Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

English and American Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

January 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Vivian Pollak


In Impossible Whiteness, I reveal whiteness--though oftentimes still an implicit critical assumption of normalcy--as a complex, shifting category in the literature of early twentieth-century America, and show how gender, particularly, disrupts American whiteness. I deconstruct the various ways in which whiteness is defined legally, culturally, and in the marketplace, and demonstrate how Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska, and F. Scott Fitzgerald trace these standards of whiteness and the inevitable failure of such racial: and implicitly gendered) refinement. Though critical literature has been slow to consider the role of race for these authors, I reveal them as actively participating in contemporary dialogues of race--whiteness particularly--and outline the ways in which they construct and deconstruct American whiteness. While eugenicists and nativists warned of the need to restrict whiteness, the authors in this study show that such rarefaction of whiteness undermines the very standard it seeks to protect by making whiteness impossible. American whiteness is neither cohesive nor constant, and in the first chapter, I trace the varying, oppositional discourses of American whiteness at the turn of the century through Wharton's The Age of Innocence, with particular attention to the competing modes of femininity that challenge a stable white identity. In Chapter Two, I turn to the specifically gendered restrictions implicit in whiteness and argue that Wharton's The House of Mirth reveals the impossibility of white racial purity for women and shows how it is the gender restrictiveness of whiteness that leaves it vulnerable to the racial Other it seeks to exclude. The racial Other is the focus of my third chapter, and in Yezierska's Arrogant Beggar and Salome of the Tenements, the immigrant racial Other may remain alienated from an American identity yoked to whiteness, but also begins to build a national identity apart from whiteness. Such cracks in the façade of coherent national whiteness are at the root of Chapter Four, in which I trace the fear of racial destabilization in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the specific threat such destabilization poses for white, male American identity. It is such intersectionality that ultimately undoes whiteness, and in Chapter Five I trace the inevitable failure of whiteness too burdened with an explicitly national, gendered standard, as we see in Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Seen together, these authors chart a growing disillusionment with and final failure of whiteness, the interconnected nature of whiteness and gender, and demonstrate the growing need to address whiteness in American literature.


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