Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
My dissertation, “The Ethos of Dissent: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Democratic Function of American Protest and Countercultural Literature, 1940-1962,” establishes a theoretical frame-work, the literary epideictic, for reading the African American social protest literature of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, and the American countercultural literature of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. I argue that epideictic rhetoric affords insight into how these authors’ narratives embody a post-World War II “ethos of dissent,” a counterdiscourse that emerges out of a climate of dynamism deadlocked with controlling ideologies. Epideictic, the branch of rhetoric concerned with civic matters, commends or censures a particular individual, institution, or social practice, preserves or revises value systems, and builds social cohesion. A developing postwar American society provides “epideictic exigencies” for these authors, i.e., historical events that inform each novel’s counter-narrative – the script and myth of the black male rapist in Native Son, the nonrecognition of African Americans in the social and political sphere in Invisible Man, the Cold War’s ideology of domestic containment and desire in On the Road, and the emerging measures of social control in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. These narratives reveal how their respective social environments impede the realization of democratic freedoms for individuals who refuse to adhere to cultural codes of acquiescence, and they feature alternative values that clash with the dominant social forces attempting to control individual activity. Chapter one applies Sarah Ahmed’s “affective economy of fear” to Wright’s Native Son and helps elucidate Wright’s literary project, which reveals Bigger Thomas’s traumatic fear as the impetus for his actions, an intense fear embedded in violent histories of contact between black and white bodies. Chapter two attends to Ellison’s Invisible Man and the theme of invisibility as a rhetorical strategy calling for the social and political recognition of African Americans. In chapter three, I apply the capitalist conception of a Deleuzian desire to On the Road and argue that Kerouac recodes postwar desire and offers a vision of mobility and authenticity that is akin to a Deleuzian becoming, producing a shift in American values within a culture of containment. Finally, chapter four examines Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest and how the narrative captures an emerg-ing culture of surveillance and parens patriae, and counters with the notion, “play as power.” “The Ethos of Dissent” offers two new insights: 1) my dissertation contributes to literary scholarship by providing a new framework for reading authors who are not ordinarily compared, but who, as Ellison proposes, “report what is going on in their particular area of the American experience” during the postwar period; and 2) it adds to rhetorical criticism by extending epideictic rhetoric from the public civic arena (oratory) to the private literary realm, as well as contributes to a previously unexplored relationship between affect and epideictic rhetoric. While scholars have attended to the function of communal values uniting an audience, there is no work delving into the affective components of the epideictic process. These social protest and counter-cultural novels strive to affect readers emotionally by incorporating emotive discourse that relates to their targeted issues, and the novels instigate a moral examination of the narratively depicted realities against the democratic ideals by critiquing the broad values of racism, conformism, and authoritarianism. Ultimately, the authors and their texts expose failing value systems, promote positive values alluding to a democratic interdependence, and imagine alternative possibilities to the current state of social and political affairs.