Dorothy Allison Essay - Critical Essays

Allison, Dorothy


Dorothy Allison 1949-

(Full name Dorothy E. Allison) American novelist, essayist, poet, memoirist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Allison's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 78.

Allison is a highly regarded feminist writer who has garnered a large amount of mainstream recognition. An incest survivor and self-labeled “lesbian-feminist,”Allison heavily incorporates events from her life into her work. Best known for her partially autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Allison's work has earned widespread praise for its realism, objectiveness, vivid and multi-faceted characterizations, and laconic prose.

Biographical Information

Allison was born on April 11, 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, to Ruth Gibson Allison, a fifteen-year-old unwed waitress. Allison's father disappeared before she was born. Four years later, her mother remarried and when Allison was six, her stepfather began to physically and sexually abuse her. The abuse lasted for several years before Allison was able to tell a relative about her situation. The relative informed Allison's mother, who stopped the abuse, but chose not to separate the family from the stepfather. Allison was the first person in her family to receive a high school diploma, and in 1968, she earned a National Merit Scholarship. She left home to attend Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she received her B.A. in 1971. She became active in the feminist movement and edited and wrote for publications that championed gay rights and women's rights. Allison moved into a lesbian collective in Washington, D.C., but found her views conflicted with those of other lesbians, so in 1974, she moved to New York. While there, she received her M.A. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Allison's first two publications, The Women Who Hate Me (1983), a book of poetry, and Trash (1988), a short-story collection, were highly praised—Trash earned two Lambda Literary Awards—but did not receive widespread attention. In 1992, Allison published her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, and achieved, almost overnight, a large degree of critical success. Bastard Out of Carolina was a National Book Award finalist and was adapted into a television movie in 1996. Allison divides her time between writing and teaching, and has taught at many universities, including Florida State University, Wesleyan, Rutgers, and the San Francisco Art Institute. She resides near San Francisco with her partner, Alix Layman, and their son, Wolf Michael.

Major Works

In The Women Who Hate Me and Trash, Allison recounted the shame and fear she experienced while growing up as a sexually abused child. The narrative voices in these two works describe attempts to escape painful childhood memories. The incest, abuse, and poverty that Allison suffered as a youngster figure heavily in her novel Bastard Out of Carolina as well, a fictionalized portrayal of a young girl's life in a poor Southern family. The protagonist, Bone, lives happily, surrounded by a family of strong women, until her mother decides to marry. After the marriage, Daddy Glen, Bone's new stepfather, begins to sexually molest her. Bone endures years of abuse before her mother becomes aware of the molestations, but, moved by Daddy Glen's pleas for forgiveness, Bone's mother chooses to stay with Daddy Glen rather than leave him for Bone's well-being. The book concludes with thirteen-year-old Bone abandoned by her mother, trying to reconcile her past and attempting to start a new life. In 1993, Allison's writing style changed with Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature (1993). Skin is a collection of essays that details her sexual tastes and fetishes and condemn the “acceptable” practice of ridiculing working-class Southerners. The work also explains unapologetically to the heterosexual mainstream and the lesbian communities Allison's feelings and reasons for the content of her works. Allison returned to her blend of autobiography and storytelling in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995). Written originally as a performance piece, this work is an embellished memoir in which Allison recounts not only the pain of growing up poor, abused, and with low self-esteem, but also the bonding she experienced with various friends and members of her family. Her writing became even more forgiving and hopeful in her second novel, Cavedweller (1998). In this novel, protagonist Delia abandons her two daughters while running away from her abusive husband. After being absent from their lives for several years, and despite her realization that she will face ridicule from the community and derision from her daughters, Delia returns to her hometown to claim the two girls. This decision stands in stark contrast to Bone's mother's actions in Bastard Out of Carolina. Delia chooses her daughters' welfare over her own, and while her return is a painful and traumatic experience for all three characters, Delia is determined to make the new relationship work.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Allison's The Women Who Hate Me, Trash, and Skin was highly favorable in feminist and lesbian literary circles. Mainstream critics, although mostly positive, often appeared to be shocked and flustered with the vivid description of Allison's sexual preferences in these works. Both mainstream and feminist reviewers have lauded Bastard Out of Carolina for its realistic characterizations and sensitive depiction of incest and family violence. K. K. Roeder writes “… Bastard's success is its emotional precision and irrepressible lyricism, forcefully combined. Allison relates the difficulty of Bone's struggles with intensity, humor, and hard-wrought rejection of self-pity, rendering Bastard a rare achievement among works of fiction dealing with abused children.” While some reviewers felt that Cavedweller became repetitive and clichéd at certain points, many viewed the work as an accurate portrait of poor, rural, Southern life and a touching account of a family in difficult circumstances. Elizabeth A. Brown writes, “Allison's characters from the poor white South are fully drawn, fully human, because the author grew up with them. There are no saints or stereotypes in her writing. Her dialogue is real—terse and Southern.” Overall, reviewers have found that Allison's merging of fiction with autobiography adds depth to her powerful tales of self-examination, survival, and the inherent strength of women.

Principal Works

The Women Who Hate Me (poetry) 1983; revised as The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980–1990, 1991

Trash: Stories by Dorothy Allison (short stories) 1988

Bastard Out of Carolina (novel) 1992

Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature (essays) 1994

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (memoirs) 1995

Cavedweller (novel) 1998


Gale Harris (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “Ashamed and Glorified,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 4–6.

[In the following review, Harris offers a positive assessment of Bastard Out of Carolina, noting the novel's vivid descriptions and skillful use of vernacular.]

Bastard Out of Carolina is a novel wrung from the heart. Here in Greenville County, South Carolina, members of the extended Boatwright family often subsist on flour-and-water biscuits and move from one ramshackle house to another. Men drown their disappointments in the fleeting sweetness of life in drink and brawls, and women hide their disappointment in their menfolk behind a bitter indulgence of male...

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E. J. Graff (review date September 1994)

SOURCE: “Nothing but the Truth,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 12, September, 1994, pp. 10–11.

[In the following positive review, Graff praises Allison for writing about such controversial subject matter in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature.]

I moved East in 1980, fresh from a small-town university “women's” community whose worst splits were over who'd slept with whose girlfriend. So I was surprised when, in Boston, I saw odd, wounded looks on women's faces when they talked—or declined to talk—about recent political history. Someone's restaurant had been boycotted and failed. Someone else refused to meet me, ever, at the women's...

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Dorothy Allison with Carolyn E. Megan (interview date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: “Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 71–83.

[In the following interview, Allison and Megan discuss Allison's past and the parallels between her life and works.]

In March 1993 Dorothy Allison's novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, nominated for the 1992 National Book Award, had just been published in paperback, and she was at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a reading tour. She answered the door to her posh suite dressed in T-shirt and jeans saying, “Look at this place! Grace Paley stayed in this room!” Readers were lining up in city after city to hear her read,...

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Carla Tomaso (review date 1 January 1995)

SOURCE: “Never the Good Girl,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following positive review of Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature, Tomaso commends Allison's bravery and skill at personal introspection.]

Dorothy Allison loves sex. She also loves writing, women, justice, Southern landscape, literature, her family and truth. It is this huge capacity for passion that makes her work so challenging. Her raw honesty makes it so intimate it's almost too painful to read. The author of the National Book Award Finalist Bastard Out of Carolina and Trash, a collection of short stories, has written a book of...

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Dorothy Allison with Minnie Bruce Pratt (interview date March 1995)

SOURCE: “The Progressive Interview: Dorothy Allison,” in Progressive, Vol. 59, No. 7, July, 1995, pp. 30–34.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in March 1995, Allison discusses how racism, illiteracy, Southern working-class stereotypes, and her lesbianism affect her life and her writing.]

On a cold rainy Boston afternoon in March, I was curled up on Dorothy Allison's bed, eating chocolate, gossiping, and talking books with this charismatic author, who wrote the award-winning novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, and the short-story collection, Trash. Her most recent book is Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature.


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Walter Kendrick (essay date July 1996)

SOURCE: “Fiction in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, July, 1996, pp. 162–67.

[In the following essay, Kendrick explores the balance between the autobiographical and the fictional elements in Allison's works.]

In Dorothy Allison's five books, she has never repeated herself. She has published a volume of poems (The Women Who Hate Me, 1983), a collection of short stories (Trash, 1988), a novel (Bastard Out of Carolina, 1992), a collection of essays (Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature, 1994), and an unclassifiable book “written for performance” (Two or Three Things I Know for Sure,). Although Allison ranges...

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Jillian Sandell (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Telling Stories of ‘Queer White Trash’: Race Class and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison,” in White Trash: Race and Class in America, Routledge, 1997, pp. 211–30.

[In the following essay, Sandell explores the class distinctions and prejudices in the works of Dorothy Allison, noting that even specialized communities (e.g., lesbian and gay communities, racial groups) have class-based biases and fears.]

The stories I told about my family, about South Carolina, about being poor itself, were all lies, carefully edited to seem droll or funny.

Dorothy Allison1


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Susan Salter Reynolds (essay date 2 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Dorothy Allison: A Family Redeemed,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 9, March 2, 1998, pp. 44–45.

[In the following essay, Reynolds discusses Allison's childhood and literary career, including excerpts from an interview with Allison.]

Back in 1992, when Dorothy Allison burst into the literary limelight with her bestselling novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, she dubbed herself the “Roseanne of Literature.” That shocking, autobiographical story of a young girl in the South who is raped and beaten by her stepfather helped open the floodgates to the rush of memoirs that has since poured into American bookstores. Allison's audience flocked to her...

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Phyllis Richardson (review date 15 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Spelunking,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, p. 8.

[In the following negative review, Richardson expresses her disappointment with Cavedweller, describing the novel as unconvincing, overly dramatic, and lacking focus.]

Dorothy Allison put the dirt into dirty realism: real dirt and poverty and violence. In her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, she re-created the controlled hysteria of a household that frequently erupts with beatings and sexual abuse. Unlike people who have capitalized on the shock value of such stories, Allison succeeded in directing generations of brutality, anger and disgust into a cogent, skillfully...

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Joann Wypijewski (review date 30 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Joplin Sings Georgia,” in Nation, Vol. 266, No. 11, March 30, 1998, pp. 25–27.

[In the following positive review of Cavedweller, Wypijewski praises Allison's ability to create fully fleshed, multifaceted characters that have both unlikable and redeeming qualities.]

Up a dirt road in a graveyard in Guilford, Vermont, a marker worn from the rains of 200 years commemorates a life just this way: “A tired woman in a weary land.” Alongside are the headstones of the four children she buried—the opening and closing lines of her untold story, one that will never be old enough. There's no antiquity to the silence that wraps around grief. It is...

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Katrina Irving (essay date Spring 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Writing It Down So That It Would Be Real’: Narrative Strategies in Dorothy Allison's Bastard,” in College Literature, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 94–107.

[In the following essay, Irving analyzes Bastard Out of Carolina in relation to the conventional realist style versus the genre of “accepted” lesbian literature.]

Lesbian representation is not simply a matter of making lesbianism visible. … Women of the baby-boom generation, the founders of women's music and culture, believed that they could construct a collective sense of what it meant to be a lesbian, and also develop representations of that collective...

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Kathlene McDonald (essay date Spring–Summer 1998)

SOURCE: “Talking Trash, Talking Back: Resistance to Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina,” in Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 1–2, Spring–Summer, 1998, pp. 15–25.

[In the following essay, McDonald explores the literary techniques that Allison employs in Bastard Out of Carolina to give the reader a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of her characters.]

They were of a kind not safely to be described in an account claiming to be unimaginative or untrustworthy, for they had too much and too outlandish beauty not to be legendary. Since, however, they existed quite irrelevant to myth, it will...

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Mark Greif (review date 28 August 1998)

SOURCE: “Legends of Rock,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4978, August 28, 1998, p. 21.

[In the following mixed review, Greif argues that although the opening of Cavedweller holds promise, the various characters and their life experiences eventually become tangential and repetitive.]

The path of the West Coast rock star from rural obscurity to premature death makes one of the most alluring and persistent of American stories. A miserable, small-town childhood sets the myth in motion. There is a frigid, authoritarian father; torment at the hands of schoolyard bullies; escape through music. At the other end of the arc, the rock star's demise retains an air...

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Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon (essay date Fall 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Born on the Wrong Side of the Porch’: Violating Traditions in Bastard Out of Carolina,” in Southern Folklore, Vol. 55, No. 2, Fall, 1998, pp. 133–44.

[In the following essay, Donlon examines the significance of the front porch as a symbol of privacy and escape in Bastard Out of Carolina.]

Ever since the first American gallery appeared in 1702, and until its decline with the coming of air-conditioning, the front porch has been for Southerners “a shady transition between indoors and out where one [can] relax and sip iced tea, talk with a friend on the swing, or eat summer suppers” (Oszuscik 1992:1; Moore, et al. 1983:24). Indeed, even as...

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Vincent King (essay date Fall 2000)

SOURCE: “Hopeful Grief: The Prospect of a Postmodernist Feminism in Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1, Fall, 2000, pp. 122–40.

[In the following essay, King explores the postmodern and feminist aspects of Bastard Out of Carolina.]

Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is a lyrical yet fiercely disturbing portrait of a South Carolina family besieged by poverty, violence, and incest. Narrated by young Ruth Anne Boatwright—or Bone as she is called by her family—the novel begins, ordinarily enough, with her birth and early years and quickly focuses on the relationship between Bone and her violent...

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Further Reading


Allison, Dorothy with Blanche McCrary Boyd. “Dorothy Allison, Crossover Blues.” Nation (5 July 1993): 20, 22.

Allison discusses the effects her lesbianism has on many different aspects of her life.

Allison, Dorothy with David L. Ulin. “An Open Book.” Los Angeles Times (24 April 1998): E1.

Allison discusses her childhood, her days as a militant feminist, and her present-day lifestyle and beliefs.

Anshaw, Carol. “Crying on the Inside.” Advocate (17 March 1998): 62.

Anshaw commends Cavedweller as a celebration of women's strength through...

(The entire section is 389 words.)