Carnegie Mellon University

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Postwar Family Fictions: Genres of the Middle-Class American Family, 1950-2000

posted on 2022-01-19, 21:09 authored by Robert KilpatrickRobert Kilpatrick
In this dissertation, I argue that the emergence of a new form of family life after World War II had a defining effect on US fiction. It informed mainstream works such as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in the 1950s up to Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife in the early 2000s, and it also appeared in a range of genres such as science fiction and crime. Though varied in form, these fictions all responded to the dramatic restructuring of the middle-class family during
the immediate postwar years. Sociologically, white Americans of an expanding middle class adopted an accelerated pattern of family formation in those years. They married young, bore two or more children in quick succession, and rarely divorced. Furthermore, these Americans relocated to the growing suburbs and organized their families around a division of labor that assigned men the role of the breadwinner and women the duties of the housewife and mother. Responding to these developments, authors published postwar family fictions: novels and short
stories that explored the shifted terrain of family life in the 1950s and ’60s. Surveying these fictions, I claim that the rise of the postwar family had a significant influence on the direction of American literary history. For a full five decades after World War II, authors from across the literary field would be drawn to that family structure, publishing fiction in an assortment of genres. Likely the best known of these is the domestic realism of writers such as John Cheever, John Updike, and Richard Yates. But beside that mainstream,
postwar family fictions appeared in science fiction (in novels by Philip K. Dick and Judith Merril), crime fiction (Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford), and horror (Robert Bloch, Ira
Levin). Furthermore, the family engendered a host of microgenres, including the postwar family comedy (Thomas Berger, Alison Lurie) and second-wave feminist fiction (Marilyn French, Alix Kates Shulman). Finally, at the turn of the millennium several authors (Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick
Moody, Philip Roth, Wolitzer) looked back at the postwar family and reflected on its decline. Taking stock of this expansive body of fiction, I hold that the postwar family has been central to the literary production of the postwar period.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • English

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Jeffrey J. Williams

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