Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture

Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture

Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture

Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture


The front porch evokes cherished memories from across a lifetime for many southerners--recollections of childhood games, courtship, family visits, gossip with neighbors. In this book, Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon offers an original appreciation of the significance of the porch to everyday life in the South. The porch, she reveals, is not a simple place after all, but a stage for many social dramas. She uses literature, folklore, oral histories, and photographs to show how southerners have used the porch to negotiate public and private boundaries--in ways so embedded in custom that they often go unrecognized. Her sources include writings by Dorothy Allison, William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines, Gloria Naylor, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lee Smith, as well as oral histories that provide varying racial, gender, class, and regional perspectives.

Originally derived from a number of ethnic traditions, the porch evolved in America into something both structurally and culturally unique. In this, the first seriousstudy of the subject, Donlon shows how porch use and porch culture cross ethnic and cultural lines and discusses the transitional quality of the porch space--how it shifts back and forth, by need and function, between a place that is sometimes interior to the house, sometimes exterior.


I do not know when I developed a conscious appreciation of southern porch life. But I do know when I developed a conscious appreciation of being altogether southern—when I relocated from south Louisiana to central Illinois for graduate school. Before my northern trek, I had lived abroad for nearly a year. But Le Mans, France, for all its inscrutable social codes, did not offer some of the perplexing psychological hurdles that Urbana, Illinois, presented. For the first few weeks in the Midwest, I was confronted daily with unfamiliar dilemmas, particularly when it came to greeting others: Do I elicit eye contact with strangers, even though averting one's eyes is the local convention? If I believe I've seen this person before, do I nod and speak, simply nod, or feign lack of recognition until he or she speaks first? Throughout much of the South, it is customary to make eye contact with passersby and then to greet those people—perhaps several times a day. Hi, how ya doin'? C'est tout. C'est normal.

Thus I began years of drawing generalizations about southern and midwestern cultures. Not all midwesterners, I happily discovered, are hesitant to greet strangers. Nordo all southerners feel compelled to establish eye contact. Indeed, eye contact has been an emotionally charged, sometimes devastating custom throughout southern racial history: African American men of the Jim Crow era were sometimes lynched when whites accused them of greeting the wrong white woman at the wrong time and place (see Goldfield). "All Southerners are not alike," Margaret Jones Bolsterli has said, in her memoir Born in the Delta: Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility. "There are many `Souths,' but there is something common to all of them not found in other regions of this country, and Southerners tend to think of themselves as having been shaped by `place'" (4).

There are many Souths, and, while claiming cross-cultural practices as belonging to the South as a whole, this work attempts to recognize complexities and differences within the region. What's more, many different places have shaped southerners, places that can be as varied as southerners themselves. Certainly . . .

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