Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



This dissertation analyzes the literary portrayal of literacy events in memoirs and novels written by Appalachian women during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Drawing from contemporary literacy scholarship, my project engages several definitions of the term "literacy," including theories defining it as a technical skill, a social act, cultural knowledge, or a potent form of ideological power. In a region historically (and often inaccurately) stigmatized as illiterate, "literacy" is a loaded term, a concept doubly associated with cultural pride and with cultural loss. By applying literacy theories to Appalachian literature, I analyze the identity conflicts literacy attainment causes for several female Appalachian authors and characters. Ethnographic research concludes that some Appalachians think of reading, as well as other literate practices, as woman’s work. This feminized domestication of literacy functions as an important theme in the works this project considers since female characters and authors inevitably face more literacy-initiated dilemmas. I pay special attention to scenes in which literacy acquisition (whether technical, social, or cultural) causes characters to become aware that their way of speaking, acting, and thinking is at odds with that of mainstream society and the gender expectations of their home discourse communities. In doing so, I discuss the resulting negotiations authors and characters encounter regarding their discourse community affiliation, arguing that such literary exploration adds to, and even revises, contemporary literacy theories. Chapter one discusses Appalachian illiteracy stereotypes, moving into a discussion about literacy definitions and how they operate for the authors in this project. Chapter two argues that in The Dollmaker, Harriette Simpson Arnow issues a warning to readers to maintain flexibility when negotiating discourse community divides caused by literacy attainment. Chapter three explores how in Creeker: A Woman’s Journey and Songs of Life and Grace Linda Scott DeRosier negotiates the same dilemmas Arnow’s characters face, both in her life and through memoir writing. Chapter four interrogates how reading initially discourages writing in Denise Giardina’s The Unquiet Earth, signaling the sometimes negative influence of technical literacy. Chapter five explores the literacy-initiated path from silence to voicing in Lee Smith’s Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Katherine R Henninger