Unattainable Manhood: Masculinity and Folk Culture in Late 20th Century American Fiction
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My dissertation, Unattainable Manhood, argues that late-20th century American authors as varied as Cormac McCarthy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth portray the recuperation of masculinity within the domain typically assigned to women’s empowerment. Whereas critics like Hazel Carby describe the fictional representation of folk culture as the evocation of fundamentally feminine, domestic lifeways, the novels in my dissertation imagine that folk culture’s distinctive practices confer masculinity. Participation in kin networks, the cultivation of community, labor practices which stress the handmade and homespun, and folktales, themselves, are all deployed to enhance what is understood as a faltering masculinity. In Unattainable Manhood, I argue that this impulse to imagine folk culture as invigorating manhood stems from what scholars ranging from Michael Kimmel to David Popenoe understand as a masculinity crisis. My dissertation focuses on novelists who grapple with two crucial factors in this crisis: men’s changing roles in the family and the transformation of the labor market. I begin by examining novels which depict dramatic shifts in gender roles within the family, imagined to result from the interworking of capitalism, Second Wave feminism, and the Civil Rights Movement. The next two chapters dissect the representation of the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy and its impact on male workers.