Title

Liberty

Date of Award

1999

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Steven Barthelme

Advisor Department

English

Abstract

In this collection the narrative centers around my girlhood recollections of southwest Mississippi, and most of the stories occur near Liberty, my hometown. The essays consist of glimpses of a community in transition recalled from a child's point of view then from a woman's. Some of them include family stories, others hearsay, but all have a common denominator, the folkways of a distinctive ethnic group. The culture of my youth no longer exists and I neither applaud nor condemn my characters or myself. The collection begins with "Picking Cotton," a piece which sets the stage on family property south of Liberty during the 1950s. To prove her worth, a child stubbornly insists that she be allowed to labor alongside workers in a cotton field. She finds that the caste system is rigid and overcoming mild isolation is not so easy as she imagines, especially when reserved family women maintain somewhat distant stances. "Cordelia's Gun" tells of a beloved aunt's loneliness. In the 1960s Liberty changed dramatically when two pivotal events occurred which altered the traditional balance of our community. "Liberty Mills" considers the arrival of an undergarment factory, a milestone which cast the isolated community into the 20th century American mainstream. Not only the economic climate changed afterward, but social and political structures as well. In "Another 'And Yet and Still the Cotton Gin Kept on Working'" the town is riveted when a white legislator shoots and kills a black man in front of a cotton gin a block off Main Street. The old world passes away and another one unfolds in a tumultuous passage. Contradictions emerge in "Sunday Boy," an essay which illustrates the crises churchgoers faced when confronted with complex problems they never dreamed of needing to solve. A willful teenager has her own ideas about church charity to unseen millions and cannot imagine why her church refuses to send donations to starving children; at the same time, she is equally passionate when in "Mouton" she demands a sheep-skin jacket for Christmas. Disturbing issues find expression in the last essay, "Van Dorn," and the collection ends on the same piece of land where it began in "Picking Cotton." A variety of accounts about an alleged uprising of black servicemen at Camp Van Dorn, a World War II training camp has recently come to light, and some reports maintain that the military response included a massacre of the troops, while others insist nothing happened. In a compilation of oral narratives, I record different versions for an excursion into folklore and myth.