McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
American literature, trauma studies, cultural trauma, contemporary literature, fiction, African American literature
This dissertation identifies and proposes a new subgenre of American literature, Cultural Trauma Fiction, that has arisen since the late 20th century in response to numerous large-scale traumatic events and their representation in the media. Cultural trauma occurs when a shocking, shared event fractures collective identity and initiates a discursive process to understand what took place, why it happened, and how the affected culture can heal. Cultural traumas differ from individual trauma because cultural traumas affect a culture, rather than an individual, and because they are mediated; many members of the culture experience the trauma of these events secondhand through radio, television, print news, literature, and other forms of media. The dissemination of cultural trauma is rapid and widespread in the contemporary age of 24-hour news and the Internet. This dissertation argues that works of Cultural Trauma Fiction represent, construct, and process contemporary cultural traumas, using literary fiction’s power to cultivate empathy. They engage with both local and cultural concerns, explicitly or implicitly question collective identity, engage with cultural meaning-making processes, represent multiple identities and perspectives, and offer counternarratives to dominant media or government narratives. Diverging from the conventions of literary trauma theory, this dissertation uses narrative theory and the sociological concept of cultural trauma to analyze various novels published since the late 1990s that take as their subject culturally traumatic events including 9/11, mass shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and the structural violence generated by the prison industrial complex. This analysis demonstrates how mass media saturation shapes fictional responses to traumatic events. It also shows the relationships between different kinds of cultural traumas and argues that those traumas that most directly affect marginalized peoples should be recognized as culturally traumatic. Finally, this dissertation suggests that future work on trauma in literature should focus on texts that depict and respond to cultural traumas rather than those that center individual traumatic experiences.
Mullis, C. (2022). Cultural Trauma Fiction: Political Violence, Rampage Violence, and Structural Violence in Contemporary American Literature (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/2152