Engendering national identity: Best sellers and their film adaptations in postwar America

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics


Steven Cohan


National identity, Best sellers, Film, Adaptations, Postwar, Race, Sexuality, Cold War

Subject Categories

Film and Media Studies | Literature in English, North America


This dissertation examines the way that best sellers and their film adaptations are important sites for investigating the continuities between representations of gender and national identity in postwar America. Through cultural studies and feminist theories, I analyze how gender and its intersections with race, class, and sexuality functioned as a regulatory, albeit unstable, category in constructing images of nation that were compatible with Cold War ideologies. Using a multi-layered approach that brings together literary and filmic texts, critical texts, and historical and cultural contexts, this study foregrounds a wide range of issues, including communist containment, civil rights, family life, corporate culture, and U.S. global hegemony, all which were symbolically linked to gender and addressed key issues of American identity. Contrary to postwar intellectuals who condemned popular novels as mediocre, middlebrow fare, I argue best sellers reflected the heterogeneity of social voices in the culture, which dominant discourses sought to manage or obscure as a means of securing an image of a monolithic America impervious to communist subversion. Thus, while best sellers and their film versions functioned to uphold traditional gender binaries, which, in turn, stabilized images of nationhood, they also were capable of reintroducing gender diversity and complexity into the culture.

The study begins by examining the postwar "crisis" of masculinity in the context of the Cold War and corporate organization in James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951) and James Michener's Sayonara (1954). Edna Ferber's Giant (1952) investigates hegemonic masculinity and its constructions of Otherness in relation to the myths of national origins and identity. The final two chapters on Patrick Dennis's Auntie Mame (1955) and Grace Metalious's Peyton Place (1956) focus on representations of femininity and female sexuality in the context of the "feminine mystique" and postwar domestic containment. By juxtaposing texts, contexts and history, I indicate a way to read gender as multiply constructed yet contained within dominant, systematic power hierarchies; thus, in arguing that gender must be understood as multiple and fluid, I make problematic any understanding of nation as monolithic or coherent.


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