Inherent Defeatism in Barry Hannah’s “The Agony of T. Bandini” and “Uncle High Lonesome”

Inherent Defeatism in Barry Hannah’s “The Agony of T. Bandini” and “Uncle High Lonesome”

Julia Merkel

1. Southern Tradition

What makes Southern literature still distinctly Southern even after the twists and turns of postmodernism? The recent critical notion of a westward movement describes the assumed freedom of Southern literature after postmodernism to move away from the geographical South and to at last be able to cut the binds with its famous Faulknerian “home soil.” (The almost proverbial sense of place was supposedly lost in tumultuous postmodernism and has now taken a back seat with authors from the South in favor of other, new issues. Southern literature supposedly is now capable of moving west to address western myths and use western settings, and the literature of the South has entered a state of postsoutherness, now assuming universal/American themes and myths. In this line of argumentation Southern sense of place has even become a transnational concept, not necessarily connected to the Southern home, but possibly a global home (see Bone).

If this is the case and Southern literature can indeed enjoy its newfound freedom in other areas of plot and setting, why do even presumed postmodern authors of the South still widely reference their literary tradition? Why do they especially use William Faulkner, the most prominent figure of the Southern Renaissance, as a constant vanishing point, thereby reproducing his settings and characters, motifs and subjects? Why is the umbilical cord not yet cut?

In this essay I want to address these questions in two steps. First I want to argue for William Faulkner’s work as something I would like to call a ‘master narrative’ for the contemporary literary South. I argue that his themes and motifs are topical for the (literary) South down to the present day, best expressed by an inherent defeatism of contemporary characters in their courses of action. This is the case because Faulkner’s cast, themes, and narrative structures cater especially well to the still omnipresent longing for the bygone, a fatalistic outlook on life, and the firm belief in fate as the inevitable main determining factor of life. This remains visible in a lot of contemporary Southern literature, sometimes in new guises, but still not overcome. A mere moving of the setting cannot be sufficient explanation for assumedly cut ties. Although some settings may have ‘gone west’, e.g. in Cormac McCarthy’s so-called western novels Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, traditional Southern themes remain. The topics of man being driven from his natural home by modernization and innovation therefore losing his country, the mythical connection between man, animal, and nature, and the search for one’s untouched home place are central.

In a second step of interpreting Barry Hannah’s short stories “The Agony of T. Bandini” and “Uncle High Lonesome,” I want to trace this heritage by identifying Hannah’s settings and psychological environment as ones of anticipated failure and lethargic acceptance of fate. The South is portrayed here as a breeding ground and stage for personal defeat and loss of innocence where living in the past can become a consciously adopted attitude and lifestyle. The South in this context turns into a sanctuary for the defeated and shamed, where incapacities can be paradoxically turned into pride if not superiority.

2. Longing for the Bygone

Even before the Civil War the special role of the South within the United States was existent: the South’s clinging to the past, its approach to life as predetermined and led only by God, and importance of the (natural) environment. Searching for points of reference, constitutive elements for the construction of identity, and verbalization thereof, the look over the shoulder, the longing for the past, had its origin at the hour of birth of the nation. Already William Byrd, assigned with the completion of the demarcation line between Virginia and North Carolina, speaks about the Southern landscape and its inhabitants in his accounts of his travels in mythical terms and finds them differing from the rest of colonized North America (see Byrd).

During the antebellum period the South glanced back to the motherland of Great Britain; after the Civil War it gloomily longed for the antebellum period. The past is deeply embedded in its collective memory, or to put it in Faulkner’s words, for the South “the past is never dead.” (Faulkner 6) There is a shift that occurred with the Southern Renaissance at the beginning of the last century. It was a shift from the historic novel with its cast of the morally strong Southern belle and her male counterpart, the Southern gentleman, to the guilt-ridden, mythologized portrayal of Southern society using nature, culture, history, and gender roles to perpetuate the innate longing for a long-lost past and social order (may they have ever really existed or not). This shift has never been transcended in Southern literature. This building one’s foundation with old bricks was actually done quite literally by Cormac McCarthy, who took bricks from James Agee’s house and used them to build a wall in his own.

Barry Hannah works on these themes in a seemingly postmodern manner, he puts them in new garments, but one will still find them recognizable. He depicts the results of human dysfunctions in a way that parodies Southern Gothic (see Weston 3). In doing this he rather uses postmodern form as a means to reinforce old Southern Gothic themes. His description of the unpopular white trash nouveau riches in Hey Jack!, the Foot family, is a well-wrought persiflage. They live in a huge mansion built too fast, paid for by their cocaine-packing son Ronnie. Due to the bad substance and rash construction it is already falling apart. It is the new version of the rotting Southern mansion, being not an expression of the old grandeur but of a result of influx of new and dirty money into the region, which will not prevail (Hannah, Hey Jack! 33).

Hannah’s protagonists are typically also in a very Southern, pre-modern situation. The human being typically is overwhelmed by the overflowing possibilities, options, and the omniscient pressure to make decisions, while he or she is stunned and isolated, struggling with his or her situation, e.g. in the modern city. The subject in the South is provided with tighter social norms for orientation and decision-making but is also confined and restricted in rigid social structures, which only know in- or exclusion.

I assume that there is a set of core values with this longing for the bygone and the defeatism in regard to one’s personal situation that has survived so-called post-Southern literature. My hypothesis is that the reason for this resilience and the strong regional connection is the combination of identity building on the basis of antebellum values with the musealization of the Old South and the pride, which arose from the burnt soil and the shameful defeat of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, and that thiscontributes decisively to the continuity of traditional Southern literature.

3. Inherent Defeatism in “The Agony of T. Bandini” and “Uncle High Lonesome”

In Hannah’s work one can find Faulkneresque themes and characters in numerous instances. Faulkner is mentioned by name numerous times and referenced even more. He is the symbol of the essential South: for example, when Bandini meets Southern students at his old college in upstate New York, they are “crazed for the work of William Faulkner, and even more crazed as the homesickness grew” (Hannah, The Agony of T. Bandini 129). To be homesick for the South means to yearn for William Faulkner’s work for some relief. He seems to be the personified South, and he and his subjects are not overcome; they are still perpetuated by contemporary authors. Literary magazines like the Oxford American “are still riding the crest of the wave created by the [Southern] Renaissance” (Wittenberg 21). Faulkner is so important because his situation is typical for the tension and strain the Southern author felt and still feels. While Faulkner’s contemporary Ernest Hemingway was part American part cosmopolitan, Faulkner himself was part American part Southern. He addresses American themes and subjects, but is sure to come back to the great division of America, the Civil War and its aftermath. Born twenty years after the end of the war, he grew up to recognize and address in his work the “unresolved and ambiguous issue of Southern attitudes to modernism, chiefly its fierce opposition to modernization as a kind of foreign intrusion” (Karl 3). The South that he and the authors who followed him portray presents itself as though the war was not over yet. There still is an internal war. Violence permeates everything: marriages, attitudes, racial relations, and conflicts of all kinds attempt desperately to preserve the known and to hold on to the dwindling (5).

While in “Uncle High Lonesome” an inherent, underlying guilt is handed down from generation to generation, in “The Agony of T. Bandini” the South becomes a refuge for Bandini, a shamed Northern outcast, feeling it to be the only environment making his past tolerable. In the retrospective short story “Uncle High Lonesome” the protagonist tells the life story of his uncle Peter, who once as a young man murdered a man in a drunken bar brawl. Although he was set free because the jury was successfully convinced that the victim was “an out-of-towner” deserving of being sentenced to “remain dead.” (Hannah, Uncle High Lonesome 216) The crime haunts him for the rest of his unhappy life. Peter is a dominant male figure in the narrator’s life, teaching him about manhood, sports, and racial tensions. Already the introductory paragraphs of the story evoke typical Southern, Faulkneresque pictures and symbols, namely war, initiation, manhood, and cultural superiority of the South. The nine-year-old boy is accompanying his father and uncle on a quail hunt and is almost caught in the line of fire. War images are employed, “They were coming toward me … on their horses with their guns” (213). But instead of feeling anxious, the boy “was excited to be receiving fire, real gunfire. He felt very worthy for a change” (213). The image of the Southern man as a masculine hunter in sync with his soil and country is conjured up, and Faulkner does not seem far from those gambling, racist, alcoholic hunters in hardwood forests. The boy sees his uncle as a “permanent idea” (214); he is a gambler, exemplifying the concept of trusting luck as a life strategy. Uncle Peter hands down a lot of (Southern) experience and guidance to the young protagonist. He is a killer, a ruthless drunkard, but still he has one weakness, an inexplicable fear of deep water. It is the fear of the unknown that Peter feels in the middle of a lake. He remains in his unhappy life and marriage, unable to change due to the even greater fear of the unknown. It seems more plausible to him to bear a desperate situation than to dare change. It is this defeatism, this acceptance of one’s life as unchangeable that at first costs Peter his pride and eventually his life. He “remained the same, and his ways killed him” (226). The story quite fittingly comes full circle when the main theme, the handing down of guilt, unfolds in the very last paragraph. Long after uncle Peter’s death in his own adult life the protagonist has a recurrent dream about having killed someone. Sharing this with his nephew, also a member of the next generation, the latter only nods, himself not being a stranger to the exact same dream. Though the narrator implicitly acknowledges a certain ownership of this guilt, he feels burdened by the crime he did not commit. It is the past that cannot be overcome and let go, similar to Hawkshaw’s difficulties in Faulkner’s “Hair.” This theme of the past in the present and social paralysis is presented even more extremely in “The Agony of T. Bandini,” where the South as a literal and psychological landscape becomes a sanctuary for Northerner Tiger Bandini, who has killed a man on the road in a drunken stupor. He feels that the South and its climate of guilt is the only place where he can live with himself after the tragedy. The South as a cultural landscape is characteristic of such an atmosphere, and Bandini draws directly from Faulkner to extract a meaning for his miserable existence. He states, “Faulkner had elaborated reasons for doing almost anything,” (Hannah, The Agony of T. Bandini 127) and since Bandini now is in “a world of pain and ruin” and “ruin talked to him” he sees his own “elaborated reasons” trying to make sense of his defeat and failure. The South has cultivated an inescapability of destiny, and fate seems to be the only decisive factor in life. This inevitability comforts Bandini. He indulges himself in his new surroundings and all his subsequent actions are a longing for the pre-civilized and the embrace of defeat. He befriends a local author and his notoriously drunken chauffeur; he occupies himself with the study of “the burden of history”1 (130), destruction, and violence. He begins to read a vast amount of history books simultaneously. They lie around his place and clutter his floor; Bandini is overwhelmed by and at the same time hindered by history.

He withdraws from the world during one of his nights spent drinking. He falls into a bank of weeping willows, themselves a symbol for pain and grief. The motif of untouched nature not only serves as symbol for a place one can hide immoral or even criminal behavior but also for the yearning for a pre-civilized or at least pre-modern state:

A skinny cat came in there with him. Bandini took off all his stinking clothes, picked up the cat, and began weeping. This seemed a sad and wonderful place in here. He cursed the pavement and steel outside and did not come out of the trees until evening…. (129)

He longs for a more simple life; he wants to strip his problems like his soiled clothes. He blames the outside modern world for his failures and tries to refuse to go back to civilization for a short while. He sits there crying and naked, and he only comes out when he is forced by his growing hunger. Bandini leads an aimless life and in the end leaves the reader by dazing off into a hypnotic, crazy state of mind, again in a drunken stupor but “deeply in love” (136) With what or whom remains unanswered.

Hannah’s settings are an archaic, mythical world colliding with reality. The protagonists are strongly connected to the cultural and actual landscape, a place where men are killers, gamblers, and drunkards handing themselves over to the “blind dice-thrower fate” (134). Even if the situation is deprived and poor, the people and social order are strong. Protagonist Jack in Hey Jack! has gone to a big city when he was a sheriff and got stabbed and robbed. From that time on “he had had it with cities” (62) and retreats to Mississippi, “the worst rectangle of geography where there was no hope at all, so that he could build himself into a strong man again” (62). It might be “the worst rectangle of geography,” but it is a place where men are strong and protected from the modernized and dangerous metropolis.

The Southern identity presented literarily and culturally in this context is one of great pride, grief, melancholy, and guilt. It is an identity that has its foundation in a longing, melancholic, and stubborn look to the past. It becomes the major reference for Southern self-definition and demarcation. This Southern picture and culture of untiring remaining in one’s situation and insisting on one’s position may it be good or bad, is deeply rooted in the past. It is perpetuated and handed down from generation to generation. It is a psychological climate of inherent defeatism, which still can be found in today’s contemporary Southern literature, which quite obviously is heir to the master narrative of William Faulkner. Such an inherent defeatism, an anticipation of failure is a rather un-American notion. It is part of the construction of a concept of region and of history of the South. Through retelling, construction, and the process of tradition, the historical baggage becomes the very own of every generation. In a literary sense the choice of motifs, narrative structures, gender roles and the depiction of conflict are expressions and simultaneously constitutive elements of the construction of the South’s cultural identity. If this is the case, and if literature can be assigned a role of reinforcement in this context, this could lead to a continuous perpetuation of traditional subjects and structures and a perpetual strengthening and intensification of identity and the depiction thereof.

This retelling of history is strongly connected to the belief in fate as the main determining factor of life, and in the human incapacity to change a predetermined course of life. Cynthia Shearer, who is the author of two novels and Barry Hannah’s student, has said about her work A Wonder Book of the Air that there are too many books written by people who want to complain about how their parents failed them (Wittenberg) he instead wanted to write about how the world failed her parents and how the children got caught in the crossfire between history and their parents.

Remaining in a situation that is considered a dead-end street for reasons of anticipating worse if one is to try to escape and the longing for a past that seems to have been better and more cultivated are the consequences arising from a climate of defeat and guilt. This threefold combination is famously expressed by Faulkner and perpetuated by Barry Hannah and many of his contemporaries making him still the vanishing point of contemporary Southern literature. The old topics are far from overcome and still in the process of constant perpetuation and construction.


1 Here Hannah clearly references historian C. Vann Woodward’s groundbreaking book The Burden of Southern History (1960).

Works Cited

Bone, Martyn. The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2005. Print.

Byrd, William. Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia: And North Carolina. Ursprüngliches Publikationsjahr? London: Dover, 1987. Print.

Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.

Hannah, Barry. Hey Jack! New York: Penguin, 1987. Print.

—. “The Agony of T. Bandini.” High Lonesome. New York: Grove Press, 1996. 125-36. Print.

—. “Uncle High Lonesome.” High Lonesome. New York: Grove Press, 1996. 211-30. Print.

Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner: American Writer. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. Print.

Weston, Ruth. Barry Hannah: Postmodern Romantic. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998. Print.

Wittenberg, Ray. “Oasis of the Bozart.” The Oxford American 58.21. 30 March 2007. Web. 20 Jan 2010. <www.shs.starkville.k12.ms.us/mswm/MSWritersAndMusicians/writers/Shearer/Shearer.html>.

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