Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
R. Clifton Spargo
This dissertation explores the intersections of violence, masculinity, and racial and ethnic tension in America as it is depicted in fiction published by Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and Philip Roth between 1950 and 1975. Through close literary analysis coupled with a study of race and gender in 20th century American culture, I examine the manner in which gendered existential dilemmas are portrayed in this fiction as arising from a number of external factors, including racism, ethnic stereotyping, and the triumph of white heteronormativity as a model of masculinity. In doing so, I offer a reconsideration of existential questions about gender as they apply to the African-American and Jewish-American protagonists in these texts who, experiencing a period of transition amidst cultural and political upheaval, become particularly representative figures for the study of masculinity in crisis during these decades. While Eric Sundquist and Emily Miller Budick have laid the groundwork for putting black and Jewish authors in dialogue, and while some critical studies of these authors have addressed their respective representations of race and gender, none have placed these texts side by side to explore their instructive similarities, particularly with regard to the role violence plays in each author's representation of masculinity. My own research highlights how violence in these texts is problematically asserted as an inherent part of a man's existential freedom. I further advance the critical conversation surrounding constructions of racialized masculinity in post-WWII American literature by taking a philosophical and historicist approach, drawing from the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in order to discern the status of violence in the modern existentialist reckoning of identity, particularly as a key to understanding the many conflicting shapes of American masculinity. Specifically, I argue that the authors under investigation often figure violence as a central aspect of their respective constructions of masculinity, but that this use of violence harbors a problematic paradox, as its deployment in the name of liberation often reifies many of the cultural myths and power structures that they, or the protagonists who speak on their behalf, seek to overturn.
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