asks the unnamed history teacher why he wants to interview Miss Jane. He tells her that he teaches history and that his students would benefit from Jane’s story because “Miss Jane is not in [their history books]” (v). Because of this omission, like the missing pages in the schoolhouse that Mary Agnes teaches in towards the middle of the novel, the teacher seeks to provide an account of Miss Jane’s life from Emancipation through the start of the Civil Rights Movement, essentially filling in the gaps that the constructed history eliminated. Gaines relied on B. A. Botkin’s Lay My Burden Down (1945), and the novel appeared only four years after Julius Lester’s To Be A Slave (1968). Both Botkin and Lester constructed their texts based on the Federal Writers’ Project’s interviews with ex-slaves during the 1930s. These texts, along with many that would come afterwards, sought to reconstruct the historical narrative that either totally left out or simply glossed over the African American experience in this country.  

Historical Terminology in Attica Locke’s "The Cutting Season"

Last October, Roni Dean-Burren posted a photo of a map that appeared in her son’s American History textbook in Texas. The map shows patterns of immigration in the United States. Pointing towards the Carolinas, the caption about the forced immigration of Africans to America where they would become slaves reads as follows: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the Southern United States to work on agricultural plantations” (emphasis added). Key here, of course, is the textbook authors’ use of the term “workers” to refer to individuals who arrived on the shores of the United States involuntarily and as the property of landowners throughout the country. While the term does carry some truth, its use here ultimately carries with it the idea that the Africans who migrated here during the Atlantic Slave Trade did so with some form of agency, which is blatantly inaccurate. 

I bring this incident up because I recently went back and read Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2012) again in preparation for her readings April 5 and April 6 at UL Lafayette and to prepare for the upcoming NEH Summer Institute Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience. I have written about this novel before, specifically in regards to the similarities between it and Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1983). On this read through, I saw even more similarities, but those will have to wait until the next post. Today, I want to briefly touch on how Locke situates the plantation of Belle Vie (Beautiful Life) in relation to written history and actual historical events.

In the novel, Caren Gray, an African American woman, manages the plantation where her ancestors and those who owned her ancestors once lived. She takes care of the property, and as the manager, she books weddings, receptions, tours, and other events. The plantation exists as a historical marker, a place to preserve so that the past will not disappear into the ether. However, whose past gets represented becomes part of the focus of the novel. In many ways, this novel should be considered alongside of T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville (2015), another contemporary novel that hinges on the retelling of history through plays and demonstrations. 

At the beginning of the novel, Caren makes her way around the grounds, checking up on everything before the plantation opens for the day. As she approaches the slave quarters, she passes a marker that describes the six cabins situated there. 

Raised some three feet off of the ground and set just inside the gate to the first cabin, it dated the village to 1852, the year Monsieur and Madame Duquesne bought the land from the Mississippi all the way to the back swamp, christening it Le Belle Vie. The six cabins were all that remained of what was once a THRIVING VILLAGE OF PLANTATION WORKERS. (11)

Here, the marker has the same language as the McGraw-Hill textbook. The narrator, or characters, don’t comment on this language; instead, it just sits on the page in capital letters, screaming at the reader. Caren always feels tense walking through the quarters, knowing the history of the people who lived there, including her own ancestors. 

Just as Caren feels overwhelmed by the cabins, other characters do as well. Her former partner Eric, when he approaches the slave cabins for the first time, feels tense as well. Even though he is not from the South, he still encounters apprehension as he stands at the mouth of the quarters because “this face-to-face meeting with one’s own history, the family you never knew you had,” should not be faced alone. Likewise, the African American southeast regional development president of the Groveland Corporation, Ken Wiggams, tours the grounds with four other Groveland employees to decide what they will do with the property. When the group reaches the quarters, the whites go throughout the cabins, reading markers and snapping pictures. Ken, on the other hand, “didn’t even venture into the slave village,” and he stood there with “a bitter, grudging expression” on his face (365). Caren imagines the man’s thoughts as he stands there “viewing himself as two men at once: a president and a descendant of slaves” (365-366). 

These feelings towards the quarters undercut the writing on the marker that the people who occupied the six cabins, and those cabins that had disappeared, existed as workers who voluntarily decided to work the land. The past of the South manifests itself as Caren, throughout the novel, struggles to reconcile the beauty of the landscape with the horrors that once occurred there. What is amazing about Locke’s novel is the fact that she does not present slavery; instead, the historical focus center’s in on Caren’s ancestor Jason, a former slave who during Reconstruction found a way to stake a claim to the plantation that once owned him. 

In the next post, I will discuss some more ways that The Cutting Season echoes Ernest J. Gaines’s work, specifically in its commentary on history and whose history gets privileged. What are your thoughts on the topic discussed today? What we have here is an overview, so I a curious to know what your thoughts are. As usual, let me know in the comments below. 

Locke, Attica. The Cutting Season. New York: Harper Perrineal,2012.

Ellen Glasgow’s "Jordan’s End" and the Decaying South

Before the narrative starts in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946), we see a description of the contemporaneous edifice of Harrow in decay, dilapidated beyond repair. Nature has retaken the land, and the once glorious house stands as a shell of its former self. Apart from this image, the Southern Gothic and symbols of the decaying South do not necessarily appear, at least as they show up in the work of William Faulkner and Ellen Glasgow. Yerby’s novel is a historical romance, not a Gothic text, so it follows a simple, straight forward narrative. Yerby’s novel, though, does deal with decay of the South after the Civil War and counters the romantic visions of southern history that persist even today.

While Yerby does not really use symbols or the Gothic to get this message across, Ellen Glasgow uses these specific elements in her fiction, notably in “Jordan’s End” (1923), a short story that  chronicles the waning moments of Alan Jordan and his crumbling lineage. The unnamed, physician-narrator tells of his journey to Jordan’s decaying house, the family history, and his treatment of Alan Jordan’s illness. From the very beginning, the narrator paints a picture of a landscape and community in decline and near its end.

The physician begins by describing his journey through the “November woods” with the trees pressing in on him from either side and he rode towards “Buzzard’s Tree” (358). The very name of the tree, Buzzard, calls to mind a scavenging animal that does not prey on the living but the dead. When he reaches the tree, the narrator encounter Father Peterkin, a hunchback who tells the physician about the Jordan family history. Peterkin tells the narrator that the Jordan family’s deterioration began after the Civil War when Timothy Jordan “was obleeged to draw in his horns” (359). To do this, the family began to intermarry, thus contaminating the bloodline and leading to mental and physical illnesses.
As he approaches the house, the narrator sees the trees open up to display “the old brick house crumbling beneath its rank growth of ivy” (360). Like Harrow, nature has begun to overtake the Jordan estate, causing it to fall into utter decay. Likewise, Alan’s mental competency mirrors that of the house. While Alan appears physically stable, and like he could live till 90, his mental capacities show a sharp decline. Upon seeing him for the first time, the physician describes his as “lost within the impenetrable wilderness of the insane, as remote from us and from the sound of our voices as if he were the inhabitant of an invisible world” (364). The house and Alan’s mind become symbols of the South after the Civil War. Rather than being a strong region that could easily rebound, the long history of slavery and continued racism, created a region that continually peeled back the scabs to let the sores fester. The region also experienced physical and economic destruction.
Through these descriptions, Glasgow does not romanticize the South. Instead, she presents it as an “empire” on the decline. What becomes interesting here and in other texts, though, is that the house is only in decline, not gone. With a declining house, it can rebound and rise again. While the images present a region struggling with its history, they also present a region that could ultimately rebound. However, this is not the case in “Jordan’s End” because after the physician leaves his patient with some opium, Alan ends up dead in a couple of days. Alan dies from taking all of the opium that the physician leaves, and upon learning this, the narrator asks who actually killed Alan.
Did Alan take the medicine himself? Did his wife Judith kill him? Did one of the “negroes” kill him? The narrator never finds out the answer, and he never asks anyone about it. By thinking about these possibilities, the narrator links the fall of the Jordan household to various factors, and by extension, these factors can be extrapolated to the South as a region. If Alan killed himself, then the region’s pride becomes its ultimate downfall. If Judith kills him, then the continued desire to maintain a idyllic past that exists on the backs of slaves becomes the downfall. It must be noted that Judith appears throughout the story as a beautiful angelic type figure. If one of the “negroes” killed Alan, then the fractured community based on slavery and oppression led to the end.
This is not the only way to think about Glasgow’s story, but read in conjunction with authors like Yerby and Faulkner, it provides a lens to see the Southern Gothic in the story in relation to the real-life antecedent of the South in the early part of the twentieth century. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Glasgow, Ellen. “Jordan’s End.” The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 357-368.