John C. Young scholar J.P. Deering ’16 explores Southern literature and culture
Along with the coursework and extracurricular activities that are part of every Centre College student’s experience, J.P. Deering ’16 also spent his senior year doing archival research and finding connections between legendary authors as a John C. Young (JCY) scholar.
Deering’s JCY project, “Cormac McCarthy’s Southern Blood: Analyzing McCarthy’s Work in the Context of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor,” studies literature through the lenses of geography and culture, closely examining the differences in McCarthy’s novels set in the American South versus the American West.
“I wanted to analyze how McCarthy constructed landscapes differently between his Southern and Western works,” Deering says. “I studied that with an eye for how Faulkner and O’Connor constructed their landscapes.”
While Deering knew what direction he hoped his JCY project would take, it took convincing from his JCY advisor, Assistant Professor of English Stacey Peebles, to allow himself to explore a variety of themes as his research developed.
“I believed there was a difference [in McCarthy’s work] in terms of moving West, but I didn’t know what,” Deering says. “I’m normally so concerned with having everything on paper before I start writing. Dr. Peebles convinced me to do away with that. She said, ‘Start writing, and you’ll write yourself into ideas.’”
Peebles’ advice worked for Deering, who became inspired to focus his JCY research on McCarthy’s depictions of landscape and morality while reading about Southern literary giants Faulkner and O’Connor.
“I realized that the Southern landscapes I’d been looking at in their work enforced traditional moral frameworks,” Deering says. “McCarthy worked in the same way, but he tried to twist what they were doing into something more ambiguous and less familiar. When he moves West, he creates this space where morals don’t exist.”
“That was the big breakthrough for me,” Deering continues, “when I figured out what I wanted the project to be: connecting literary traditions and seeing how they play out, and how they change each other.”
Before starting his JCY project, Deering had previously studied Southern literature at Centre with Peebles, an expert in the subject.
“I knew Dr. Peebles knew a lot about McCarthy, but I didn’t know she was the third foremost McCarthy scholar in the world,” Deering says. “She took me to the University of Virginia to do archival work, which I had never done before.”
The archives gave Deering insight into McCarthy’s cultural identity and how he felt about being compared to other Southern writers.
“It was just boxes and boxes of letters. What I landed on was correspondence between McCarthy and Albert Erskine, his editor, about his first novel,” Deering says. “They would write each other twenty-page letters, where Erskine would say, ‘I think you’re like Faulkner in these ways.’ McCarthy would respond and say, ‘No, here’s what I’m trying to do.’ He was negotiating his Southern identity.”
While Deering’s JCY project may technically be finished, he plans to expand on the research he began at Centre in graduate school at the University of Kentucky this fall.
“There’s more to do with this project,” he says. “I’ve been very interested in how different traditions interact with each other, and I want to shift the focus on this project by giving it a larger scope in examining how communities and traditions across the Atlantic are interacting with each other.
“I want to publish and be like the professors I’ve gotten to work with during this project,” Deering adds. “I want to do this kind of research for the rest of my life.”
by Elizabeth Trollinger
June 20, 2016