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"Divide the living child in two": Adoption and the rhetoric of legitimacy in twentieth-century American literature

Jill R Deans, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study examines adoption in a range of twentieth-century American cultural texts: novels, plays and films. Adoption narratives, I argue, hold in relief the process through which individuals are recognized within the public discourse of family and community. Both highly regulated and elusive, adoption enables individuals to assume "normal" (legitimate) roles within their adoptive families while obscuring their "spurious" (illegitimate) origins. How adoptive subjects are recognized in society depends ultimately on their ability or willingness to perform the rhetoric of legitimacy. Not only do citational practices enact adoptive identities, but the rhetoric of legitimacy naturalizes this process by referring obliquely to biology as the model for relatedness. This linguistic component serves to complicate identity issues faced by displaced subjects who must forge so-called unnatural social relations, adoptive bonds that mimic the biological. In this way, adoption reminds us that even biological kinship is wrought through language and configured as primal. While I focus mainly on literal adoptees, characters newly placed or caught between families, I recognize an important link between these characters and more symbolic adoptees, individuals who are culturally displaced or politically dispossessed. Adoption in literature works to expose rents in the social fabric, places where issues of belonging are in dispute. I begin my analysis by examining the force of records to determine characters in works by William Faulkner and Louise Erdrich. In both cases, culture mediates the efficacy of record-keeping and the dissemination of identity. From here, I explore more directly the fluidity of cultural claims made by adoptees in works by Bharati Mukherjee and Leslie Marmon Silko. I examine the performative function of adoption in plays by Edward Albee and John Guare. And finally, I focus on "the face of adoption," by examining how adoption materializes in recent Hollywood films. This study initiates connections between adoption and issues of difference and diversity by exploring the way culture and language converge in the expression of the adoptive subject.

Subject Area

American literature|Comparative literature|Theater|Motion Pictures

Recommended Citation

Deans, Jill R, ""Divide the living child in two": Adoption and the rhetoric of legitimacy in twentieth-century American literature" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841859.