Title

Toward a literary geography: Space and social consequence in U.S. fiction, 1900--1920

Date of Award

2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Advisor(s)

Amy Schrager Lang

Second Advisor

Susan L. Edmunds

Keywords

United States, Realism, Space, Social consequence, Frank Norris, Willa Cather, James Weldon Johnson, Theodore Dreiser

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature

Abstract

In order to fully comprehend the spatial logics that structure literary worlds, scholars must seriously turn to the most sophisticated geographic knowledge that are currently available. By importing accounts of spatial dynamics developed by geographers into the imaginative worlds developed by fiction writers, this dissertation models some of the interpretive possibilities that spatial theory opens up for literary analysis. Focused on realist novels produced during a crucial phase of U.S. social development--the period from 1900 to 1920-- Toward a Literary Geography demonstrates that geographic research can extend conventional understandings of literature's social consequence by positioning textual worlds themselves as "spaces" that exist in creative tension with the material spaces in which readers live and move.

Taking as its animating problem the question of how ideology is embedded into spatial forms that are commonly understood to be natural or transparently factual, the first chapter examines The Octopus as Frank Norris's 1901 attempt to conceptualize the geographical shape of monopoly power in the San Joaquin Valley. Drawing on the novel's resonance with real landscape paintings and maps produced in the nineteenth century, I argue that Norris uses the perspectival conventions of landscapes and maps in order to depict the ossification of capital in the San Joaquin Valley. The second chapter focuses on Willa Cather's 1918 novel, My Antonia and argues that the spatial plot of Cather's novel challenges the adequacy of conventional formulations of place/space relationships by exposing how Jim's sense of the prairie as a rooted and meaningful place is predicated on the violent domination of those who are contained within the prairie--namely Antonia. The third chapter focuses on James Weldon Johnson's 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and argues that its protagonist learns how to strategically slide between and across various scalar articulations of blackness in order to geographically reshape his racial identity in ways that are advantageous to him. Finally, the fourth chapter argues that Theodore Dreiser's 1900 Sister Carrie is structured around Carrie's hope that emergent spaces of consumption can offer new social possibilities. Grounded in the theorizations of the social production of space, this chapter ends with an extended consideration of the ways in which Carrie's fictional experience exceeds the limits of current spatial theorizations of heterotopic sites.

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