Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.