Southern Discomfort

A NOVEL, A LAWSUIT & AN UNHAPPY LEGACY

Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help, which has been made into a movie scheduled for release this summer, made me intensely uncomfortable with its Gone with the Wind–style Southern dialect and depiction of lopsided relationships between a bunch of white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1960. Sometimes, of course, discomfort can be a good and even important thing, and Stockett herself suggests that’s what she was trying to evoke: “I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things,” she says in an author’s note, “that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.” So let’s do it anyway.

The book’s real appeal, it seems to me, is in its invitation to ease into a warm bath of moral superiority over the racist ninnies in the book, who worry about the diseases they might catch if the women who cook their food and raise their children were also to tinkle in their toilets.

But a little self-congratulation goes a long way, in print as in life. When Stockett also shares in the author’s note how she once ground her stiletto heel into the foot of a “drunk man from a rich white Metro North–train type of town” who spoke ill of Mississippi at a New York cocktail party, and then “spent the next ten minutes quietly educating him on the where-from-abouts of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Elvis Presley, B. B....

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About the Author

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.