In this groundbreaking study, Kathaleen E. Amende explores the works and lives of late-twentieth-century southern women writers to show how conservative Christian ideals of femininity shaped notions of religion, sexuality, and power in the South. Drawing from the work of authors such as Rosemary Daniell and Connie May Fowler, whose characters—like the authors themselves—grow up believing that Jesus should be a girl’s first “boyfriend,” Amende demonstrates many ways in which these writers commingled the sexual and the sacred.
Amende also looks at the writings of Lee Smith, Sheri Reynolds, Dorothy Allison, and Valerie Martin to discuss how southern women authors and their characters grappled with opposing cultural expectations. Often in their work, characters mingle spiritual devotion and carnal love, allowing for salvation despite rejecting traditional roles or behaviors. In Martin’s A Recent Martyr, novitiate Claire disavows southern norms of femininity—courtship, marriage, and motherhood—but submits to Jesus as she would to a husband. Teenage protagonist Ninah Huff in Reynolds’s Rapture of Canaan imagines that her out-of-wedlock child is the offspring of Christ because of her conviction that Jesus was present during conception.
Grounded in cultural and gender studies and informed by historical, religious, and devotional literature, Amende’s timely and accessible book demonstrates the tenuous divide between feminine sexuality and Christianity in a southern context.
Kathaleen E. Amende is an associate professor of English at Alabama State University, where she teaches American, southern and African American literature. She is the author of numerous published essays on southern culture and literature.