The metaphor of the garden has been of particular significance in the literature and history of the U.S. South. The idea of the Garden of Eden helped provide both the impetus and the justification for colonizing the New World, including the southeastern region of what is now present day United States. European colonists’ Edenic visions of the southern landscape eventually morphed into and became conflated with the exploitative economic entity of the southern plantation. The garden trope often functioned as a device through which the plantation became cleansed of its brutal economic facts, including full implications of enslaved labor, and emerged as an idyllic place where harmony defined human relationships with one another and the environment.
This dissertation aims to complicate the dominant image of the garden in southern U.S. literary studies as an idyllic metaphor that is complicit in attempts to neutralize the horrors of colonialism and slavery. By examining representations of actual, ordinary gardens in the fiction of George Washington Cable, Edith Summers Kelley, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and Eudora Welty, I explore how the narrative focus on garden sites as material places in which people labor and plants grow can generate productive tensions when analyzed against the background of idealized, discursive gardens of early colonial literature as well as literature of the plantation tradition. Cable’s use of gardens reveals their counter-colonial potential and challenges the historical dominance of the plantation in the literary southern landscape during the decades following the Civil War. By removing gardens from the province of the economically privileged, Kelley and Roberts employ gardens in ways that legitimize claims of belonging by the southern underclass of tenant farmers in the 1920s, an era of relative national prosperity. When juxtaposed with the novel’s background of environmental degradation, the gardens of Welty’s Losing Battles do not render the natural environment in mythical terms, but compel reflection about responsible environmental practices in the face of significant economic pressures to do the contrary. Reflecting on southern gardens as material sites that also signify larger ideas and historical legacies enriches our understanding of southern U.S. literature and its history.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Southern Gardens as Material Places. 1
1. Planting the Creole South, Uprooting the Nation: Gardens in George Washington Cable’s Fiction. 31
2. “Our Own Place Maybe”: Tenant Gardens and the Plight of the Landless in Two Kentucky Novels of the 1920s. 67
3. “The Fault of the Land Going Back on Us”: Intersection of Poverty and Environment in Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles. 121
Works Cited. 191
About this Dissertation
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