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Constructing the American Dream: The GI Bill, Middlebrow Literary Culture, and the Politics of Well-Being in the Mid-Twentieth Century


This dissertation argues that the Armed Services Editions (1942-1947) as an inherently middlebrow project, together with the post- WWII GI bill education and housing benefits, cohered and solidified an enduring fiction of the American Dream as one in which hard work can yield the success and comfort of suburban middle-class life. The middlebrow nature of the American Dream is intimately connected to the concept of military masculinity, a particular conception of gender presentation and formation which was perceived as essential to winning the War. Discussing conceptions of American identity, the middlebrow, and the military masculine together brings us closer to an understanding of the American Dream—and thus, of the fiction of American identity—as innately middlebrow and intimately connected to the fiction of the inherent masculinity of the military, which in its democratizing and homogenizing education is itself a kind of middlebrow institution. I argue that the middlebrow is incredibly dependent on and entangled with print culture, which both dictates and reflects how one ought to act, what one ought to buy, and what one ought to aspire to—and thus the ASEs, as a recreational reading project, both complicated conceptions of the middlebrow as feminine and perpetuated ideas about the American Dream which middlebrow culture ascribes to. The American Dream is a dream of striving and invention, and the middlebrow aesthetic argues that the evolution-of-self that is involved can be bought— can be constructed out of an accumulation of objects, or images, or identities contrived through the purchase of books or commodities. Thus the American Dream and the middlebrow are inextricably linked and mutually constitutive. This discussion necessitates exploration of the literature itself as well as policy, economics, critical gender studies, and memory theory. Although perhaps seemingly disparate pools of data, these areas of information help create a full picture of “Middle(brow) America” as it came to be in the 1950s—a time still shrouded in nostalgia today.

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