T here is more than a little empirical evidence that the American South beats all other areas of the country when it comes to weight. In August 2006, the Trust for America's Health found that 29.5 percent of Mississippi residents were obese and that nine of the ten states with the highest rates of obesity were in the "old" South. But even in this fattest part of the nation there are further qualifiers as to who is really fat. There seems to be a religious hierarchy of fat—and not only in the South. In a recent paper, Purdue medical sociologist Kenneth Ferraro looked at the corollary between belonging to a religious denomination and being obese. Baptists were the fattest of all, followed by other Protestant groups. The rule seems to be: The more fundamentalist you are, the fatter you will be. Roman Catholics and then Mormons, Seventh day Adventists (with their vegetarian diet) and other "nontraditionalist" Christian groups were at the middle of his scale, and Jews (and other non-Christians) were on the thin end of the spectrum. In Baptist churches, one out of four members of the congregation is obese, but only i percent of Temple-attending Jews are. Yet, relative to the Jews, Catholics too had a high rate of obesity, with about a 17 percent rate of congregant obesity. Ferraro stresses that while this is a national problem, the domination of Baptists points to this being in addition very much a southern problem too.
In 1998, Ferraro concluded an earlier article by observing that food and religion provide "a couple of the few pleasures accessible to populations which are economically and politically deprived" (Ferraro 1998: 22444). By his work in 2006, it seems to be the "dietary patterns in the South," which, coupled with the explosion in Church membership, points to the ever-expanding waistline of the Southerner (Ferraro and Cline 2006).
Perhaps Marx was right—religion (and here we can add food) is the opiate of the people.
Evidently, when Jews are considered as a religious group, rather than as an ethnicity, they are thin. But this is where the analysis breaks down. For the Jews are simultaneously a religious and a self-described ethnicity (peoplehood), and the flaw of Ferraro's model is that his notion of religion, especially in the South, maps historically on to older models of ethnicity, which, in the world of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, were also models of race. One of the great historic "secrets" of the obese South is that the "black/white" dichotomy of race provided a means by which "black" races in Europe such as the Jews and the Irish were made white. For the KKK, the litmus test was and is religion as well as race; they knew on what side of the racial divide Jews and Catholics were to be found. Yet, in the nineteenth century, this distinction between religion and race was rarely made. Jews and Irish, like Blacks, were racially a different people from real "Americans." Their bodies as well as their beliefs betrayed them, no matter how "white" they looked. The late nineteenth-century fetish about light-skinned Blacks "passing" applied to them as well. The fictional literature on the topic from Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) to Edna Ferber's Showboat (1926) revealed this as a false difference, but one that was generally held. The body would eventually betray its "essence." And for the twentieth century, that body, at least in literature, comes to be obese.
The nostalgic world of the old South now reimagined in literature is the place we should look for these bodies that betray. No place better to begin than with the quintessential Southern novel, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936). Mitchell, as James Cobb observes, was hardly a naive writer evoking a lost antebellum tradition. She reflects constantly on the explosion of vanished ethnicity that made up the old, seemingly homogenous "white South," where no one, except in great irony, the slave, was fat. Indeed, Scarlett's nanny slave "Mammy" describes herself as "too old an' fat" (Mitchell 1999: 589), but Mitchell makes this quality her icon as "Scarlett longed for the fat old arms of Mammy" (Mitchell 1999: 144). The African-American woman, depicted as large and devoted to preparing food, comes to be a classic icon of early twentieth-century processed foods. "Aunt Jemima" reigns from i905 to the post-World War II period on as a sign of a "maternal" and acceptable body, but only within the confines of racial difference (Manring 1998).
It is, indeed, the ethnic vigor of the "black" Irish Catholics revitalizing and rebuilding the effeminate South in Gone with the Wind that stands behind Scarlett's cry that she will never be hungry again, "if I have to steal or kill—as God is my witness, I'm never going to be hungry again" (Mitchell 1999: 421). Her father, Gerald O'Hara, had invigorated the world of the plantation with his rough Irish ways, following his too tall brothers to America having flaunted the English occupation of his homeland. Gerald O'Hara was a small man, little more than five feet tall but so heavy of barrel and thick of neck: that his appearance when seated, led strangers to think him a larger man. His thickset torso was supported by short sturdy legs, always incased in the finest leather boots . . . Most small people who take themselves seriously are a little ridiculous; but the bantam cock is respected in the barnyard, and so it was with Gerald. No one would ever have the temerity to think of Gerald O'Hara as a ridiculous little figure.
(Mitchell 1999: 32)
His formidable if short body and feisty spirit point to a man who had succeeded in overcoming hunger and oppression and would add this quality to the South. He was "fat" but in the most positive sense of nineteenth-century masculinity.
The historian W.J. Cash tells the story of his own great-grandfather in The Mind of the South (1941) as an exemplum of "ethnic vigor" and the creation of the "white" planter culture of the Carolinas. He is a "stout young Irishman" who comes with his bride to the Caroli-
nas and enters into trade in whiskey. He begins, almost as an afterthought, to plant cotton and brings the first cotton gin. His fortune and his status in the community grow. He builds a "big house," paints it white, buys slaves, enters the legislature, by which time he was "tall and well-made" (Cash 1991: 12-17). Thus the "ruling class in the great South" is revitalized on the frontier.
This is not the place to rehearse the general claims of how the Irish and the Jews become "white" in America or how contested that shift in racial identity is, especially in the South. Indeed, reading the Charleston Mercury (1856) reveals that there has been a reduction of emigration that eliminates the "Know Nothing" demand for limitations as "quite unnecessary [even] by the most bigoted hater of our Irish and German populations" (Anon. "Health for the People" 1856). After the Civil War, the Irish, at least, become white and stout. Both Mitchell and Cash use the Irish as their model, speaking about the body as an unstated place where identity is formed. Being "stout" is a mark of power; being fat is a disease. Men of power (like Gerald O'Hara) are never fat: "The Pope [Pius IX] is pretty tall and stout, without being obese" (New-Orleans Commercial Bulletin, June 8, 1868). But the diet culture was alive and well in the South before the age of Southern nostalgia.
In the antebellum and immediate post-war South, however, there was a great concern with obesity—if, at least initially, far from the U.S.A. As early as 1833, the New-Orleans Commercial Bulletin (September 14, 1883) recounts how the "omnibus drivers on the Edgeware Road" in London refuse to take passengers they judge to be too obese accompanied with catcalls and "great laughter." Obesity is a "British disease" which is not the "combined result of laziness and high living," but is "a constitutional disease" (Georgia Weekly Telegraph, April 8, 1879). This was very much in line with the views that American neurologist S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) expressed in 1877. He was startled by "those enormous occasional growths, which so amaze an American when first he sets foot in London" (Mitchell 1877: 15). But such views are not limited to England. Mordecai Noah (1785-1851), the first American-born Jew to achieve prominence as a writer, politician, and utopian advocate of creating a Jewish refuge ("Ararat") in New York State, is reported in the South Carolina Temperance Advocate (July 1, 1847) recounting his time as American Consul in Tunis where he saw local women struggling with their fat:
The more fatness, the greater beauty as a wife—and, therefore, tender mothers begin at an early age to fatten their daughters. They allow them very little exercise, compel them to eat very rich substances, little paste balls dipped in oil, and every kind of food calculated to produce obesity. The result is . . . a lady weighing some three hundred pounds.
Fat is exotic, yet there is also a theme in Southern responses to fat that echoes the growing understanding of obesity as a disease.
In 1856 (May 12), the Charleston Mercury advocated "health for the People," seeing a "deteriorating influences on national health." Childhood ill health haunts Charleston and the remedy is "calisthenic and gymnastic exercises," which assure the removal of "obesity, or an excess of fat." The dieting culture is alive and well in the South. The English layman William Banting's (i796-i878) low-carbohydrate diet, which was first introduced in London in 1864, had become the rage in the South "conferring the benefit of wholesome muscular development upon himself and others" (Charleston Courier, July 13, 1869). In Georgia, Banting's approach for "the treatment and cure of excessive fatness in the human race," "caused a decrease in weight from twenty-five to sixty pounds in the course of a few weeks" (Georgia Weekly Telegraph, July 26, 1870). But other remedies were quick on the market. Allan's Anti-Fat, "the only known remedy for obesity" was sold to men "whose several weights range from two hundred to three hundred pounds" (Georgia Weekly Telegraph, October 22, 1878). Obesity is an "abnormal condition" though "many people have erroneously considered it as an evidence of health, and any agent that reduces fat is there fore at once suspected of being injurious" (Georgia Weekly Telegraph, April 29, 1879). Being fat was dangerous. This notion vanishes in the i930s and i940s and is transformed into Gerald O'Hara's ethnic vigor.
If the notion of ethnic vigor and bodily form as a model for imaging a new Southern identity is linked to the Irish, who become "white," at least in part, by becoming Southerners, then the great mid-twentieth-century answer to Gone with the Wind is John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Written during the beginnings of the civil-rights movement, it provided a parodic rethinking about "stout" men and ethnic identity. It was Walker Percy who truly discovered the novel after its author's suicide, who praised how Toole presents
New Orleans' "ethnic whites—and one black in whom Toole has achieved the near impossible, a superb comic character of immense wit and resourcefulness without the least trace of Rastus minstrelsy" (Toole 1980: viii). The ethnic whites in Toole's world are without a doubt trying to become "white," but they sink ever more in a world of fat. And the soft underbelly to Southern identity formation, how ethnics become authentic Southerners, is exposed by Toole through their bodies.
Toole's protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly opens the novel waiting for his mother in front of D.H. Holmes department store and "shifting from one hip to the other in his lumbering, elephantine fashion . . . sent waves of flesh rippling beneath the tweed and flannel, waves that broke upon buttons and seams" (Toole 1980: 13-14). He is an ethnic and a Catholic; his obsessions focus on food and theology. His faith was shattered as a teenager when his parish priest refused to bury his pet dog. His huge body is sustained by jelly doughnuts rather than communion wafers: "Ignatius says to me this morning. 'Momma, I sure feel like a jelly doughnut.' You know? So I went over by the German and bought him two dozen" (Toole 1980: 39). It is the "German" baker who supplies the food of the "slob extraordinaire."
Mrs. Reilly is addressing the hapless Officer Mancuso, who had tried to arrest her son in front of D.H. Holmes as a "character." His Italian bone-fides are established when he take Mrs. Reilly bowling with his aunt Mrs. Santa Battaglia. Her mother had her a little seafood stand right outside the Lautenschlager Market. Poor Mamma. Right off the boat. Couldn't speak a word of English hardly Poor girl. Standing there in the rain and cold with her old sunbonnet on not knowing what nobody was saying half the time.
From her mother's photograph there stared "little black coals of Sicilian eyes" (Toole 1980: 192). But neither Mrs. Reilly nor Mrs. Santa Battaglia is corpulent; on the contrary, they are tiny, hard bodied, and very aggressive.
Indeed, the other "white" ethnics are equally slim. Mr. Gonzalez, who employs Ignatius, has his desk ornamented by "another sign that said SR. GONZALEZ and was decorated with the crest of King Alfonso" (Toole 1980: 108). Gonzalez is a chain smoker, but no attention is paid to his bodily shape. (And indeed Ignatius's fantasy of his Spanish roots only reflects the romantic notion of ethnics representing lost kingdoms so embodied in Gerald O'Hara.)
Beyond the Irish Catholic Ignatius, fat encompasses Toole's Jews. But perhaps we should look at the core Jewish figure that sets the model for Jewish ethnic identity in Toole's New Orleans, a figure who never actually appears in the novel. Mrs. Reilly mollifies their high-strung neighbor Miss Annie, whose life is made a living hell by Ignatius's raucous presence, by giving her a rosary: "I stopped off at Lenny's and bought her a nice little pair of beads filled with Lourdes water . . . She loved them beads, boy. Right away she started saying a rosary" (Toole 1980: 77). Ignatius is dismissive of Lenny's: "Lenny's. Never in my life have I seen a shop filled with so much religious hexerei. I suspect that that jewelry shop is going to be the scene of a miracle before long. Lenny himself may ascend" (Toole 1980: 77). Actually Lenny had already "ascended." We learn that he had gone to an "analyst in the Medical Arts building [who] helped Lenny pull his jewelry shop out of the red. He cured Lenny of that complex he had about selling rosaries. Lenny swears by that doctor. Now he's got some kind of exclusive agreement with a bunch of nuns who peddle the rosaries in about forty Catholic schools all over the city. The money's rolling in. Lenny's happy. The sisters are happy. The kids are happy" (Toole 1980: 150-1). Mrs. Santa Battaglia too is happy, having bought her plastic "Our Lady of the Television" from Lenny: "It's got a suction cup base so I don't knock it over when I'm banging around in the kitchen" (Toole 1980: 262). Here one can stop and ask, as Richard Klein does, who put the "Jew" in "jewelry." Lenny has been saved; indeed his shrink is described as "Lenny's savior" (Toole 1980: 282). The unseen Lenny has become part of the world of New Orleans, has abandoned at least the superficial sense of ethnic/religious difference which made him uncomfortable selling rosaries and plastic Mothers of God. As with the other "ethnics," he retains a "Jewish" quality that, at least perceived from the perspective of mid-century, is his happiness with worldly success. This is a key, by the way, even to American Jewish writing through Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus (1959), where worldly success and loss of identity go hand in hand.
Since Lenny is without a body, it is the figure of Mrs. Levy, the wife of the owner of Levy Pants, which employs Ignatius and Gonzalez, whose body reveals all. It is she who had evoked Lenny as the model for her husband's dealing with his business difficulties. She enters the novel "prone on the motorized exercising board, its several sections prodding her ample body gently, nudging and kneading her soft white flesh like a loving baker" (Toole 1980: 145-6). Perhaps the "German" baker? The bodies of Mrs. Levy, her daughters, Susan and Sandra, and her mother represent the fantasy of the "Jewish American Princess," obsessed by worldly things including their own appearance. What is clear is that, like Lenny, she no longer has any sense of her own "Jewish" identity and spends her time looking for meaning, a meaning which her very position in the hierarchy of Toole's world must deny her. Unlike her husband who overcomes his hatred of his dead, immigrant father, who moved from selling pants from a pushcart to the ownership of "Levy's Pants," she never acknowledges the burden of the past, or indeed, even the burden of the present, present in her "her ample body."
Yet the Jewish character that "embodies" Jewish fat in all of its ramifications for Ignatius is his New York, Jewish college girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. She had failed in her many attempts to seduce him because "my stringent attitude toward sex intrigued her; in a sense I became another project of sorts" (Toole 1980: 137). Her lust is that of the stereotyped Jewish woman as succubus; but even more importantly, the northern Jew come to New Orleans. She is Ignatius' Rhett Butler.
She appears in the very opening of the novel, when Officer Mancuso attempts to arrest Ignatius, and Ignatius complains that he will report the officer to the "Civil Liberty Union . . . We must contact Myrna Minkoff, my lost love. She knows about those things" (Toole 1980: 6). In the 1960s, New York "agitators," all seen as Jews, "know about such things." Myrna "was only happy when a police dog was sinking its fangs into her black leotards or when she was being dragged feet first down stone steps from a Senate hearing" (Toole 1980: 125). Myrna, like Levy's daughters, has a father who "has money" (Toole 1980: 79). He sends her to New Orleans (to the unnamed Tulane) to "see what it was like 'out there'," where she meets Ignatius and they so disrupt the slow flow of the History Department that they are removed (Toole 1980: 125). Her experience in the "ghettos of Gotham" had not prepared her for Ignatius and the South as she believed "that all humans living south and west of the Hudson river were illiterate cowboys or—even worse—White Protestants, a class of humans who as a group specialized in ignorance, cruelty, and torture." Here Ignatius interpolates "I don't wish to especially defend White Protestants; I am not too fond of them myself" (Toole 1980: 124).
Listening to Ignatius's take on the world, she declared him "obviously anti-Semitic" when he disagrees with her (Toole 1980: 124). Indeed, this becomes a leitmotif for her. When Ignatius sends her a letter on "Levy Pants" stationary, she responds that "it is probably your idea of an anti-Semitic prank," as her father is in the clothing trade (Toole 1980: 214).
Myrna haunts Ignatius's dreams. He stands in one on "a subway platform, reincarnated as St. James the Less, who was martyred by the Jews" (Toole 1980: 242). Myrna appears carrying a sign for the "NON-VIOLENT CONGRESS FOR THE SEXUALLY NEEDY" and Ignatius "prophesied" to her that "Jesus will come to the fore, skins or not" (Toole 1980: 242). The dreams morph into life when Myrna appears stuffed in her Renault to rescue Ignatius, when his mother, egged on by Mrs. Santa Battaglia, tries to have him committed to the psychiatric ward at Charity Hospital. Myrna whisks him off towards New York City, where, given the picaresque nature of the tale, his adventures in the skin trade would certainly continue.
Like attracts like. Myrna's shapeless, hippy body is the political counterpoint to Ignatius's huge one. There is a parallel in Salman Rushdie's first novel, Grimus (1975), a fantasy work centering about a quartet of American misfits living in a fantasy world. One of them, Virgil Jones, "gross of body," (Rushdie 1977: 12) is in love with the hunch-backed Dolores O'Toole: "they loved each other and found it impossible to declare their love. It was no beautiful love, for they were extremely ugly" (Rushdie 1977: 12). When they finally do make love, their "disfiguration [is] transformed into sexuality" (Rushdie 1975: 50). "Her hands grasping great folds of his flesh ... It's like making bread, she giggled, pretending to work his belly into a loaf" (Rushdie 1975: 50). We seem to be back again to the "German" baker. Ethnicity and obesity come to be linked in an odd way, both in their representation in culture and in the living experience of it.
See also Banting; Jews; Literature and Fat Bodies; Men; Mitchell; Vegetarianism
References and Further Reading
Anon. (1856) "Decline of Emigration to the United States," Charleston Mercury, February 26, p. 2.
Anon. (1856) "Health for the People," Charleston Mercury, May 12, 1.
Cash, W.J. (1991) The Mind of the South, New York: Vintage.
Cobb, James C. (2005) Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, New York: Oxford University Press.
Codrescu, Andrei (2000) " 'A Confederacy of Dunces,' Making the Natives Wince," The Chronicle of Higher Education 46: April 14.
Ferraro, Kenneth F. (1998) "Firm Believers? Religion, Body Weight, and Well-Being," Review of Religious Research 39 (3): 224-44.
Ferraro, Kenneth F. and Cline, Krista M.C. (2006) "Does Religion Increase the Prevalence and Incidence of Obesity in Adulthood?" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (2): 269-81.
Holditch, W. Kenneth (1998) "Another Kind of Confederacy: John Kennedy Toole," in Richard S. Kennedy (ed.), Literary New Orleans in the Modern World, Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, pp. 102-22.
Klein, Richard (2001) Jewelry Talks: A Novel Thesis, New York: Vintage.
Manring, M.M. (1998) Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia.
Mitchell, Margaret (1999) Gone with the Wind, New York: Warner Books.
Mitchell, S. Weir (1877) Fat and Blood and How to Make Them, Philadelphia, Pa.: Lippincott.
O'Connell, David (1996) The Irish Roots of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Decatur, Ga.: Claves & Petry.
Ruppersburg, Hugh (1986) "The South and John
Kennedy Toole's a Confederacy of Dunces," Studies in American Humor 5 (2-3): 118-26.
Rushdie, Salman (1977) Grimus, London: Granada.
Toole, John Kennedy (1980) A Confederacy of Dunces, New York: Grove Press.
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