Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2010

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



One of the wagers of this dissertation is that allegory—beyond the metafictional—is on the rise not only in United States fiction but in popular culture as well. The need to ask abstract ethical questions—not just political or institutional ones—6 and to answer them has made room not just for the magical and mythical but also for tales explicitly coded in terms of abstract good and abstract evil (even when the definitions of those terms are up for grabs)—J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997– 2007); the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003); Marvel live action film remakes like Spider-Man (2002), The X-Men (2000), and Iron Man (2008); and television series like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), the SciFi Network’s Battlestar Galactica (2003–2009), or NBC’s Heroes (2006–2010). And while I don’t mean to suggest that allegorical tales of good and evil are specific to the post-Cold-War era (they’re not), the proliferation of such stories in the last two decades suggests that if Morrison’s A Mercy delves into allegory, it does so in plentiful company.

The present project outlines the literary relations of popular texts like the ones I list above, beginning with the end of the Cold War—the significance of which is only starting to become visible as we approach the turn into the second decade of the twenty-first century. The immediate response to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet bloc ranged widely, reaching at some of its extremities the patently absurd claim that the United States (and capitalism) had won the game of History. But even as certain critics argued that we had moved into a posthistorical age, two (often competing) impulses emerged—a demand for historical rigor and responsible remembrance and a call for some ethical stance capacious enough to accommodate the new “global” age. In the chapters that follow, I explore the roots and sprouts of that double turn, focusing specifically on the ways postwar academic literary cultures respond to the end of several things—the Cold War and the millennium, most notably, but also the end of posthistoricm, the end of poststructuralism, and the end of postmodernism. Not only did it seem, in the 90s and 00s, that the critical cache of these frames was somewhat in decline, but the material and social circumstances of the millennial decades also seemed to demand something new. And yet, the legacies of postwar literary culture remain in the living authors who continue to produce compelling work alongside their generational descendants. For this reason, I open with an imposing postwar figure—Toni Morrison, whose work has been some of the most influential of the period. I will suggest in what follows that we can read in Morrison’s oeuvre the history of postwar literary culture and that, with each turn, she anticipates with a canny eye the critical spirit of the moment. But next to Morrison I place a younger author, also a writer who’s been cited for his prescience—Richard Powers. And though his prescience is generally categorized quite differently from that of Toni Morrison (if Morrison is a cultural chronicler nonpareil, Powers is the Ray Kurzweil of highbrow sci-fi), I find in both of their most recent novels a shared trait. Borrowing sacrilegiously from the sciences, I’ve called it “bootstrapping;” both writers call for stronger, more unifying narrative structures and ethical systems even as they explicitly recognize the groundlessness of those enterprises. For Morrison, the particularities of historicism collide with an abstracted, universalist ethics. For Powers, the unpredictable, future-oriented drive of creativity collides with the looping determinism of evolution. What binds these apparently contradictory impulses is a deep commitment to the now as a period yet in the making and as a farsighted consciousness of the various dangers inherent in such a commitment—narcissism, for example, or blindness, over-zealous activism or complacency I open with readings of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Richard Powers’s Generosity: An Enhancement (2009) to illustrate some of the thematic and formal characteristics of this sometimes ungainly and sometimes graceful pair, commitment and consciousness, and to situate the broad set of concerns that unfolds across the chapters of this dissertation.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Daniel Grausam

Committee Members

Jennifer Kapczynski, William J. Maxwell, Anca Parculescu, Ignacio M. Sanchez Prado, Vincent Sherry


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