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Dorothy E. Allison became a recognized poet and short story writer in the 1980s with her collections The Women Who Hate Me (1983) and Trash (1988). Allison is best known for Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), a novel about a young girl growing up in rural South Carolina during the 1960s. The book has garnered widespread praise for its realism, vivid characterization, and conversational, idiomatic prose. Allison has secured her reputation as a writer who deals frankly and boldly with issues of gender, class, and sexual orientation. In an essay published in the New York Times Book Review, Allison commented on the importance of literature that deals honestly with such themes: ”We are the ones they make fiction of—we gay and disenfranchised and female—and we have the right to demand our full, nasty, complicated lives.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Healing Powers of Feminism and Literature
Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, to a poor, unmarried fifteen-year-old girl. When Allison was five, her stepfather—her mother having since married— began sexually abusing her. The abuse lasted for several years before Allison was finally able to tell a relative; the relative informed Allison’s mother, who put a stop to the abuse. Nonetheless, the family stayed together. The conditions of Allison’s upbringing, specifically her experience of poverty, Southern culture, and sexual abuse, would figure largely in the characters and content of her most highly-praised works, Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller (1998).
When she was eighteen, Allison left home to attend college in Florida. Allison attended college during the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, a period when young Americans, particularly university students, often staged political protests aimed at gaining social and political equality for women and minorities. These political protests were especially widespread in the American South, where a younger generation sought to repeal racist policies and social practices that had been in place since the end of the American Civil War.
While Allison attended college, she was also introduced to feminism, which she embraced and that, as she noted in a New York Times Book Review essay, ”gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had ever assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality.” Later, she attended graduate school in New York City and became involved in the gay and lesbian pride movements that followed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. However, it was not until the early 1980s that she began writing seriously. She published poetry and short story collections and began work on Bastard Out of Carolina. Allison is frequently referred to as a ”third-wave feminist.” Third-wave feminism, which emerged in the early 1980s, sought not just legal reform, but also reform of culturally or socially constructed ideas of womanhood. Enlarging upon previous feminists’ credo that ”the personal is the political,” third-wave feminists aligned the women’s movement with minority and gay rights activists.
Autobiographical Fiction: Bastard Out of Carolina
Drawn heavily from Allison’s own experiences of incest and abuse, Bastard Out of Carolina is a fictional portrayal of a young girl’s life in a poor Southern family. Ruth Anne Boatwright, the protagonist, relates how she earned her nickname of ”Bone,” when she was prematurely born ”the size of a knucklebone” after her mother was in a car accident. Allison admitted in an interview with Lynn Karpen in the New York Times Book Review that these introductory details are largely autobiographical. The author further commented, ”A lot of the novel is based on real experience, but not the entire thing. The characters are modeled on members of my family and on stories I heard when I was growing up.”
Further Works and Public Outreach
Allison followed Bastard Out of Carolina with a collection of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature (1994), and a memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995). Reviewers reacted positively to both works, again praising the author’s spare, straightforward writing style and expressing admiration for her hard-won and individual voice. Commenting on Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Carla Tomaso noted, ”one marvels at the incredible achievement this is for someone born poor and despised in the South.”
Allison’s literary success has brought her widespread media attention and made her a popular draw on the lecture circuit. In an interview with Alexis Jetter for the New York Times Magazine, she spoke about the importance of storytelling in her life. ”I believe that storytelling can be a strategy to help you make sense of your life,” she told Jetter. ”It’s what I’ve done.”
Works in Literary Context
As both a writer and an activist, Dorothy Allison has made an enormous impact in the reception of women’s fiction. Avoiding the cold intellectualism of postmodern novels, Allison provides her readers with unadorned— and often shocking—graphic details of real-life situations and abuse.
Fiction and Feminism
Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina is considered an iconic text within the third-wave feminist movement; not only does it provide a personalized and semi-autobiographical story, but it also addresses the issue of forging a female and lesbian identity in a misogynistic, homophobic culture. Bone typifies a third-wave feminist heroine; not only does she face misogyny and violence, which is ignored or hidden by her family and culture, but she must also face the prospect of establishing a new identity as a survivor and lesbian. Allison’s autobiographical descriptions of sexual abuse, as well as her identification as a lesbian and a Southerner, have made her a valuable spokesperson for the movement. Other writers associated with third-wave feminism include Erica Jong, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Audre Lord, and Grace Paley.
Southern Roots, Southern Gothic
Critics have often noted that Allison’s works innovate the tradition of the Southern Gothic novel. The Southern Gothic literary tradition, associated with such writers as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner, uses unusual or ironic situations to advance plot and features deeply flawed, often hypocritical characters (such as Daddy Glenn in Bastard Out of Carolina). These characters, intriguing yet often grotesque, reveal truths about social issues pertaining to the South and allow the reader insight into its culture. Allison’s combination of dark content and wry humor have encouraged reviewers to compare her novels to those of Flannery O’Connor; she has also been compared to contemporary Southern Gothic authors such as Lee Smith. Allison is frequently praised for her ability to infuse humor into her works without mocking the South or Southern characters. In Publishers Weekly, for example, a reviewer stated that Allison ”doesn’t condescend to her ‘white trash’ characters; she portrays them with understanding and love.”
Works in Critical Context
Though Allison’s earlier collections were favorably reviewed when they appeared, her debut novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, triggered a critical crescendo when it appeared in 1992. Allison followed this work with a collection of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature, and a memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Susie Bright, reviewing Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that ”the tautness of Ms. Allison’s storytelling comes from her ability to describe cruelty and desperate measures with such grace that it leaves a sensual impression unmistakable to the literary touch.”
Bastard Out of Carolina
When Bastard Out of Carolina was published, reviewers commended Allison for her realistic, unsentimental, and often humorous portrayal of her eccentric characters, and the novel was nominated for a National Book award. Allison’s descriptions of Bone’s sexual abuse and feelings of betrayal garnered the most attention. Vince Aletti observed: ”Allison casts a savage, unblinking eye . . . describing the terrible knot of violence and eroticism without ever slipping into soft-core voyeurism or shocked prudery.” A Washington Post Book World contributor complained that Bastard out of Carolina ”has a tendency to bog down in its own heat, speech and atmosphere,” but also acknowledged that Allison has a superb ear for the specific dialogue of her characters.” George Garrett, writing in the New York Times Book Review declared that Allison’s technical skill in both large things and details, so gracefully executed as to be always at the service of the story and its characters and thus almost invisible, is simply stunning.”
Allison also received high praise for her 1998 novel Cavedweller. The book tells the story of Delia Byrd, a singer with a rock and roll band, who returns to her Georgia hometown with Cissy, her daughter by a rock-star lover who had been killed in a motorcycle accident, and works to earn the town’s respect. A Christian Century contributor wrote that the theme of Allison’s Cavedweller is redemption, the need for it, the courage it requires, and the time and effort that may be necessary to achieve it.” Advocate writer Carol Anshaw said it is a woman’s book through and through, filled with women’s suffering, women’s strength, women’s survival.”
- Giles, Jeff. ”Return of the Rebel Belle: A New Novel from Dorothy Allison, Author of Bastard Out of Carolina.” Newsweek (March 30, 1998), p.66.
- Horvitz, Deborah. ”’Sadism Demands a Story’: Oedipus, Feminism, and Sexuality in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” Contemporary Literature (Summer 1998), p. 238.
- Irving, Katrina. ”’Writing It down So That It Would Be Real : Narrative Strategies in Dorothy Allison s Bastard Out of Carolina. College Literature (Spring 1998), p. 94.
- King, Vincent. ”Hopeful Grief: The Prospect of a Postmodernist Feminism in Allison s Bastard Out of Carolina. Southern Literary Journal (Fall 2000), p.120.
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