Date of Award

Summer 1998

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Bates, Milton J.

Second Advisor

Gillespie, Michael Patrick

Third Advisor

Hathaway, Heather


In the South, family (or "kinship") is an important cultural institution for defining and determining one's identity. Traditions such as storytelling and gravecleaning have long been an important pan of southern culture and exist, in part, to emphasize and preserve family history. However, the Civil War and Reconstruction radically altered southern culture and, with it, southern tradition. Family, house, and land were no longer viable institutions for forming an individual's identity and world view. In fact, the institution of the family came to be seen as oppressive in this new, battle-scarred world. In order to survive, southerners needed to find new ways to define themselves. However, the family--even in its flawed and fractured form--continues to exist and to hold a position of authority simply because there are few alternative shapers of identity. Thus, individuals struggle simultaneously to define themselves from within their families and in contrast to their families. Southern writers found that, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, old narrative forms no longer sufficed to express the fragmentation they found in the world around them. Thus, in the early part of the twentieth century, many writers followed the lead of the modernists in experimenting with new forms which expressed both this fragmentation and the individual's search for new and viable cultural institutions. In the case of the novel, this new form involved the use of multiple narrators and departures from chronological sequence, which give to the novels what Joseph Frank refers to (in his 1945 essay, "Spatial Form in Modem Literature") as "spatial form. II Southern novelists of the twentieth-century frequently write in this experimental, "spatial form," in contrast to the more traditional, linear form. Arguably, William Faulkner was the first Southern writer to employ spatial form, in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and other novels. Eudora Welty used a version of spatial form in Delta Wedding (1945). Contemporary novels,. such as Lee Smith's Oral History (1983) and Clyde Edgerton's The Floatplane Notebooks (1988) continue to make use of this form, so much so that it no longer seems experimental. Historically, Frank observes in his essay, non-naturalist forms appear in literature in eras when society is in a state of unrest. This dissertation considers these four novels against the backdrop of the .. societal unrest" which stimulated their non-naturalist form in order to 1) determine how different writers use this form; 2) explore why this form is used so frequently by southern writers in particular, even today; and 3) consider what processes and results the readers of these texts experience. In each of the novels mentioned above, a story of a family is told over and over again, with different family members taking turns giving accounts of the event in question. The stories center around family crises or occasions when the family is brought together, providing the opportunity for and necessity of coming to terms with their family history and cultural identity. As readers, we never can know with any certainty what really happened in the stories (the "truth," in other words), because the writer does not give us a definitive narration. Instead, we are called upon to create that "truth" out of the various scraps and accounts given us. Through the act of reading, we become, in a sense, members of the family, too. However, unlike the other members of this family, we must be aware that our account necessarily is flawed. 11 Reader-response theories of literature provide a useful way of understanding how we read works of this kind. In S/Z, Roland Barthes' description of the "writerly" text as that which draws the reader into the process of creating meaning seems to apply particularly to texts which have a spatial form. Spatial form implies that there are gaps which we, as readers, must fill in. The discussion of these novels, then, concerns the nature of these gaps and what they reveal about the families and/or individuals in question and about Southern culture.



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