Date of Award

2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

English

First Advisor

Jed Esty

Abstract

Intervening in modernist literary studies and critical whiteness studies, this dissertation argues that modernist novels featuring largely white casts of characters and few themes or plotlines of overtly racial content are key sites for understanding how white people manifest their racial identities in subtle, indirect, and often unwitting ways. While it is taken for granted that race is a key factor in texts by writers of color, critics still tend to consider the racial dynamics of texts by white writers only when they involve primitivism, Orientalism, or scenes of interracial violence. This narrow framework exempts large swathes of white literary production from racial analysis simply because they do not feature overt racism or overtly racist representational forms. Through readings of novels by Jean Rhys, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather, “Scattered Supremacies” uncovers forms of white supremacy more subtle and oblique than either white people’s stigmatizations of people or color or overt proclamations of white racial superiority. I focus on novels that feature little to no interracial conflict between white and nonwhite people, novels where white characters are not consciously thinking about their own whiteness. Within these texts, I argue, whiteness emerges out of conflicts between different classes of white people trying to distinguish themselves from other whites. These intra-racial class conflicts involve moralistic identification with a range of economically coded and thus seemingly race-neutral virtues, such as hard work, independence, discipline, and the austere capacity to endure hardship. In clinging to a sense of themselves as embodying these virtues, white characters and their white authors are constantly managing the boundaries and connotations of whiteness, even if they are not consciously doing so and even if the people disparaged for lacking these virtues are other whites. The stakes of being able to recognize the kinds of economically coded racial discourse identified in these texts are especially high, for claims about the possession or lack of classically liberal, seemingly “race-neutral” virtues like industriousness, discipline, and self-reliance are an increasingly crucial part of how white supremacy is perpetuated under “colorblind” neoliberalism.

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