Race and the Martial Imaginary in U.S. Literature and Culture, World War II to the Post-9/11 Period

Hong, Mai-Linh, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wicke, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, Department of English, University of Virginia

My dissertation, Race and the Martial Imaginary in U.S. Literature and Culture since World War II, explores the expansive, historically rooted conceptions of war, militarism, and political violence that circulate in ethnic minority literature and performance, and in doing so challenges certain ideas and values that have subtended postwar U.S. foreign policy. I demonstrate that for communities of color, war and its externalities have long been a constant feature of civilian experience, as U.S. military power expressed itself not only abroad, but also at home, in occupation-like policing of black neighborhoods, environmental devastation of Native lands by nuclear weapons development, surveillance and detention of U.S. citizens deemed “enemy aliens,” and other conditions of postwar minority life. In order to address the ubiquity of martial violence in American ethnic minority literatures, my project sets aside the conventional rubric of “war literature,” which tends to reify an exception-based understanding of war while privileging white, masculine perspectives. I introduce instead a conceptual frame I call the martial imaginary: the evolving field of images, affects, narratives, and myths that structure representations of organized violence. This frame not only highlights popular war stories that pervade U.S. political and media discourses—raced, gendered stories of self-defense, homeland security, and Third-World liberation—but also makes visible less familiar, discredited, and seemingly non-war-related narratives that expose the vital roles of state violence in contemporary democratic life. The dissertation looks to Kaiko haiku poetry produced by Japanese Americans in WWII-era internment camps, the Black Panther Party’s performative gun-rights demonstrations in the 1960s, Thanhha Lai’s recent children’s novel Inside Out & Back Again (about a Vietnamese child’s refugee passage), and diverse other texts in order to reveal how imagination and narrative have sustained both militarism (the belief that violence is crucial to achieving political aims) and its detractors in a rapidly militarizing postwar America. What emerges is an account of contemporary American culture in which the ongoing militarization of state power—which troubles ideologically constructed boundaries between wartime and peacetime, civilians and combatants, domestic and foreign policy—both arises from and reinforces deeply rooted hierarchies of race, gender, class, and religion, even amid globalization and increasing diversity.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
literature, cultural studies, war, race, American studies, American literature, militarism, internment, Vietnam War, Asian American literature, ethnic studies
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: