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The reluctant Madonna: Mothers on the margins in the works of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Willa Cather, and Angelina Weld Grimke

Megan M Peabody, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Abstract

My dissertation investigates alternatives to traditional motherhood and maternal experiences and relationships in American women's writing. I examine maternal liminalities with which Mary Wilkins Freeman, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Willa Cather, and Angelina Weld Grimké experiment and argue that all four reveal a reluctance about motherly roles, modes, and practices. This project argues that these women's representations of alternatives to idealized motherhood reflect a cultural shift in maternal desire and drive, and reconsiders the heteronormative assumptions that guide investigations of the mother. These writers' lives and work complicate heteronormative and socially-sanctioned motherhood from the late-nineteenth through the early-twentieth century, and this project posits that women writers can be both creators and destroyers of maternal conventions.^ Chapter 1 focuses on short stories from Freeman's vast career and investigates her representations of a specific brand of maternal attachment: the mother who is both adoptive and abortive. This chapter contends that Freeman's use of adoptive and abortive motifs urges a reassessment of mother-child bonds. Chapter 2 investigates fiction and life writing by Dunbar-Nelson and argues that her employment of region-based plaçage asserts the inefficacy of heterosexual relationships. It also situates Dunbar-Nelson as a writer of color and links the imprecision of "race" to the maternal. Chapter 3 considers two of Cather's Nebraska novels and the ways maternal representations and familial relationships are affected by the landscape. Cather presents fertility and family development that both generates the land and is consumed by it. In Chapter 4, I examine the tenuous nature of motherhood and birth in Grimké's prose and poetry and argue that both offer a lens through which to view shifting cultural emphases on black motherhood and thus Grimké's radical attempts to complicate a simple definition of it. Grimké harnesses infanticide, both real and imagined, to point out the inefficacy and inhumanity of motherhood itself.^

Subject Area

African American Studies|Women's Studies|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Peabody, Megan M, "The reluctant Madonna: Mothers on the margins in the works of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Willa Cather, and Angelina Weld Grimke" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3604727.
http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3604727

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