Reading at the Intersection of Modernist, Feminist, and Lifewriting Studies

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Quesenberry, Krista Dawn
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
July 27, 2016
Committee Members:
  • Dr. Susan Squier, Dissertation Advisor
  • Dr. Susan Squier, Committee Chair
  • Dr. Robert Caserio, Committee Member
  • Dr. Sandra Spanier, Committee Member
  • Dr. Sarah Clark Miller, Outside Member
  • American literature
  • modernism
  • modernist
  • lifewriting
  • autobiography
  • feminism
  • feminist
  • gender
  • sexuality
  • interdisciplinary
  • cross-disciplinary
  • feminist science studies
  • feminist ethics
  • disability studies
This project develops a literary-critical approach that draws on three related humanities fields: modernist (early twentieth-century) literary studies, feminist studies, and lifewriting studies. Focusing on the autobiographical writing of the Paris expatriate communities of the 1920s and 1930s, I adapt contemporary interdisciplinary feminist inquiries to the study of American literary modernism. In doing so, I aim to break with longstanding critical axioms from all three fields, in favor of fresh frameworks that place socio-cultural concerns (especially of identity and difference) at the forefront. The first of my five chapters presents a survey of the status of literary study in relation to feminist scholarship, as well as the position of feminist and lifewriting studies within mainstream modernist scholarship. I demonstrate that although the feminist traditions of recovery and revision were once at the heart of feminist academic work (from the 1970s through the 1990s), those strategies were also the root cause of both feminist theory’s marginalization in literary scholarship and the waning influence of literary scholarship on contemporary feminist interests. Lifewriting scholarship, for me, presents a common ground on which to negotiate this antagonism between modernist and feminist studies. In the next three chapters, I develop my interdisciplinary approach in terms of history, ethics, and theory, drawing on autobiographical writing by authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Janet Flanner, Nancy Cunard, Malcolm Cowley, Gertrude Stein, and Margaret Anderson. More specifically, I use sociability frameworks from feminist science studies to challenge the historical narrative of author communities within the Paris expatriate scene; I reconsider the value of autobiographical war writing using feminist philosophical work on moral repair; and I explore how self-reflexive archival and lifewriting texts can theorize queer communities and aesthetic values in ways that challenge normative literary theories. By bringing together the methodological and theoretical frameworks of modernism, feminism, and lifewriting studies, I argue that interdisciplinary approaches compel scholarly conversations to be more engaged and mutually relevant than those bound by disciplines. What I call for is neither an incorporation of these three fields into a flattened sub-field nor a corrective that simply replaces existing conventions with new norms. Instead, I call for a more prismatic and divergent approach to reading literature that opens fields and boundaries rather than foreclosing them. This project aims to hold scholars accountable to colleagues in related fields, so that we might all become more attentive to the productive conversations happening across the humanities, as well as less reliant on conventional narratives in our own disciplines. Ultimately, my project reaches past the broad and rich scholarly landscapes that already exist in modernist, feminist, and lifewriting studies by demonstrating how interdisciplinary reading methodologies (and feminist reading practices, in particular) can generate purposeful resistance to conventional disciplinary common wisdom that otherwise withstands revision and update over time.