Searching for an Identity
Texas Tech Professor Mary Jane Hurst looks at language, gender and community in late 20th century fiction
by Sally Logue Post
American fiction of the 1990s shows men and women searching for their identities in an increasingly gender-conscious and ethnically diverse country.
Mary Jane Hurst, professor of English at Texas Tech, has combined her research into language and literature with her interest in gender issues to produce the book “Language, Gender, and Community in Late Twentieth Century Fiction: American Voices and American Identities,” published by Palgrave Macmillan.
“Besides my research interests, I must admit that I took some inspiration from Oprah Winfrey’s book club,” said Hurst. “I began to read some of the books she featured and then other late 20th century novels. I had been thinking for a while about doing a linguistic study of fiction. So when I combined gender and language, the theme of community kept coming up, and I saw how the three were interwoven into the fiction of the 1990s.”
Hurst examined novels by Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, Ann Beattie, John Updike, Chang-rae Lee, Amy Tan, Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich, Rudolfo Anaya and Denise Chavez. For each chapter of the book, she focused on two authors, a male and a female, of a similar age and ethnicity from five areas of the country.
Hurst found a recurring theme of loneliness in the 10 books as the characters worry about a lack of human connections and how to build connections. She points to the fact that loneliness also has surfaced in recent months in both the popular press and in academic research.
“There are many people looking at the issue of loneliness, and how people are connecting with those around them. Current research suggests that in our time today it is single people who are transforming American culture, not couples.”
As Hurst began to examine fiction of the 1990s, it hit home how much the world has changed in such a short time.
“The post-September 11 world has changed so much–our politics, our literature and our culture are different now,” she said. “It’s hard to think back to the time when we could go to an airport and just walk right onto a plane.”
Hurst’s research focuses on how the authors and their characters use language to grapple with issues of gender and how they define themselves by the connections they make with other people. These characters are constructing their gender and their American identities through their dialogues.
“Americans construct their identities through their language, as all people do,” said Hurst. “In Alice Walker’s novel, when the character Tashi returns to her native land in Africa, she is asked by another African woman what Americans are like and what they look like. Tashi’s answer is that an American is someone who looks like her, someone who is wounded on the inside but doesn’t show it on the outside.”
One side note that Hurst came away with is the quality of the work she read.
“American fiction is worthwhile and belongs beside the classics,” she said.
About the Author
Mary Jane Hurst is an American Council on Education Fellow and professor of English at Texas Tech, where she has received the Faculty Distinguished Leadership Award and the President’s Excellence in Teaching Award. Hurst has previously served the university as director of linguistics in the Department of English, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and special assistant to the president. She also chaired the efforts that earned Texas Tech the right to shelter a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. She has served as executive director of the Linguistic Association of the Southwest and is the author of “The Voice of the Child in American Literature: Linguistic Approaches to Fictional Child Language” and numerous journal articles about language, literature and other professional issues.
Sally Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.