Date of Award
B.A. with honors
Program of Study
This senior thesis is about class in the United States, as expressed and represented in three critically and popularly successful memoirs published by white working-class writers between 2005 and 2018. My thesis explores how these memoirs and their critical and commercial reception demonstrate a profound shift in cultural and social representations of white working-class upbringings in the United States, although not in any simple or obvious way. While readers intuitively grasp that a memoir is not the truth in a directly literal sense, but rather a document that is constructed, edited, framed, shaped, and dramatized, readers and critics at the same time presume that these memoirs can and do provide a deepened understanding of what individuals from impoverished and troubled backgrounds really experience – and both authors and commentators also often suggest that more general policies and politics may be derived from these experiences. The evolving reception of these texts has shaped their meaning.
My argument is threefold. First, that a shift in white working-class memoir represents a new turn in class consciousness in American nonfiction/autobiographical writing. Second of all, and crucially, this shift represents a rupture from a past linkage between working-class literature and leftwing politics that the term “proletarian writing” so often exemplified. Rather, what we are seeing in the trajectory from Walls (The Glass Castle) to Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) to Westover (Educated) is far more confusing to locate politically. Thirdly, then, and regardless of their political standing, these memoirists implicitly and explicitly cite education as the catalyst for their escape from their “white trash” upbringing.
Hansberry, Ursula, "The Contemporary "White Trash" Memoir in Literary, Social and Political Contexts" (2022). CUNY Academic Works.