Placing Religion: The Spiritual Geography of Twentieth-Century American Women Writers

Open Access
Smith, Carissa Dawn Turner
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 25, 2007
Committee Members:
  • Deborah L Clarke, Committee Chair
  • Christine Lee Gorby, Committee Member
  • Iyunolu Folayan Osagie, Committee Member
  • Robin G Schulze, Committee Member
  • religion
  • feminism
  • spiritual geography
  • literature
  • place
ABSTRACT My project, Placing Religion: The Spiritual Geography of Twentieth-Century American Women Writers, explores the ways in which American women writers use narrative (both fictional and nonfictional) to construct a relationship between Christianity, family history, and place. More specifically, the writers I discuss portray a similar pattern: the protagonist returns to a geographical place associated with her mother and with maternal spirituality, and thus she is finally able to find her own “place” within an ostensibly patriarchal religion. This emphasis on particular places is by no means limited to writers dealing with Christian tradition; however, I narrow my focus to Christian writers because Christianity’s emphasis on the Incarnation of Christ—the entrance of the divine into a particular time and place—often affects the portrayal of spiritual geography in specific ways. In addressing twentieth- and twenty-first-century women’s writing about spirituality and place, then, I draw from a wide range of disciplines: ecocriticism, feminist geography, feminist theology, the theology of place, and literary theories about narrative. Using these tools, I suggest that, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, women writers have found space and place fruitful in negotiating their position within Christian religious traditions. The texts I explore cover a broad range of time (from 1943 to 2003) and genres (conversion narrative, memoir, novel, and short story) but they are linked by a similar narrative arc. Many of these writers portray a paradoxical return “home,” through tracing maternal roots, to a place within religion—a particular place, but not a static, fixed place—rather, a particular place always in flux. This narrative thread gains momentum when read in conjunction with feminist mobility theory, for it offers new possibilities to feminists who find problematic the theoretical trends encouraging them to construct themselves as “nomads.” In these works of spiritual geography, the protagonists manage to find a located, communally responsible, “mobile home” through writing and performing religion.