Date of Award

1995

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English

Department

English

First Advisor

John Robert Leo

Abstract

Lizzie Borden is a legendary figure in American culture who, unlike some others, has not received much scholarly attention. Yet her story has generated a great number and variety of texts, and several performance pieces as well. New texts continue to be published. This body of work begs to be examined, so that insights may be gained into the interactions of popular literacies and narrative forms. The study of different textual treatments of the same subject allows us to trace issues of gender, class, family, the construction of subjectivity and the intersections of genre, narrative and history.

The theoretical approach is presented in the introduction. It draws on a range of perspectives, from feminist, new historicist and poststructuralist, to biography, genre, film and media, and folklore studies, and from the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin. An attempt to see how popular texts produce social knowledge requires such an interdisciplinary approach. These theories act as lenses through which the many representations of Lizzie over a century can be viewed and analyzed for their significance. The study is genre-centered, with chapters on biographical texts, journalism, and "creative" texts such as novels, short stories, poems, plays, and a television film. Each form is described and explored for its characteristics and how it creates or recreates this legendary figure.

One of the most striking features that emerges from this close reading of a century of Borden texts is their level of complexity. One might suppose that there is not much substance to Lizzie Borden, a pop culture icon immortalized in a rhyme, but the texts prove otherwise. They are marked by intersexuality; they borrow from each other, speak to each other, help shape each other. They also construct readers, and readers construct them. Each text bears the traces of its time. In it are implicated specific cultural concerns and anxieties which tell as much (and sometimes more) about that particular society as about Lizzie Borden. Thus, the study of popular texts can be as rich and revealing as that which focuses more on conventional, canonical literary works.

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