For Who the River Carries: Marginalised Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Literature
This thesis examines the representation of rivers from marginalised American authors of the twentieth-century. American rivers are notably diverse and variable natural features, and as symbols they offer extensive metaphorical potential. Rivers also hold a rich literary history in America, notably in the work of canonical nineteenth-century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry D. Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. The idealised depictions found in the work of these four authors act as a foundation which the marginalised writers of the following century both develop and subvert. The selected marginalised writers fall into three overlapping categories, to each of which is devoted a chapter. To examine those marginalised by economy and class, I have turned to Cormac McCarthy’s 1979 novel Suttree and the poetry of James Wright. Both concern themselves with poverty, river pollution, theology, suicide, and the desolation of American idealism. In my chapter on African American writing, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved and selected poems by Sterling A Brown, Audre Lorde, and Margaret Walker are the central texts. These works look to the river and find racial history within its current, evoking varied responses surrounding memory, trauma, creative expression, and recontextualisation. The final chapter explores William S. Burroughs’s 1987 novel The Western Lands and the work of Minnie Bruce Pratt. By “queering nature,” the river becomes both a bitter reminder of their marginalisation and a hopeful symbol of utopia and unity. Together, these texts and the rivers they represent demonstrate the disjuncture between the privileged and marginalised in America, calling for greater consideration of what we deem “American” and why.