Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison - Cover
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Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison

The Cultural Function of Narrative

193 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / no illustrations

Literature - American

  Paperback / 9780807119648 / August 1994

As women of different eras, cultural backgrounds, racial identities, and places of origin, Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison would appear to have little in common. But in her study of these two seemingly dissimilar writers—one known primarily as the author of works extolling the virtues of nineteenth-century rural New England and the other as a chronicler of African-American life in the twentieth century—Marilyn Sanders Mobley finds elements that unite their fictional concerns.

Mobley argues that a folk aesthetic gives structure and meaning to Jewett’s and Morrison’s work and that mythic impulse informs their ability to depict people and values that the dominant American culture has traditionally neglected. She finds in the female narrative voices of both writers an attempt to enact the process by which marginalized communities sustain themselves and resist cultural domination.

Drawing on scholarship in folklore, myth, feminist criticism, African-American literary theory, and narrative criticism, Mobley shows how both Jewett and Morrison use folk and mythic elements in their fictional narratives to challenge received notions of gender and class—and in Morrison’s case, race as well. Through close readings of Jewett’s Deephaven, “A White Heron,” and The Country of Pointed Firsand of Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved, she demonstrates that the fiction of both writers attempts to preserve and affirm cultural difference, cultural knowledge, and cultural memory.

Mobley asserts that Jewett and Morrison employ folkloric devices to give significance to a past threatened by historical, economic, and cultural changes. She also shows that both writers endow commonplace people, places, and events with mythic grandeur to give voice to those whole stories have been untold or unheard. Further, she demonstrates the ways in which jewett and Morrison represent the complex dynamics of how narrative operates in culture and how culture is shaped and reshaped by the stories told about it.

Mobley’s carefully argued study simultaneously offers important new insights into the works of two significant women writers and points out ways in which narrative may be used as a catalyst for cultural and social change.

Marilyn Sanders Mobley is a Toni Morrison scholar, a former president and current board member of the Toni Morrison Society, and Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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