My current research and monograph project, “Think Rich, Look Poor”: The Aesthetics of Poverty in American Literature and Culture, examines how poverty is stylized in popular cultural narratives and visual art. Inspired by Michael Denning’s study of the ghetto pastoral and working-class ventriloquism in American literature and culture, I aim to characterize and problematize the cultural representations of social and economic class in America from the mid-19th century to the contemporary period, identifying narrative pressures on contemporary class rhetoric.
This work theorizes how under-class and working-class representations are separated from material pressures in order to imbue American cultural narratives with individualistic and entrepreneurial potential. I argue that the triangulation of cultural capital, social class and economic status construct forceful ideologies that reify hegemonic subject-positions in the 20 & 21st centuries. These subject-positions often frame class stratification as an expression of gender, race and/or sexuality, and use creative capacity to render social issues like poverty a valuable, cultural entity. My study includes American writers such Rebecca Harding Davis, Richard Wright, Charles Bukowski and Dorothy Allison, but also traces these stylized practices through American politics in the demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement, in the popular music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, in the visual art of Andy Warhol and Erika Lopez, and in the films of Charlie Chaplin, John Waters and Todd Haynes. A tentative chapter outline is as follows:
- Introduction: The Capital Investments of American Identity: From Davis’ Iron Mills to Warhol’s Factory.
- Chapter 1: Riding the Train into the 20th Century: Tramps, Hobos and Bums
- Chapter 2: Down But Not Out: Proletarian Pressures in Chicago
- Chapter 3: Jacks of All Trades: Working-Class Drag in the Post-War
- Chapter 4: Solidarity and Denim: Civil Rights Demonstrations
- Chapter 5: Poverty and the Popular: The Patron Saints of Skid Row
- Chapter 6: Queer Class Aesthetics: The Graphic Visualization of Camp
- Conclusion: Embodying Performativity: Gender in 21st Century American Television