Date of Award

5-2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

College/School

College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Department/Program

English

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Melinda Knight

Committee Member

Laura Jones

Committee Member

Laura M, Nicosia

Subject(s)

Racism in literature, Nativism in literature, Group identity in literature, American literature--Criticism and interpretation, Financier (Dreiser, Theodore , How the other half lives (Riis, Jacob A.), Maggie, a girl of the streets (Crane, Stephen), O pioneers! (Cather, Willa), Quicksand (Larsen, Nella), Sun also rises (Hemingway, Ernest), Titan (Dreiser, Theodore), Walter Benn Michaels

Abstract

This thesis problematizes traditional generic groupings (such as realism, naturalism, and modernism) since such categories segregate texts into literary periods defined largely by artificial formalist criteria. These ahistorical distinctions tend to deemphasize social and cultural import and also occlude analyses of texts as cultural products that express the dominant ideology of a particular epoch. A historical analysis focusing on cultural ideology can offer new insights to how various canonical texts perpetuate American mythologies and stereotypes. When interrogating texts of the Progressive and Modernist Eras, a pattern emerges that conflates racism and nativism in an effort to define Americans as elite Anglo-Americans and configure other social and ethnic groups as racial Others.

In traditional literary criticism, canonical texts of both periods are widely celebrated for their literary merit, whereas racist and nativist impulses tend to be overlooked, understated, or dismissed. Walter Benn Michaels is a notable exception; he argues in Our America that nativist modernism identifies “culture as the determinant of identity,” claiming “it is only when we know which race we are that we can tell which culture is ours” (15-16). The research in this thesis differs from Michaels’s in two critical respects: first, it reformulates Michaels’s claim by arguing that nativists saw cultural identity as a composite of race, class, ideologies, and practices; second, the broader historical scope identifies similar expressions of racial nativism in pre-WWI works by writers such as William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane—whom Larzer Ziff calls the first “lost generation” (343-348). The 1890s and 1920s writers can both be called “lost,” since they express the nativist problem of American identity in a racially heterogeneous nation.

In addition to Michaels’s theory, the research in this thesis applies perspectives from Thorstein Veblen, Kenneth Burke, and Toni Morrison, which are explained in the introduction. The texts are examined through two categories of analysis: cultural identity (race, class, ideologies, practices, geographic origin, and language) and ideas of racial purity rooted in scientific racism. The two chapters divide the texts into pre- and post- WWI periods, and both chapters examine each era’s historical context. Sociological texts by Jacob Riis, Madison Grant, and Lothrop Stoddard provide the ideological framework for literary texts written by Howells, Crane, Frank Norris, Dreiser, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Nella Larsen. The conclusion argues that texts of both eras express racial nativist ideology through similar treatments of cultural identity and ideas of racial purity but differ in terms of degree.

This research yields new insights to cultural products that have been widely celebrated for their literary merits without sufficient consideration of how they reaffirm racial nativist ideologies that materialized in social and legislative controls engineered to marginalize and exclude various social groups. In configuring American identity as white, the texts reaffirm contemporary fears that racial Others threaten the nativist fantasy of an Anglo-American nation and, in doing so, express a problem for ideas of cultural identity that rely on racial homogeneity.

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