- Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture
Any scholar who is interested in the theoretical intersections of southern literature, culture, space, folklore, and place will recognize Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon's book as an important addition to folklore and southern studies. Donlon draws upon architectural history, archival photos, oral histories, novels, essays, interviews, poetry, songs, and her own family stories to investigate the space of the porch and its various social functions in southern culture. Her inclusion of self into her research is a starting place for her larger project, rather than an excuse to lapse into nostalgia. It also allows for self-awareness and reflection when Donlon crosses race or class boundaries in her ethnography. She brings these factors to the forefront of her research instead of erasing them from the text.
After stating her personal interest in the project, Donlon moves on to a brief but useful overview of the architectural development, or "creolization," of porches in the South. Although she does celebrate porch life, she also delves deeper. Invoking Edward Soja's theory of space as socially produced, Victor Turner's discussion of "liminality," and Michel de Certeau's definitions of "space" and "place," among other [End Page 245] theoretical models, she wrestles with difficult questions and grounds her study firmly in existing scholarship.
Donlon discusses porch culture as a place where gender, race, and class are performed and negotiated. For women, Donlon notes, the porch is a place of work and leisure. The same front porch can be a place where one snaps beans in the morning and dresses to formally greet passersby in the afternoon. For children, it is a place to play and a space where one becomes socialized into a community. For men, it is most often a space of "socializing and relaxation" after a day of working away from home in the public sphere (p. 114). For young people, the porch is a place to be alone, yet not unchaperoned, when courting. Donlon also delves into the dichotomy between the front porch, as a public space, and the back porch, when a family had one, as the place for private gatherings and housework.
Donlon's foray into defining a particular southern space/place is commendable, but the photographs she uncovers in her own family albums, the albums of others, and historical archives are one of the best features of this book. The pictures of porches, and people performing porch culture, add a depth to this study that cannot be overestimated.
Fortunately, Donlon's study steers away from nostalgic longing for the days before air conditioning or pleas for preservation of porch culture, instead giving examples of functioning porches throughout the history of the American South and positing that the culture of the porch may also be found in other places, such as the kitchen table. Donlon does not claim to have written the final word on porch culture—indeed, she invites further scholarship on the spaces and places of southern culture. I look forward, as I hope others do, to engaging her in this new conversation.