Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture.

Author:O'Neil, Sean

Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture. By Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 193 pages.

It was not her experience studying abroad in France, but rather her move to the Midwest for graduate school that made Jocelyn Donlon keenly aware of the bits and pieces of her life in southern Louisiana that she had previously taken for granted. Her experience--the startling recognition of difference in a mirror, but a close difference that seems more like oneself than an exotic other--provides her rationale and sets the tone for Swinging in Place, an investigation of the porch in Southern American culture that is both the rigorous academic project of a capable scholar and the documented self-discovery of a Southerner.

While Donlon cannot offer a narrative of the architectural evolution of the porch, as there is, unfortunately, not enough surviving evidence upon which such a narrative could be built, she does offer a survey of the predominant theories regarding its origins. Noting that such structures as the balcony, veranda, and portico existed in Europe before the colonization of the Americas, she points out that they certainly did not serve the same social function as the American porch. Rather, it was the breezy stoops built by the peoples in West Africa, whom the Europeans brought in chains to the Americas, which are most likely the closest spiritual ancestors of the porch. Thus, while little can be said for certain about the evolution of the porch, Donlon comes to the very reasonable conclusion that it is most certainly a "creolized" (15) design.

Swinging in Place is not an architectural history, however. Rather, it examines the porch as a liminal space, as "a transitional space between public and private spheres" (13) that Donlon makes the focus of her project. She uses de Certeau's distinction between "space" and "place" to make her case, arguing that the porch is at once a "'configuration of positions' that has been dictated by the dominant culture" (the "place") and yet it is also "composed of intersections of mobile elements" which make it possible for individuals to "resist societal regulations" (the "space") (25).

Though she does not use theatrical terms per se, for Donlon the porch is very much a stage. As a location where an individual can perform his or her own identity to the community or the community can direct the performance of an individual's identity, the porch then...

To continue reading