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Subject to laughter: Comedy and ethnicity in contemporary American fiction
Dissertations available from ProQuest
  • Jonna Mackin, University of Pennsylvania
Based on the premise that comedy arises out of social tensions, this study focuses on comic transactions in texts that negotiate ethnic identity. While not an intervention in humor theory, Subject to Laughter outlines those theories that are important to understanding the “rules of the game” of comedy. A unifying assumption for the readings is that comic pleasure has the power to manipulate imaginary identifications, and hence to influence the politics of racial and ethnic collectives. Ultimately, comedy is about the ethics of social interactions. The project considers a male and female author from three ethnic groups. Chapter one, “Portnoy and Puttermesser: Family Complexes,” contemplates the social tensions in identity-making for contemporary Jewish Americans. Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick are authors with widely differing versions of Jewishness. Ozick is often viewed as answering Roth's exhaustion of the immigrant tradition, but critics have missed how her parody of idealism destabilizes the concept of the “good Jew” and replays his emphasis on desire. Her comedy creates ambiguity regarding the Jewish ideal, whereas Roth's ethics are based on a refusal to identify a collective Jewish identity. Chapter two, “Mixedblood Natives and Trickster Outlaws,” investigates two Ojibwe authors as exemplars of the battles American Indians have fought with white culture while rigorously assimilating to it. Gerald Vizenor sees humor as the link to non-Western belief systems, where the trickster provides access to a stable signifier of instability and change. Louise Erdrich's work challenges assumptions about cultural essentialism by modeling humorous portrayals of miscegenated identity. Chapter three, “Masterful Chinese American Play,” considers Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston as writers whose literary quarrels replay emblematic controversies over Chinese American racial identity. Kingston attempts to model an inclusive community with a pastiche of multiple identifications. But her text conceals a traditional narrative line that closes off certain apparent openings to an inclusive community. Conversely, although Chin himself has been attacked for cultural nationalism and masculinist essentialism, his comic strategies invite heterogeneity by questioning every rigid designator of collective identity. ^
Subject Area
Literature, Modern|Literature, American
Date of Award
Degree Name
Citation Information
Jonna Mackin. "Subject to laughter: Comedy and ethnicity in contemporary American fiction" (2001) p. 1 - 229
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