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Consider The Pill: Pharmacentric Readings of Post-WWII American Literature

  • Author(s): Farinholt, Rhett
  • Advisor(s): Davidson, Michael
  • Wesling, Meg
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the impact of psychopharmacological discourses on Post-WWII American literature. I argue for a “pharmacentric” reading practice that foregrounds the role of pharmaceuticals in both the production and consumption of American literature across the period, tracing the rise of a new ontological construction in the cultural imagination I call the “neurochemical self.” This view of the self as an expression of chemical interactions in the brain emerges from the period’s scientific, medical, and advertising industries to become the dominant understanding of American selfhood by century’s end, and remains under-examined in existing literary scholarship. In making the case for the rise and importance of the neurochemical self, I identify and examine the development of literary language and techniques indebted to popular and scientific discourses around pharmaceuticals, a phenomenon I call “pharmaceutical literacy.”

In organizing this analysis of the neurochemical self and pharmaceutical literacy, I turn to three distinct eras in post-WWII American literature, identifying three signal pharmaceuticals within and the literary works they engaged with. I argue for the importance of amphetamines, specifically Benzedrine, to the work of the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the first decade after the war. Next, I look at America’s “Age of Anxiety,” identifying tranquilizers as the dominant psychopharmaceuticals from the late 1950s through the 1980s, reading the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton through the resulting pharmacentric perspective. Lastly, I argue for the importance of neurochemical selfhood and pharmaceutical literacy to the discourses provoked by the advent and run-away success of SSRI antidepressants, specifically within the work of 1990s depression memoirs by Elizabeth Wurtzel and Meri Nana-Ama Danquah. Finally, I argue for an extension of literary studies that accounts for these psychopharmaceutical developments and offers valuable perspective on the tensions between scientific and humanistic understandings of identity.

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