One Story, Many Voices: Problems of Unity in the Short-Story Cycle


Thesis (Ph.D.) - Indiana University, English, 2011Jennifer J. Smith ONE STORY, MANY VOICES: PROBLEMS OF UNITY IN THE SHORT-STORY CYCLE Tracing the genre from its nineteenth-century antecedents to its present-day incarnations, my dissertation argues that the rise of the short-story cycle constitutes one of the most influential and generative developments in US literary history. Although usually divided among disparate genres and periods, short-story cycles by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and other so-called regionalists, modernists such as Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, postmodernists such as Louise Erdrich and Julia Alvarez, and writers whose works fall outside of these categorizations such as Jhumpa Lahiri in fact constitute a long, expansive history which includes the most influential writers and texts in American literature. The recurrence of stylistic conventions demonstrates a generic compulsion that erodes the ground upon which rigid periodization is built. The consistency of theme, structure, and style among cycles from disparate periods illuminates the extent to which one period's concerns persist and get reinvented in another: short-story cycles are realist in description, modernist in their fragmentation, and postmodernist in their experimentation with the reader/text relationship. The short-story cycle has been central to US literary production precisely because the form troubles expectations of unity and re-imagines narrative, like human identity itself, as contingent. As such seemingly firm supports of selfhood as place, time, group memory, ethnicity, and family progressively destabilize, they also become the fraught devices through which fictional narrative remakes its engagement with expectations of formal unity. Using these motifs as linking devices that provisionally work but cannot ultimately hold, American authors have repeatedly rejuvenated fictional narrative in general. The history exposes the frequency with which writers turn to the form at critical junctures in their careers: as they begin writing, come to a crossroads in their aesthetics, seek a form that liberates them to proliferate points of view, investigate the breadth and depth of a locality, or break free from the shackles of novelistic temporality

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This paper was published in IUScholarWorks (University of Indiana).

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