Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
In The Word and the World: The Activist Spirit in American Literature , 1968-1998, I argue that some American authors confronted what Audre Lorde calls the "triumphs and errors" of the 1960s by producing literature that conceptualizes methodologies of resistance within sustainable models of community organization. Instead of succumbing to the inherent cynicism of the postmodern era, this literature encourages readers to adopt activist practices and to remain vigilant against oppressive government actions that intrude on civil liberties. Referring to selective works by Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Charles Johnson, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Lorde, among others, I show how these authors---many of whom were shaped by their personal experiences of the sixties---reject naive idealism while remaining hopeful of the possibility of progressive social change. Accordingly, they offer readers a chance to participate in the spirit of their work by fostering empathic connections with activist characters in worlds meant to serve as models for our own. By advancing a sense of cautious optimism in their work, the authors in this study reclaim the activist spirit of the 1960s while revealing to readers the many ways in which the social movements of the decade were flawed. Taken together, they also reclaim the need for resistance in a post-1960s period in which the gains of the civil rights and women's movements were met with conservative efforts to brand such resistance as anti-American and social activists as dangerous revolutionaries. The authors I discuss respond to such tactics by defining freedom as a practice, the conscious observance of which is in the service of progressive notions of social democratic governance and human rights. This practice extends to reading as well; as participatory texts, the works in this study command active reading that results in the critical questioning of standard, popular modes of discourse and academic theorizing. How one reads is therefore as important as what one reads, since to read radically is to imagine new ways of approaching the word and the world that account for the needs of marginalized, oppressed peoples as well as the communities we build and the values we promote. This particular group of "activist texts" thus redirects the indeterminate nature of value systems in mainstream postmodern literary and cultural theory to a project that remembers the potential of 1960s organizing---despite its shortcomings---to produce a better world for us all.;Drawing from work in literary theory, historiography, cultural studies, and performance studies, my methodology is grounded in an interdisciplinary project that mirrors the inclusive social paradigms of the texts I discuss. Like Marjorie Garber and Elizabeth Ammons, I am involved in literary analysis but incorporate ethical pronouncements that at times take the form of a manifesto for pragmatic literary scholarship. I argue that literary study is often too focused on aesthetic or stylistic value in text and should do more to uncover and promote the value of text in encouraging critical questioning and in shaping civic ideals and expectations. I conclude that locating examples of social praxis in American literature after the 1960s can benefit the efforts of contemporary movements such as Occupy Wall Street as they move forward in addressing the needs of marginalized peoples in the twenty-first century. Lastly, I argue that the relevance of such a project is reaffirmed by the recent turn in literary studies toward work relating to neoliberalism and global capitalism, which threaten to widen the disparities that reproduce inequality and make resistance necessary to human rights and social progress.
Stupp, Jason M., "The Word and the World: The Activist Spirit in American Literature, 1968-1998" (2012). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 3576.