Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
In an era saturated with images of suffering, especially the suffering of children, the voice of the impoverished child in modernist fiction of the Great Depression demands a different type of response as the reader experiences an experimental modernism that is, at once, as political and complicated as highly sentimental images. The fictional construction of the poor child's voice does major cultural work that has been long ignored in studies of the 1930s, cultural work that expands discussions of poverty and teaches us how to listen to what we might otherwise reject. The astonishingly complex voices that the poor child in these representations is pressed into, the choices made and claims asserted--that may seem bizarre and ill-fitting and outrageous--are in fact the artistic and political triumph of these texts, an artistic triumph that functions as an ethical understanding and elicits a moral engagement in which we as readers learn to listen to a kind of self-presentation that is entirely of its own making, that asks us to respond and to comprehend. Literature from the 1930s written about children depicts the other that is actually other, disoriented and confusing and odd. After all, it is tenable if the poor child should choose silence or bitterness; yet instead, this literature gives voice to the poor child, voice that sensitively displays great ingenuity and practicality. The anti-language of this vulnerable other, as demonstrated in the work of Faulkner, Caldwell, Olsen, and Wright prompts the reader to see overlapping registers not as chaotic or nonsensical but as the child's efforts to shape order from clutter and to engage others in the problems of their world, a world marked by loss and damage. Thus, by unpacking the disorder within the language of the poor child, the limit case for depravity, the reader undertakes an empathetic engagement that, because it sees the child as other, attempts to imagine the child's interiority. The child in poverty models for the reader a way to see the world anew, a call for an ethical understanding that brings forth imaginative proposals to problems devastatingly simple--a lack of basic needs--yet made complex not only by the magnitude of those suffering and the systems that propagate such suffering, but the fact that the one suffering is a child. In other words, the anti-language of the poor child teaches us how to read ethically while other cultural voices for the child in poverty, because they erase the "potential disorder" within language, make invisible the interior complexity of the poor child. If taught how to listen to that which we might otherwise reject, the anti-language of the poor child--articulated or silent, stream-of-consciousness or formally narrated, fictional or epistolary--demands a response. Poverty, after all, is deeply embedded within our denials and America, quite frankly, does not know what to do with the poor. A call toward an ethical understanding that elicits our engagement is to claim voice for a poor child, to move her from the margins to the center where we are made aware and can begin the arduous work of unpacking the complicated dialectic of her language.
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