Ali Arant, English Professor at Wagner College on Staten Island, joins us this week for a conversation about old maids from the South and elsewhere. Ali’s research focuses on the trope of the old maid in regional literature, examining work by William Faulkner, Ellen Glasgow, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison among others.
However, she has also found the figure in surprising places. For instance, the term is also used to describe an un-popped kernel of popcorn at the bottom of a bowl and the single, unmatchable card in a game similar to Go Fish. An old maid lurks in the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” as the (typically) female speaker’s “maiden aunt” with a “vicious mind.” Our conversation investigates how cultural anxieties are embodied in this tragicomic character.
According to Ali, old maids are typically past the typical age of being married, and they seem unlikely to ever be married. They are usually busybodies, overly interested in other people’s sexuality, and they retain the worst aspects of youth and age. They are childish and immature with aging, "gross" bodies. She presents Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! whose “female old flesh [was] long embattled in virginity” as an embodiment of the trope.
Old maids represent reproductive potential gone wrong, and they can express and/or mock anxieties about changing cultural landscapes. For example, old maids appearing in early twentieth-century southern literature might reflect an Agrarian anxiety that the South with cease to be what it once was. The figure appears in conjunction with agricultural anxiety about crop exhaustion and concerns about miscegenation. Ali describes how women come to stand in for larger cultural anxieties in the late twentieth century as well, noting that Jeffrey Eugenides cites the decline of the automobile industry as the inspiration for his 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides.
We would like to thank our special guest this week, Ali Arant, who also provided music for this week’s episode. Ali’s research focuses on regionalism, gender, and critical race studies, and she is completing two book projects, an edited collection on Flannery O’Connor with Jordan Cofer, and a second book on old maids and regionalism. We would also like to congratulate Ali and her husband, Tyler, on their recent marriage. We hope their future includes all the happiness in the world (and ample space for bookshelves).
Buy Ali Arant's album, June/July here.