Fictionable America: four case studies
Date of Degree
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PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
What can lead authors to come up with entirely different textual portraits of the same nation? My dissertation is an exploration of the rhetorical construction of emotion in nonfiction narratives about the United States from the Second World War to the present. I emphasize the importance of one particular rhetorical strategy: synecdoche, a substitution of part for the whole. I argue that synecdoche is as much a strategy for seduction as it is a rhetorical strategy, and therefore an emotional strategy as well. As the authors in my dissertation -- John Steinbeck, Charles Kuralt, Truman Capote and Sarah Vowell -- write of the nation, they simultaneously write of their irresistible, irrevocable attachment to the nation. In this way, these studies of the United States act like a Rorschach test, as a projection of affect onto what the authors claim to be an objective national portrait. (And we respond to them accordingly: consider the number of "America's" we encounter daily, and how many of them we automatically accept or dismantle.) The ambivalence the authors in my study feel, I would argue, comes only after the portrait is complete. The pleasure is in the process: the result is seldom as rewarding.
It has become commonplace to argue that "nations provoke fantasy." I argue that nations provoke fantasy because they are necessarily synecdochical. Synecdoche provokes fantasy because synecdoche is fantasy: the seduction of another through the persuasion that similar parts represent shared wholes. However, the nation is not only a fantasy. This is where the word "fictionable" enters into the study. As one major critic has defined it, the "fictionable" is that which is "available for conversion into fiction." The "nation" as a concept is certainly fictionable, and it is well worth considering -- as an entity and experience -- that has become so much a part of the way we tell stories about ourselves, that it can come to function as a backdrop on which we project both our political ideologies and personal desires.
Copyright 2010 Douglas G Dowland