Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



"The Erotics of Race Suicide" examines the frequent representation of suicide in Progressive Era American literature in light of a widely proclaimed socio-political concept of the time: “race suicide.” Coined by the sociologist Edward Ross, the term “race suicide” nominates a nativist fear over the racial enervation of indigenous white Americans. Ross and other commentators on race suicide, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, proclaimed that the diminution of the indigenous white Americans was caused by their unwillingness to breed, signaling the self-destructive, “suicidal” tendency of the race. Consequently, through such means as the enactment of immigration restrictions, the reinforcement of anti-miscegenation laws, and the policing of non-reproductive sexual behaviors, Progressive politics attempted to halt the metaphorical suicide of the “master race.” While the specter of race suicide haunted the nation, Progressive Era literature saw the rise of a literary trend: characters who terminate their lives. My dissertation explores this concurrence between the self-willed deaths of the collective body and the individual body. By attending to the literary depiction of suicidal characters’ difficult negotiation of the twin discourses of race and sexuality in such works as Henry James’s The Bostonian (1886), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (completed in 1911, published in 1950), my dissertation argues that suicide in Progressive Era American literature forges a symptomatic resistance to Foucauldian biopower: the life administering power that sutures the individual into the “population” through the double discourses of race and sexuality. The vogue for suicide in Progressive Era American literature represents the desire to thwart the very pro-natal and nativist politics that the Progressive Era seeks to maintain. In other words, it forms a countercurrent against both the era’s calcification of what is now known as the object-choice system of sexuality and its biological conceptions of race as reproduced through heterosexual intercourse. By contending that suicides in literature of the Progressive Era exemplify an eroticism invested in the nullification not only of the object-choice system, but also of subject-object opposition, my dissertation poses a challenge to the dominant understandings of genitally-organized sexuality.



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Committee Chair

Kahan, Benjamin