Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D. in English

Department

English

First Advisor

Leigh Anne Duck

Second Advisor

Charles Ross

Third Advisor

Annette Trefzer

Abstract

This dissertation traces the origins and uses of a specifically southern obsession with the past. Examining how southern women writers represent the compulsion to remember, I demonstrate how, in their narratives, efforts to retain intimate relationships with an idealized past obstruct characters' ability to live in the present. Their fiction aligns neatly with the dynamic described in psychoanalysis as 'melancholia’—not least because, in each case, these relationships with the past are typically ambivalent or even destructive, and the melancholic subjects must 'work through' their damaging attachments. Typical psychoanalytic approaches, however, have neglected how such troubled remembering might be influenced by historical efforts to memorialize an imagined antebellum community by infusing objects with narratives of the past. I hope to add a cultural materialist lens to the discourse on southern melancholy by suggesting that this melancholic production is primarily accomplished by infusing objects with narratives of the past, thereby making an imagined premodern community a concrete fact of the social world. Turning to the early twentieth-century women’s memorial movement as a historical example, I argue that elite white women acted as cultural custodians of the South and were integral to the production of patriarchy. This dissertation examines the object world of the works of Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston, looking for moments when objects either represent an idealized past or reveal its constructed nature. This approach demonstrates that opposed to producing ahistorical texts focused on solely domestic issues, these writers interrogate the historical process, illustrating how material culture produces a persistent yet fragile nostalgia.

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