As a reader I am concerned with how any piece of information fits into a larger context of a culture, society, or individual. The academic no-no's of personal bias, emotionality and subjectivity become apparent interpretative difficulties when the "whole picture" approach is used to read a text. The awareness of the reader's "issues" and perspective shape the way one reads a text, is the concern of the reader-response criticism theory. It is exciting to me to find an academic criticism that sees reading as an act of interpretation that becomes a participatory event with several players; the text, the writer's personal and cultural experience, as well as my own.
The reader-response criticism acknowledges a multiplicity of meanings within a text that are a result of the reader's "lived experience." Critics using this theory look at the activity of reading a text as an initial stage to interpretation. (Tompkins, Murfin) The existence of the text is in the reader reading, who is inescapably subjective. The context of the reader's own real-life experience is used to evaluate and filter a text's information. Reader-Response Criticism encourages the reader to become part of the text, seeing that the way the reader reads affects what is read. Literary elements such as "gaps" in the texts' explanation or time, are what make the text interesting to the reader-response critic for it is through these that they are allowed to participate with the text. (Murfin) The reader is never passive in the act of making sense of a piece of literature. The continual redefining of a text through analogous life experiences makes any single reader-response into a new personalized text. (Tompkins, Murfin)
The goal of "The Bullet Ricocheted Through the Personal, Cultural and Political: The Civil War Diary of Alice Williamson" is to examine female personal narrative as a period, and modern reader might have done. The phrase "the bullet ricocheted" refers to the act of the text. Aiming to examine not only what is literal in the text but also what is figurative; by recognizing that these two textual concepts collide in the active reader's mind with their own lived experience. In order to successfully approach a female narrative through a reader's response criticism I must recreate for the reader/viewer a community and the personal experiences of the women I intend to interpret. The inclusion of actual images of Alice Williamson's diary (the primary source) is in effort to give the reader part of the aesthetic act of the real life experience of reading the text.
The tone of this paper is extremely casual and personal; this is intended to allow the reader to think for themselves when reading, to question what I am saying, and not just to be convinced. The use of the first person is intended to serve as a model for the reader to be carried away into their own lives, to ask questions such as: How do I feel about my diary? What purpose does it serve? Why keep one? The ultimate goal is for the reader of this paper to believe something other than or expanded upon what is being argued, for in accordance with the chosen criticism, multiple perspectives are the real meaning.
As I will demonstrate there are multiple perspectives in the reading of the Alice Williamson's diary; the period reader would certainly have had their own ideas on the piece probably the region they were from would have created the biggest variation. Alice Williamson writes from Tennessee during the year of 1964. Tennessee was in a period of great transition during 1963-64; changing from a Southern to a Northern territory. Research on women living in Tennessee was difficult for this reason. Information on Southern women's "traditional" lives didn't fit with due to the transition, nor did information on the drastically changing roles of Northern women. Please bear this in mind when reading on.
This paper pushes away from the historic idea of "objectivity" that has been central to so many early colonial texts. The search for a "correct" reading of the signs and interpretation has had a powerful influence on many early colonial lives. I feel the need to come full circle from the singular and absolute interpretation partially based in New England Puritan ideology, to now come into modern methods of criticism. What follows is a reader- response criticism of Alice Williamson's diary, appropriately a personal narrative; intended to highlight the "truest" interpretation that we each have - our own story telling what a piece or event does .
Murfin, Ross C. ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter- Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Tompkins, Jane P. ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post- Structuralism. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980.