Southern Excrementalism: Disaster and Waste in Modern and Contemporary Southern Novels

O'Connor, Lindsay, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, English, CUNY Graduate Center
Greeson, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, Department of English, University of Virginia

We flushed raw sewage into Boston Harbor until 1991. Into New York Harbor until 1992. Not long after the Ocean Dumping Reform Act went into effect in 1991, the sewage industry’s trade and lobbying group sponsored a contest to name the treated sludge that would be repurposed and marketed for new uses. Over 250 ideas were in the running, but the rather boring neologism “biosolids” won out. Of course, the more outlandish and more obviously scatological puns and portmanteaux would never do; “biosolids” effectively cleanses the end product of its taboo or sacred status much like the processes of sewage and wastewater treatment transform our shit first into the state’s shit and then into something generative and valuable to private enterprise once again. This linguistic cleanse is an important part of the work of the waste management industry; waste is treated and managed not only materially but also figuratively in processes that parallel the changing treatment of “the South” in the American imaginary. This project explores the workings of waste in literature of the South both as material reality and as a site for linguistic figuration. Beginning with William Faulkner’s depression era book The Wild Palms, this dissertation looks to literary representations of disaster as particular sites of innovation around waste both materially and linguistically and proposes a parallel understanding of the concepts of disaster and waste. Through Faulkner, Walker Percy’s the Moviegoer, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! plus brief visits to Lil Wayne’s prodigious oeuvre and Benn Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild, the dissertation accounts for the linguistic play that so often arises when we talk about waste and for innovative, sustainable literary possibilities in the Anthropocene era when waste’s material threat matters as much as its figurative fertility.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
South, Waste, Disaster, American, Literature, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Jesmyn Ward, Karen Russell, Lil Wayne, environment, Anthropocene
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