Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in English



First Advisor

Jay D. Watson

Second Advisor

Ted Ownby

Third Advisor

Annette Trefzer

Relational Format



This dissertation examines autobiographical writings by formerly poor white Southern women, who are rarely considered as a group and are more typically studied with “rough South” male writers, which would suggest that few women have contributed their own gendered experience to discussions of class, race, and sexuality vis-à-vis Southern poverty. Correcting this assumption, I examine formative statements by women from poor white backgrounds, including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Red Dirt, Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt, Dorothy Allison’s Trash, and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Each of these writers engage in narrative strategies that do not defend a violent, masculinist Southern culture from misrepresentation by outsiders, as do male “redneck autobiographers,” but rather re-establish connections with their families, native communities, and natural environments. In the process of writing on Okies, Crackers, and “white trash,” these writers describe their transition from concealing the truth about their families out of shame to considering them autoethnographically. Autoethnography provides the methodology by which Dunbar-Ortiz, Ray, Allison and Walls write about their personal lifeworlds, a concept from phenomenology that considers the body as the locus of one’s natural, social, and cultural environment. In explicating their memoirists’ most salient themes, I employ concepts by theorists in the phenomenological tradition, including Edmund Husserl, Jurgen Habermas, R. D. Laing, Pierre Bourdieu, and Francisco Varela, who all recommend a practice of self-observation as a kind of “portable laboratory” for investigating the intersections of embodiment, habit, and history. I conclude that the self-knowledge gained through such a practice enables each of the women in this study to find a voice in the place where she had not had one, and to write authoritatively about her respective Southern culture.



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