Date of Thesis

5-2-2014

Thesis Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts

First Advisor

Michael Drexler

Second Advisor

Harriet Pollack

Abstract

This honors thesis project uses history and literature to analyze the role of the myth of chivalry in mystifying racial violence and oppression in the American South. The central claim is that the myth of chivalry¿ and particularly the exaltation of the white woman¿ is a myth system used to justify racial violence, oppress white womanhood, and allow white patriarchy to maintain political, social and economic dominance. This project traces the role of literature, especially Sir Walter Scott¿s historical romance, in developing the foundational myths of a southern society based in violence, racial hierarchy and gender inequality. It then follows the role of white womanhood in this myth¿ the restrictions on miscegenation, the exaltation of pure white femininity, and the violent actions performed in the name of southern women. With this historical baseline established, this study then explores three works of historical fiction that attempt to subvert this mythology by critiquing and demystifying the myth of chivalry, while also offering counter-narratives to popularized history. These works are Charles Chesnutt¿s 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition¬, which analyzes the 1898 Wilmington N.C. race riot, Gwendolyn Brooks¿ 1960 poem ¿A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon¿ and Lewis Nordan¿s 1993 novel Wolf Whistle, two works about Emmett Till¿s tragic murder in 1955. This study, then, illuminates the intersection of literature and mythology, revealing how literature is useful for both creating and subverting myth¿and revealing how authors undertake this task.

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