Study Guide

Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Dorothy E. Allison was born to a working-class family in the South Carolina town of Greenville, part of the Piedmont region. To escape debt, her family moved to central Florida when Dorothy was in her early teenage years; the terrible poverty and violence of her family and surroundings, together with her teenage recognition that she was a lesbian, contributed to her writings.

In Florida, Allison continued her education, both formal and informal. Formally, she was the first person in her family to finish high school and the first to attend and graduate from college. During those years, she also studied her family—their conflicts, fights, and thwarted desires—and compared their desires with her own. Much of this material would become part of her later writings. As a working-class woman in college during the 1970’s, Allison became an activist in the anti-Vietnam War movement. She was also active in civil rights struggles. Perhaps more important, she was active in the growing feminist movement; it was a movement that helped to make a place for Allison as a writer, lesbian, and working-class woman.

Sexuality, class differences, and identity in the larger societal context underlie much of her writing, as witnessed in her book of poetry The Women Who Hate Me. The title poem deals powerfully with questions of myth and identity in the lesbian experience. It shares with her later work the shocking, brutal style of truth-telling she uses to explore themes of violence, separation from family and place, abuse, and survival as a radical lesbian in an overwhelmingly heterosexual and middle-class world.

A collection of short stories, Trash, opened the door to Allison’s past. In these stories, Allison continued to explore the world of southern families, lesbian relationships, and feminist politics in a vigorous, uncompromising style. The stories are populated by outcasts, radical lesbians, Southern Baptists, and people starved for hunger and love. “River of Names,” the first story in the collection, deals with a series of cousins who died in mysterious bridge accidents, young girls who flee southern towns at thirteen, never to return, and a young boy who douses himself with gasoline and then goes up in flames. Many of these lost, angry, or abandoned souls...

(The entire section is 944 words.)

Dorothy Allison Biography (Novels for Students)

Dorothy Allison Published by Gale Cengage

Dorothy Allison was born on April 11, 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, to a poor, unmarried fifteen-year-old girl. Her mother soon married, and when Allison was five, her stepfather began sexually abusing her. This situation lasted until Allison was eleven, at which time she finally brought herself to tell a relative. Allison's mother learned of the situation and put a stop to it, but the family still stayed together.

At the age of eighteen, Allison left home to attend college in Florida. At school she learned about and came to embrace feminism, finding that it gave her a completely different vision of the world. She lived in a lesbian-feminist commune for a period of time. She later attended graduate school in New York.

Allison began writing seriously in the early 1980s. She published poetry and short stories, many of which dealt with sexuality and sometimes shocking issues of abuse. Her 1983 poetry collection, The Women Who Hate Me, angered mainstream feminists in its praise of sexual promiscuity and sado-masochism. Despite the controversy her work generated, she established a name for herself among writers of gay fiction. Her success was solidified when her 1989 short story collection, Trash, won the Lambda literary awards for best small press book and best lesbian book.

Allison also began work on Bastard Out of Carolina, which has a strong and public autobiographical element. The novel, which was published in 1992, was an immediate success. It was a National Book Award finalist, received much positive criticism, and became a national bestseller. It was also made into a movie by Angelica Houston.

Allison followed up Bastard Out of Carolina with a collection of essays entitled Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (1994); Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995), a memoir of her family that included photographs; and a second novel, Cavedweller (1998). Allison currently lives with her partner and their adopted son in California.

Dorothy Allison Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Allison, Dorothy. “To Tell the Truth.” Ms. 5 (July/August, 1994). Puts forth Allison’s own views on writing, growing up poor, and becoming a lesbian.

Gilmore, Leigh. “Bastard Testimony: Illegitimacy and Incest in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” In The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. In addition to the essay on Allison’s novel, Gilmore examines works by Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeanette Winterson.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. “Moving Toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison.” Kenyon Review 16 (Fall, 1994). Noted feminist scholar and writer Heilbrun explores Allison’s work.

Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Asserts that gritty realism, as in the works of Allison, has gained ascendency over metafiction in American writing.

Reynolds, David. “White Trash in Your Face: The Literary Descent of Dorothy Allison.” Appalachian Journal 21 (Summer, 1993). Delves into the treatment of poor whites in Bastard Out of.