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Militarized Desires: Consumerism in American Literature, 1939-1955

  • Author(s): Mykkanen, Rachel
  • Advisor(s): Szalay, Michael
  • et al.
Abstract

My dissertation investigates the American WWII homefront and its commitment both to war production and leisure consumerism. A look at literature of the period shows that rationing did not produce a straightforward repression of desires; wartime restrictions and price controls resulted instead in multiplying forms of desire, and an increase in societal and individual attention paid to consumption choices. Since the war economy rests upon production for destruction, violence irrupts throughout the novels I examine. As more women entered industry, more energy was invested into maintaining an image of the consumer as inherently female. Meanwhile, the underlying social scripts for the eventual redirection of desires toward more traditional and coherent categories were established. I argue that postwar `reconversion' signals broader sociocultural changes rather than relatively limited industrial shifts. Wartime advertisements marketed bright futurity, promoting faith in the idea that hardship now would be transformed into peace and prosperity later, both for you and your progeny. I contend that skepticism toward such highly publicized myths emerges in tropes of childlessness or perverse children, which I examine in each of the novels here.

In my chapter on Saul Bellow's first novel Dangling Man (1944), I argue that his protagonist should be viewed not as an existential hero but as a lens on the homefront economy and its psychic repercussions. As Joseph's life begins to revolve around consumption and frustration, he projects blame outward with violent results. Next I turn to two authors who worked for the WPA in the 1930s and defense plants in the 1940s, before becoming hard-boiled crime fiction writers in the 1950s. Chester Himes and Jim Thompson engage directly with the war economy through their early semi-autobiographical novels, contributing essential voices of dissent in an enforced atmosphere of consensus. Yet both displace industrial violence onto the women in their lives. Finally, Norman Mailer's political allegory of the postwar period critiques the amnesia involved in maintaing an economy based on war. In 'The Postwar Tomorrow', I contend that the wartime shift toward nondurable commodities had significant ramifications for the specific forms of American consumerism appearing in subsequent decades.

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