Forms of Time and Times of Race: Narrative in the Jim Crow Era

Adams, Josephine, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Arata, Stephen, English, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, English, University of Virginia
Greeson, Jennifer, English, University of Virginia

This dissertation argues that the temporal form of the twentieth-century American novel is a productive site for investigating the connections between and among time, race, and ethics in the contiguous United States. I examine works by Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner, and Richard Wright in service of three primary research goals: to explore the effects of narrative time structures on the meaning and value readers assign to represented events and their actants; to demonstrate how temporal form, ostensibly a race-neutral aspect of narrative, registers an author’s ideological commitments and/or resistances, as well as his or her contextual standard of interracial ethics; and to argue that the genre of the novel is uniquely equipped to make visible temporal barriers to racial equality embedded in cultural, social, and national institutions. This project thus relies on (and supports) the assumption that the fantasy of a uniform “national time” disguises not only heterogenous, competing temporalities, but also a diversity of temporal arrangements, or ways in which communities shape private and public events into meaningful, lived narratives for themselves and for others. By emphasizing the socio-ethical consequences of these narratives, I mark out the organization of time—rather than its distribution or facilitation— as a constituent element in the production, the maintenance, and (potentially) the dismantling of systemic racism.

As whole, this project puts forward a theory of activist formalism that is both historically informed and informing. These suffixes, which explicitly call attention to formalism’s dependence on and ability to deepen historical understanding, also point to the possibility of form as a point of connection between the past of writing and the present of reading, which is to say, between history made and history in the making. Each chapter pairs close readings of narrative tense—a novel’s expression of the relationship between story-time and discourse- time—with close readings of institutional discourses so as to trace the persistence of, mutations in, and challenges to racial inequality through the twentieth century and into the present.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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