Meanings and Markets: Reading Food Commodities in Postwar America
AuthorHertweck, Thomas James
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Meanings and Markets investigates the literary construction of food commodities in the United States after World War II. Because of the war effort’s ramping up of industry and technology, the exchange of new and rationalized food commodities traded in the marketplace becomes the dominant mode of food consumption. As a result, the ways we talk about these commodities—in novels, films, nonfiction, and on packaging itself—take a central place in the search for food, and open up a space for the literary critic to engage food culture. To help map the expansive terrain of food’s literary emergence, each chapter constellates a critical method, a marketplace, and a food-oriented text. Read through the lens of New Historicism, African American-authored novels (especially Ellison’s Inivisible Man and Himes’s Run Man Run) are parsed for their representations of soul food as it emerges as a recognizable commodity in the urban North during that time. By invoking theories of critical consumption, films depicting cannibalism after the end of the Hays Code in 1968 (especially Soylent Green and Dawn of the Dead) suggest a revolutionary change in American identities as consumerism rises. Focusing on a new commodity in the book marketplace, reception study is applied to the genre of the commodity history (e.g. Kurlansky’s Salt) in order to explore its potential to mediate eaters’ choices in the supermarket. And, looking squarely at the contemporary grocery store, the dissertation ends with theoretical model for reading food commodity paratext in three dominant modes—the objective, the nostalgic, and the interventionary—that make foods edible, present, and sensible in a world of increasingly vexed choices. In sum, by laying out how food commoditization becomes the dominant mode of consumption after the wars, the dissertation makes interventions into both literary-cultural studies by bringing food into comprehensibility for the critic, as well as food studies by implicating language in how we eat, and so asserts how American acts of eating after the wars must first be mediated by an act of reading.