Perform a general Google search for authors past and present hailing from any American state below the Mason-Dixon line, and you’re bound to find a convoy of white males. Even in these supposed progressive times, it takes more digging to uncover the biographies and bibliographies of female authors, authors of color, and authors within the LGBTQ+ community. Yet their voices are as essential in representing the Southern experience as those belonging to their easily searchable counterparts. This is why we’ve started Southern Lit Presents, a monthly column featuring historical contributors to Southern culture who speak from and for underrepresented populations. We hope these features will expand your perception of Southern culture and deepen your love the rich history surrounding it!
The Anatomy of Laura Riding Jackson
The Fugitives, for which this zine is named, was a collective of Southern writers who published their own literary magazine and met to discuss what Southern literature meant during its time. Though a notably progressive group that advocated against racism, it consisted of white men only—with one exception. Laura Riding Jackson had one of the most impressive résumés of published work with “nine volumes of poetry, several collections of critical essays and fiction, a long novel, and the founding of a small publishing house, the Seizin Press,” according to The New York Review of Books.
The 20s set the stage for Riding’s poetry with the concept of the New Woman who “embraced new fashions, personal freedom and new ideas that challenged the traditional role of women,” as defined by American-Historama. The Poetry Foundation specifies that Riding took no prisoners by challenging age-old gender roles in her writing and exploring “the difficulty of being a woman with a mind” even during such a progressive era. Still, she found difficulty in existing as both a woman and a philosophical writer; despite the great strides being made in feminism, “woman” and “great thinker” were not viewed as equivalent. They existed as separate entities. A man could be a great mind, while a woman just happened to have one.
In her poetry collection examining her different body parts, Riding demonstrates a strong sense of self-appreciation and self-reflection. She offers the writer’s equivalent to a self-portrait (or selfie) through a series of poems, each titled after a different body part. Though the 20s saw a rise in women forging their own paths through college education, voting, and divorce, much of society still clung to the ideal woman being self-sacrificing and humble, with the sole goal of attending to the needs of her children or husband. BBC notes that “most women were still housewives and were not as free as their men.” Riding’s poetic self-portrait bucks those oppressive standards irreverently.
In “Eyes,” Riding examines the figurative windows to her soul, lavishing the poem with loving imagery. But she doesn’t give her readers the answer to this anatomical riddle right away. One must read until the poem’s end for its literal meaning. She may as well have painted an evening’s landscape with hushed colors commanded by shadows. “Some nearly impossible vision like this / Is necessary for the mood of my eyes,” she writes, concluding the languid description of the irises. The second stanza, “Formally announced by my eyebrows,” makes more unapologetic demands to take notice, like a drum heralding a ritual of witchcraft. By the end of this stanza, she commands that the reader “Behold my mystic eyes.”
In “Hair,” Riding makes each strand of language come to life like a timid bird preparing to fly to places unknown. “So timorous yet travel-intentioned, / tentatively adventuring on my neck and ears…” The poet gives herself a prominent position in this poem, describing herself as “skyscraper me.” She makes her existence larger than life and central—a technique commonly used by male writers of the time—suggesting that a woman’s existence and very gravitational pull holds its own importance and identity, and so she has less need for man’s involvement, never mind his ego.
In “Ears,” Riding describes her ears as “Misers for my sake only,” instead of devices for hearing commands. She calls them her “cups of avarice,” an allusion to the selfishness she allows herself. Later, she describes herself as “my own miser / picking over, picking over…. For a few singing shells / To take with me when I go.” These verses describe a woman’s ability to select at will instead of accept what’s given to her. Making metaphors of her ears, she demonstrates a woman’s capability of gleaning through information she hears what is worth holding on to and what is not.
“Head Itself” examines the prominence of who Riding is within her own mind. Combining physical placement with a strong sense of self, she declares, “My head is at the top of me / where my face turns an inner courage / Toward what’s outside of me…” Riding’s head, where her most private thoughts and public musings originate, is the focal point of her poetic self-portrait. She places the greatest symbolic importance on the head, her head, which encases her mind that “meets the challenge of difference in other things.”
From self-appreciation regarding the smallest details of her existence to pushing her intelligence and talent to the forefront of her being and identity, Laura Riding Jackson ought to be crowned as queen of The Fugitives, a pioneer for the New South. In an era when the New Woman first raised her head, Riding offered up a poetic image of what that head might look like. Thus, when mentioning our zine’s namesake, The Fugitives, it would be unfair not to offer a portrait of Laura Riding Jackson’s personified anatomy.