Date of Degree
Nancy K. Miller
American Literature | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America
Autobiography, Bachelard, Childhood, Enclosures, Poetry, Winnicott
A tent of bed sheets, a furniture fort, a corner of the closet surrounded by chosen objects--the child finds or fashions these spaces and within them daydreaming begins. What do small spaces signify for the child, and why do scenes of enclosure emerge in autobiographical self-portraits of the artist? Sigmund Freud's theory that the literary vocation can be traced to childhood experiences is at the heart of this project, especially his observation that "the child at play behaves like a writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, re-arranges the things of this world in a new way." Gaston Bachelard's exploration of space and poetic reverie is also foundational, and I situate Freud's "child at play" within Bachelard's spatial topography in order to examine the ways in which enclosures facilitate the discovery and development of the child's creative capacity. The paradoxical relation between smallness and vastness is a central theme in this dissertation; as the child imagines a world of her own within the small space, spatial constraints dissolve or vanish. My first chapters consider representations of childhood space in the work of two British memoirists at midcentury, Virginia Woolf and Denton Welch, and in the third chapter, I analyze lyric self-portraits by three American poets of the postwar period: Frank O'Hara, Anne Sexton, and Robert Duncan. Others have suggested that childhood enclosures are symbolic of "womb" or "cave," but these interpretations fail to capture the complexity of meanings at play within these scenes. I argue that this recurring figure is less about a lost union with the maternal body or some atavistic memory of the beginning of history; rather, for the author tracing the origins of her creative vocation to childhood, the small space is where the artist is born.
Burgess, Matthew John, "The Vastness of Small Spaces: Self-Portraits of the Artist as a Child Enclosed" (2014). CUNY Academic Works.