On Foot: Pathways Through Contemporary Literature

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This dissertation explores contemporary walking narratives – fictions formally organized around and guided by journeys “on foot” – in order to consider the deeply rooted literary-historical, aesthetic, and ethical relationships among practices of walking, writing, remembering, and haunting. By contemplating the ways in which contemporary authors reimagine the walking narrative as a historically embedded and physically embodied site of experimental spatial and social practices and radical modes of historical consciousness, this project encourages us to question the most obvious ways in which we encounter and represent the world. Walking narratives challenge readers and literary critics alike to reflect on the intimacies and intricacies of paths, place, pace, and point of view, thereby destabilizing familiar conceptualizations of perceptual, geographic, autobiographic, and historical knowledge. At the same time, these insistently and unsettlingly hybrid fictions also reconfigure the boundaries of genre, encouraging a theoretical and aesthetic reorientation of literary-critical knowledge guided by metaphors of spatial and temporal trespass, moments of historical surprise, recognition, and wonder, and networks of bodies in motion.

Integrating the critical-interpretive methods of literary studies with the practice-centered theories of cultural geography and performance studies, this project examines how texts by W. G. Sebald, Iain Sinclair, and Teju Cole engage with interdisciplinary questions of movement, personal identity, the philosophy of history, and place. Situating these works within the emerging critical field of “walking studies,” I argue that contemporary walking narratives become textual testing grounds for practices of wandering and wondering that (re)animate the histories embedded in landscape and allow the ghosts of the past to speak in ethically urgent ways. Through the linked practices of walking and writing, contemporary walking narratives open new routes through which to encounter literature and landscape and inspire spectral conversations designed to illuminate new points of entry into past and present, world and word.






O'Neil, Meghan Marie (2018). On Foot: Pathways Through Contemporary Literature. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16812.


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