Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

English and American Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

Winter 1-1-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Vivian Pollak


American Women Writers, Visual Vocabularies, and the Lives of Literary Regionalism reads American literary regionalism through its visual vocabularies--such as sketches, photographs and portraits. Though critics often deemed this genre inferior or unfinished, using visual vocabularies of the "sketch" or "local color," later books of regionalism simply brim with visual vocabularies, when characters are seeking the lives of others or filling in the blanks of their own. The writers in my dissertation--Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Ann Petry--ground literary regionalism in the politics of writing places, but draw also from the arts of life writing circulating in the late nineteenth-century literary marketplace: through slave narratives, suffragist autobiographies, and travel narratives.

The first chapter features Sarah Orne Jewett's little-known 1893 essay "Human Documents" in a rereading of her best-known fiction, arguing that the essay's language of photographs and portraits recasts the lives of "A White Heron" and The Country of the Pointed Firs. While many readers are familiar with Willa Cather's singular phrase "the thing not named," we have not acknowledged, as my second chapter does, how Cather's language of things appears so frequently at the end of her fiction and relies upon visual vocabularies to challenge the gendered limitations of her characters' lives. My third chapter focuses upon Ann Petry's unnamed heroine of her Wheeling fiction cycle, who writes daily accounts of her life--working with a variety of written and visual media--as she learns about her family's precarious racial position in Wheeling.

My concluding chapter places these many unnamed women writer-characters in conversation with representations of nineteenth-century poetesses. I argue that regionalism offers us an archive of writers framing debates about authorship with these writer-characters; even a brief mention of a poetess often leads to more careful consideration of the daily lives of women writers--in their early careers, daily practices, and deaths. The books of literary regionalism draw both from local impressions and self-expressions: illustrating the lives of others through visual vocabularies, sketching the daily realities and practices of current writers. These unfinished lives provide the finish to their books.


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