An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 17, 2015

Pugh: Queer Chivalry

Tison Pugh, Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Randy P. Schiff (

As the massive criticism of Confederate flags that followed the June 17, 2015 massacre of nine African-American innocents at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina makes clear, symbols of Southern militarism remain a volatile force in America. The most recognizable Confederate flag, the Battle Flag of the Army of North Virginia, elicits such powerful responses because it is so overdetermined, communicating not just the history of violent rebellion and its defeat, but also racist resistance to Reconstruction and integration, nostalgic notions of Southern honor and history, and acute regionalist affect. In Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature, Tison Pugh offers a powerful study of fantasies related to the medieval militarist ideology of chivalry inflecting literary treatments of “white southern masculinity” (1) in post-1950s US Southern fiction. Offering both a broad vision of romantic medievalism’s seminal role in Southern literature and a range of engaging individual analyses, Pugh’s monograph will please readers of medieval and modern literature alike.

In his introduction, Pugh deftly deploys myth to analyze the ideological forces of history, gender, race, and sexuality that converge in what he calls Southern literature’s “queer chivalry” (10). For Pugh, queer theory, in calling attention to the normalization of various identity categories, illuminates pervasive chivalric notions of Southern masculinity that have become “silently naturalized” (5). Discussing Mark Twain’s seminal assessment of Southern progress being held back by “the Sir Walter Disease,” which caused so many Southerners to devote themselves to the factitious medieval chivalry featured in Scott’s romantic novels, Pugh locates “queer potential” in the masculinities of a Southern culture whose anxieties about military defeat generated a romanticized affiliation with knighthood (17). Pugh envisions chivalric identities as “queering forces” that promise “subversive potential” while disrupting norms of manhood (20).

Pugh’s second chapter provides a foundational literary historical frame by juxtaposing Twain’s diagnosis of a “Sir Walter disease” with the “ambivalent medievalism” of his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (29). Pugh holds that Twain’s time-traveling protagonist Hank Morgan’s privileged white heteronormativity is revealed by his simultaneous attraction to, and rejection of, the homosocial relationships that saturate King Arthur’s sixth-century realm: Morgan’s frequent reference to the Arthurian knights as “white Indians” offers a racialized version of his anxiety about hybridity that parallels his gendered discomfort with a homosocially “queer” chivalric world (30). Pugh reads Morgan’s extermination of a world that he had yearned to improve as a refusal of what Frederick Jameson calls a “dialectical” view of history, which demands that past and present mutually penetrate each other, in constant and dynamic dialogue (31). Pugh makes a compelling case for the novel’s homoerotic tensions, which he contextualizes through analysis of the tensions generated by nineteenth-century “romantic sex-same friendships” and through reference to Twain’s familiarity with homosocial environments (42). Besides noting Morgan’s enthusiastic creation of a “Man-Factory” and his commentary on the knights’ “physical attractiveness” (47), Pugh shows that Clarence often overshadows Morgan’s eventual wife, Sandy: Morgan’s thoughts turn to this “boy” when he requires rescue (44), and he imagines himself a “mother” with whom Clarence produced a newspaper (45). Most intriguingly, Pugh sees the specter of homoeroticism in Morgan’s excessive “denunciation of male bonds” when he finally marries the Sandy whom he initially debased as “savage” (39): by “going native” and marrying Sandy, Morgan temporarily wards off the anxiety of a world that prioritizes homosocial bonds. Tragically, Morgan’s refusal to dialectically adapt to such a queer world leads him only to his final murderous rampage, as industrial capitalism fantastically kills off the chivalry that haunted the modern South.

Turning to Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Pugh explores how her characters’ paths to spiritual “revelation” are hindered by experimentation with chivalric models of identity (54). After demonstrating O’Connor’s abiding literary interest in medieval hermeneutics (59) and her use of both chivalric and hagiographic imagery to critique “medievalized” masculinity in the post-Civil War South (60), Pugh investigates the emptiness and “narcissism” in many of O’Connor’s self-sacrificial characters (632). Pugh engagingly analyzes “archaic” modes of chivalrous masculinity as limiting Old Dudley’s ability to form friendships outside of his racial, gendered, and regional comfort zone (67-68), and rivetingly reads the grotesque, self-destructive deflation of the past-obsessed General Sash’s “fantasy of phallic power” (70). After discussing O’Connor’s fascination with the “redemptive possibilities” of homosexuality as a mode of intimacy that, in breaking through the ego’s defenses, allows characters to escape “solipsism” and achieve spiritual progress (75), Pugh shows how Asbury in “The Enduring Chill” embodies a homosexuality that both alienates and liberates (77), and studies the shocking movement in The Violent Bear It Away from Tarwater’s anal rape to a spiritual road which transcends what O’Connor sees as the usually pre-spiritual world of sexuality (81).

Investigating the acutely “antichivalric” and “antisouthern” Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Pugh turns to a comic work centered in a “queer masculinity” devoted to the doubly alienating pursuits of masturbation and “esoteric” medievalism (83). Highlighting Toole’s status as a Southern homosexual who obtained a master’s degree in medieval and Renaissance literature (84), Pugh suggests that Toole’s sense of alienation from his conservative milieu colors his allegorical presentation of a medievalist Reilly struggling against a “fallen modern world” (89). Fashioning himself a “defender” of “Boethian” ethics bringing order to his chaotic day (90) and a “Crusader” and “Arthurian” knight battling present “relativism” (91), Reilly inhabits an intensely literary world structured by the genres of medieval drama and exemplum (92). After introducing Reilly’s twin madcap efforts to start an African-American uprising at a Levi’s factory and organize a “homosexual infiltration of world governments,” Pugh asserts that systematic critique of society’s conflation of religion and commerce forms the novel’s true allegorical center (93). In a chapter featuring much thought-provoking analysis of allegory’s destabilizing power (95), Pugh cannily observes that Toole’s novel’s “pleasure” depends upon readers identifying with a decidedly “queer” narrator in a manner that recalls how medieval allegories “seduce” readers into identifying with “faceless” first-person narrators (100). Describing the novels “masturbatory thrill of embodying allegories” (102), Reilly strikingly critiques white southern chivalry by combining social and academic solipsism in his use of semen-stained sheets as a banner for his “Crusade” (104). Reilly’s redemption ensures that Toole’s opus remains essentially comic. Moving us from Reilly’s disturbingly bestial and adolescently pornographic desires, to his spiritual and personal growth produced by becoming the “rescued-damsel-in-distress in a medieval romance” (111), Pugh suggests that Toole’s medievalist masturbatory fantasies help him transcend the constraints of southern chivalric masculinity (111).

Pugh’s fifth chapter focuses on Robert Penn Warren’s intense engagement with history. Warren’s transformation from an agrarianist and segregationist to a member of the 1960s Civil Rights movement led to his insistence that only by confronting its history might Southerners transcend the “bigotries and stereotypes” of a “mythologized past” (113). Dwelling on the “whitewashing” involved in the United States’s 1978 restoration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s citizenship and Warren’s insistence that Davis would have thought such a pardon dishonorable (114), Pugh argues that Warren’s historicizing literature features a “queer manhood” generated by the contradictions between violent reality and romantic nostalgia in Southern culture’s ongoing “Lost Cause” (115). Launching into a breathtaking reading of Warren’s A Place to Come To, Pugh explores the queer potential of the heterosexual Jed Tewksbury, who, in choosing Dante and spirituality over his father’s empty chivalry, reorients white southern masculinity (116). Pugh powerfully interprets Jed’s father Buck’s penis as bearing the “weight of southern patriarchy” (118). Dying in an overdetermined, quasi-mythical pose—drunk, by a wagon with mules, holding his penis while urinating—Buck figures the “power of the phallus” and its “patriarchal legacy” (117). His militarist father’s empty “phallic authority” is also figured in the material practice of Confederate swords as family heirlooms (118). After removing himself from Alabama, Jed symbolically exorcises his father by performing a “minstrel show,” complete with “comic phallus” prop, that reenacts his father’s death (120). Such aesthetic catharsis is framed by Jed’s larger project of escaping southern chivalric provincialism through an academic medievalism that he links with medieval knighthood and Classical heroism (122). Pugh turns to courtly love to explore the ambivalence of the “timeless” in Warren’s novel (124): much as chivalry’s brutality exposes the contradictions of Southern medievalism, so does courtly love’s simultaneous transcendence and carnality reveal that the desire to escape time’s limits can be liberating, but can only be limited, temporary (127). Tracking Jed’s moral development as ascension from his “dehumanizing” analysis of Rose’s sexuality into a romanticized vagina and a merely “animal,” empty anus (130), to his later cultivation of a “meaningful relationship” with a fully humanized Dauphine (135), Pugh compellingly reads Jed’s rejection of idealized “timelessness” (131) as enabling a mature appreciation of history that he can pass on to his son (135).

Pugh’s penultimate chapter surveys the “queer quests” pursued by characters seeking to “overcome[e] sexual otherness” in Walker Percy’s novels. Pugh intriguingly explores the intensely Catholic Percy’s modern Lancelot as a knight whose quest for an “unholy grail” is linked to his view of “overtly sexual” women as breaching “southern decorum” (149). Such narcissistic chivalry in Lancelot leads to a murderous rage that might have been prevented by looking to “saintly” rather than chivalric models (151). Reading Aunt Emily in The Moviegoer as linked with the “erect” masculinity of an Edward the Black Prince whose masculinity Binx cannot “incarnate” (157), Pugh follows Percy’s critique of the “value system in which he was raised” (157): that Aunt Emily only gets along with Binx once she realizes that he cannot meet her chivalric ideals offers one model of escaping the constraints of southern chivalric masculinism (159). Pugh also offers a powerful reading of Percy’s Thomas More’s linkage of the “Sir Walter disease” with dangerous militarism in The Thanatos Syndrome: such romantic medievalism sent Confederates to die as if they were “Catholic knights” seeking “the infidel” (168).

Pugh closes his delightful monograph with an epilogue analyzing Ellen Gilchrist’s resignification of southern chivalry in The Annunciation. After reflecting on the “repudiation” of women within the narratives of white southern masculinity that form the bulk of his analysis (176), Pugh turns to Gilchrist to see an alternatively gendered chivalric South. Gilchrist’s character Amanda McCamrey escapes a stifling New Orleans by turning to medieval history, and eventually commits herself to translating the work of a female medieval French poet (181). Both by rejecting her “romantic” lover’s treatment of her as a passive “princess” (181) and by realizing that translating the past will not allow her to truly escape the South (182), Amanda prepares herself, both through her “pregnancy” and through her newfound self-confidence, for a brighter future (183). Amanda’s rewriting of southern chivalry offers an uplifting ending to Pugh’s fascinating study of the fraught medievalism in much Southern literature.

Randy P. Schiff
SUNY Buffalo