Date of Award

Fall 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English and Cultural Studies


Mary O'Connor


Susan Searls Giroux



Committee Member

Grace Kehler


This dissertation examines the fiction of three contemporary American writers – Joan Didion, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster – who interrogate the legacy of the American sublime in its contemporary configurations and reconfigurations. The texts that I have selected by each writer dramatize and question how and why the American sublime remains a fundamental way for American culture to conceptualize power as an expression of American identity and progress. In turn, what each text conveys is the destructive consequences that often follow with investing natural phenomena, technology, cultural sites and practices with power that elicits the particular qualities of awe and terror unique to the American sublime. Above all, these texts illuminate why American culture continues to produce, reproduce and popularize experiences and images of sublimity within cultural sites, practices, art and literature.

Moreover, by emphasizing that these texts locate the American sublime as a culturally produced experience, my analysis develops from – but also departs from – the most recent book-length studies of the sublime and American fiction. The work of scholars such as Barbara Claire Freeman, Joseph Tabbi and Christope Den Tandt who have considered the sublime in relation to gender, technology and urban landscapes complement my approach to the cultural impact of the American sublime in the fiction of Didion, DeLillo and Auster. At the same time, my examination of the ways in which their fiction accounts for the dissemination of the American sublime through art and literature as well as popular culture, brings to the forefront an important feature each text shares – the possibility that art might contest – rather than reinscribe – traditional configurations or reconfigurations of American sublimity.

McMaster University Library