Lana Cook

Lana Cook

2014 PhD - English - Northeastern University


University of New Hampshire

English

2005

Mentor: Dr. Diane Freedman, Department of English

Behind Gated Palaces: A Value Assessment of Upper-Class American Autobiographies

Despite the limelight surrounding cultural and economic leaders, there is a lack of serious academic discussion regarding upper-class autobiographies and their impact on American culture at large. This research will evaluate some of the roles that class plays in recent U.S. autobiographies and obtain a voyeuristic glimpse into the class-consciousness of this relatively small, yet vastly powerful subculture.

This project will examine six literary autobiographies written by late 20th and early 21st-century upper-class Americans, including Geoffrey Douglas, Adam Hoschschild, Sallie Bingham, and others. Focusing on representative texts by entrepreneurs, adult children of millionaires, families with generations of wealth, and those of new fortunes, this comparative study will reveal recurring values, especially regarding wealth and class, including (a) a belief in natural aristocracy; (b) the conviction that the lower classes depend on the upper for wealth to be produced and trickle down; and (c) a staunch refusal to admit that their surplus of wealth deprives others of resources. While no study can expose all upper-class values or speak for everyone in the dominant class, autobiographies as a genre are examined as important cultural accounts, constructing and revising not only individual lives but the very fabric of our culture. This project will challenge common class and truth-value assumptions about autobiographies through Marxist literary criticism and close readings, with recourse to such theorists as Antonio Gramsci and Thorstein Veblen on class theory and Albert Stone, Sidonie Smith, and Julia Watson on autobiography’s translation of personal lives into cultural texts. A critical examination of the values and class-consciousness of the contemporary upper-class will enable scholars to deconstruct the myth of the classless American society as perpetuated in autobiography.

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