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Abstract

James Baldwin once asserted, “before we can do very much in the way of clear thinking or clear doing as relates to the minorities in this country, we must first crack the American image and find out and deal with what it hides.” My dissertation takes Baldwin’s call to heart by examining ethnic images in postwar American literature, interrogating the ways that texts speak to the faculties of sight and racial perception. This project asks two main questions: how do American writers forge viewpoints on race and ethnicity in light of the concerns of our increasingly visual culture, and how do we see that play out in their literary work? To answer these questions, I turn to authors from the postwar to contemporary period, a time rife with racially charged visual media, from Walker Evans’ iconic photographs of poor white tenant farmers to televised footage of the Watts riots of ‘65 to the vibrant wall murals around Los Angeles barrios. I argue that American writers from diverse ethnic groups, including James Agee, the Hernandez brothers, Hunter S. Thompson, Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Art Spiegelman, respond to ethnic visual culture by infusing their work with graphic language and images, rendering unique visions of American ethnicity that must be both read and seen to be fully comprehended. This project provides a critical reading lens for seeing how ethnic literatures and visual culture are entwined forms of representation: we are consistently prompted to see ethnic spaces, communities, and racialized bodies as we read ethnic literature. To demonstrate this visual-reading mode, I examine literary works that exhibit an acute amount of, what I term, graphicity; more than strong imagery, graphicity is a literary attribute that emphasizes and employs visuality, visibility, and visual culture in the author’s probe of race and ethnicity. It can be read in a range of ways, from a figurative form, such as Agee’s poetic visualization of rural whiteness, to the literal incorporation of visuals, such as photos, illustrations, and comics. I see this latter form of graphicity in the Hernandezes’ comics series Love and Rockets and experimental novels like Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People, whose cockroach drawings scattered in its marginalia subvert the marginalization and dehumanization of Chicanx communities. What I find across all objects is a striking investment in subjective ethnic visualization; in other words, to various ends, the authors and cartoonists render themselves graphically as ethnic figures and confront, subvert, or consecrate that racial self-image. My dissertation investigates three case studies of ethnic genres—white, Jewish, and Latinx literature—tracking the ways that historical modes of ethnic visual representation along with personal biographies and politics have influenced the authors and cartoonists’ contributions to their respective ethnic genres. In doing so, I analyze how the commingling of race and literary, aesthetic forms—such as experimental novels, magazine articles, and graphic narratives—either buttress or destabilize the integrity of ethnic literatures as we know it.

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