The Rural Queer Experience in Twentieth-Century American Fiction

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Hughes, Eric Wesley
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Middle Tennessee State University
A common view of nonurban areas in the United States posits that rural communities and small towns are hegemonically heterosexual and gender conforming or inherently inhospitable to queer individuals. Queer studies have often reaffirmed these commonly held beliefs, as evident in a text such as David M. Halperin’s How to Be Gay (2012). With Kath Weston’s seminal “Get Thee to a Big City” (1995), a few commentators began to question this urban bias, or what J. Jack Halberstam labels “metronormativity.” Literary studies, however, have been late to take the “rural turn.” This dissertation thus examines the ways in which American writers from across the century and in diverse geographical areas have resisted queer urbanism through engagements with the urban/rural dichotomy. Chapter one focuses on Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, detailing Cather’s portrayal of queer cosmopolitanism and urbanity in short stories from The Troll Garden (1905), and pairing Cather’s A Lost Lady (1923) with Anderson’s Poor White (1920) to show how these writers challenged sexual norms in the modernizing Midwest. Chapter two examines Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943) and The Member of the Wedding (1946) along with Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951), centering on representations of gender and sexual nonconformity in small southern towns. McCullers’s Clock Without Hands (1961) is paired with James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), highlighting race as a sometimes key determinant in male same-sex relationships in the midcentury South. Chapter three considers Thomas Hal Phillips’s The Bitterweed Path (1950), Kangaroo Hollow (1954), The Loved and the Unloved (1955), and Red Midnight (2002), tracing the impact of socioeconomic class on the Mississippi author’s groundbreaking representations of same-sex intimacy. Chapter four looks at William Goyen’s The House of Breath (1950), Come, the Restorer (1974), and Arcadio (1983), delineating the author’s treatment of both queerness and environmental change in his native rural East Texas. The final chapter turns to two Carolina writers from the late twentieth century, Dorothy Allison and Randall Kenan. This chapter considers the interplay of regionalism, rurality, and queer identity—particularly as shaped by class and race—in Allison’s short story collection Trash (1988) and Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992).
Literature, American literature