Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the U.S. Welfare State


Offering a sharp corrective to the existing literature on the topic, Grotesque Relations explores the vexed relationship between modernist domestic fiction and the rise of the U.S. welfare state. Whereas extant criticism focuses on the New Deal, Susan Edmunds returns to the Progressive Era, when maternalist reformers linked early welfare initiatives to a discourse of social housekeeping that extended domestic roles into civic life. Highlighting the unique importance of a modern sentimental project of domestic reform to the formation of the U.S. welfare state, Edmunds deftly demonstrates how modernist writers shaped-and misshaped-their domestic fiction in response to new state and market investments in the home. Crucial to Edmunds's study is the formation, during this era, of the "domestic exterior," a hybrid social space located at the intersection of home, market, and state and invested with the mandate to support and regulate domestic life. With innovative readings of works by Djuna Barnes, Jean Toomer, Edna Ferber, Tillie Olsen, Nathanael West, and Flannery O'Connor, Edmunds demonstrates how U.S. modernists used an aesthetic of defamiliarization and grotesque distortion to map the fraught ground of the domestic exterior, and to align the unsettled space of modern domesticity with the revolutionary discourses of socialism, consumerism, and the avant-garde. Grotesque Relations reveals how modernists' focus on issues ranging from domestic abuse, lynching, and eugenics to educational reform, health care, and social security delineates successive points of struggle in a history of welfare state building that culminates with the New Deal and the GI Bill. Combining historical and political perspectives with the social theory of Hannah Arendt, Jacques Donzelot, and Pierre Bourdieu, Grotesque Relations ultimately proposes that modernists forged an enduring set of terms for understanding and negotiating the widespread ambivalence, alienation, and conflict that characterize our current attachments to family life.


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