Date of Award

Fall 1995

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Lisa MacFarlane


"Emerging From the Chrysalis" begins with the words of Frederick Douglass, who explains in his 1845 slave narrative that learning to read was a conflicted experience, simultaneously enabling and painful. Douglass writes, "I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing." These powerful words reveal a paradoxical "double-consciousness" inherent in nineteenth-century narratives about literacy: literacy's capacity to simultaneously imprison and empower. Douglass's relationship to literacy, both as a character within his narrative and as an author in a historical context, exemplifies the focus of this dissertation.

I borrow my central metaphor from Harriet Jacobs, for whom the chrysalis represents a private, womblike stage early in her writing process, a period of time in which she isolates herself and keeps her literate activities secret from her employers. The chrysalis image, in portending rebirth, also acknowledges literacy as a public act of cultural negotiation. This extraordinary pattern of isolation and rebirth, of chosen confinement and boundary-breaking captures the experience of literacy in the lives of individuals already marginalized from mainstream society by race, class and gender.

The central tenet of my argument is that literacy is not monolithic; it is not simply a skill that an individual does or doesn't have. Instead, literacy is represented as a process of becoming which moves back and forth in a continuing experience of liberation and imprisonment. I define metaliteracy as the ability to move freely within and among the private and the public experiences of literacy. Metaliteracy is the ability to recognize, manipulate and revise various levels of authoritative discourse through the integration of one's own internally persuasive discourse. In that more sophisticated state, critical literacy becomes a mode of praxis, a means of writing in the world, of righting the world.

I consider works as diverse as Douglass's narrative, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. I draw on literacy scholarship, critical studies in American literature and composition theory to examine the personal, political and economic implications of literacy as a means of self-representation.