Self Labor: Work as Identity in the Contemporary Southern Novel

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Self Labor: Work as Identity in the Contemporary Southern Novel

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Title: Self Labor: Work as Identity in the Contemporary Southern Novel
Author: Jacobe, Monica F.
Abstract: The search for identity has long been a central theme of Southern novels, and critics of American literature often group the interplay among the individual, the region's history, and the physical landscape as key elements when writing about the South and its literary landscape. This dissertation examines the ways that authors working in the second half of the twentieth century seek meaning for their characters' journeys in light of both the historical and literary legacies left to them by American history and Southern writers. Specifically, four writers publishing extensively in the second half of the twentieth century are brought together by a common and uniting factor: for each, the personal agency created by individual work and work life is the catalyst for transformation in the journeys of their protagonists and remains so across their literary careers to date. Walker Percy, Ernest Gaines, Gail Godwin, and Alice Walker are markedly different Southern writers with careers that span the final decades of the twentieth century and established places in scholarly and popular conversations about Southern literature. By using them to ask why this one element of narrative identity--among so many that rise inherently from the region--plays this key role, this study reaffirms the work of earlier criticism but goes beyond it, revealing that, just as Faulkner and others felt the need to explain the South's past, contemporary writers feel the urge to explain how and why they are moving beyond that past--both physical and literary--to a place where the region is defined by the people who live and work in it, not the other way around. This commonality evidenced in the novels of all four writers featured here is used to argue that contemporary Southern fiction is, collectively, reversing the Faulknerian tropes that defined region, privileging history and family legacy above the individual, and becoming a body of literature about the individual existing within the region and defining the self at first conflicted about, then in resistance to, and, finally, in absence of the definition of the American South created by the region's history and literature.
Description: Degree awarded: Ph.D. English Language and Literature. The Catholic University of AmericaThis dissertation can be viewed by CUA users only.
Date: 2012-09-11

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