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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The literary significance of dead mules

Dead mules. Who knew they played such a significant role in southern American literature?

Jerry Leath Mills established his reputation as an expert on the subject with his 1996 essay "Equine Gothic: The Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature of the Twentieth Century." He later published a revised edition entitled "The Dead Mule Rides Again":
My survey of around thirty prominent twentieth-century southern authors has led me to conclude, without fear of refutation, that there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it? As we shall see, the presence of one or more specimens of Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) constitutes the truly catalytic element, the straw that stirs the strong and heady julep of literary tradition in the American South.
Southern authors dispatched mules in a variety of creative ways. Among those noted by Professor Mills:

Collision with vehicles. In William Faulkner's The Town, numerous mules were herded in front of a speeding train in an insurance fraud scheme.

Decapitation by irate opera singer. Mills notes that "Cormac McCarthy, who far surpasses even Faulkner in the mayhem he visits upon literary mules," used this one in his novel The Crossing.

Drowning. This was Faulkner's favorite.

Falls from cliffs. Mills writes, "The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches."

The list goes on: freezing, gunshot wounds, hanging, rabies, thirst, and many more. Sure, Mills's essay is rather morbid, but it's still very interesting.

Today's popular literature seems to be dominated by things undead. But I'll take dead mules over vampires any day.

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