Smart Ladies Sit Still: Women, Modernism and Photography

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Rosenblum, Lauren M.
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
This dissertation examines the relationship between modern women writers and photography. Modernism was long understood as being opposed to mass culture and mediums of mass production, but this project argues that the movement was in fact dependent upon women's engagement with mass cultural forms, like photographs and the magazines that presented the images. I argue that modern women writers thematically and stylistically integrated photography to critique a complicated and evolving visual culture, one in which a woman's mechanically copied appearance became an increasingly vital means for her to express her subjectivity. Jean Rhys, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein and Susan Sontag incorporated photography in their texts and, in the process, expressed the challenges of being modern and a woman in a visual landscape increasingly dominated by mass-produced images of their physical forms. These writers embraced the challenges that visual culture presented to them even while they, and their characters, sometimes struggled, and even collapsed, from the resulting pressures of appearing. As a result, I demonstrate that references to specific photographs, the practice of posing for photographs and the media that contextualized and distributed these photographs gave these writers the resources to loosen the binaries that insisted on women's passivity, such as subject and object, copy and original, and text and image. These disruptions, I further argue, are essential to the evolving classification of the modernist period. My emphasis on texts that feature elements of autobiography further reveals that, by disturbing the line between text and image, these writers also redraw genre distinctions. I conclude with an analysis of the most recent images by artist Cindy Sherman to demonstrate how contemporary work can further inform our understanding of women's role in literary modernism.
204 pg.