The American Historical Imaginary: Memory, Wealth, and Privilege in American Mass Culture

Sara Massee

Advisor: Denise Albanese, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Dina Copelman, Amelia Rutledge

Enterprise Hall, #418
May 07, 2018, 03:30 PM to 05:30 PM


This dissertation seeks to make sense of historicist media in America and the ideological work that they do. It examines a variety of discourses that inflect the texts examined. It focuses on representations of the Anglo-American past since this history, more than any other, is selling to American media consumers and has been for the last thirty years. Consequently, media about Anglo-American history provides vital clues as to what motivates the dominant culture’s invocation of the past.
In order to gain the broadest perspective possible on how historicist media function in America, the texts this dissertation examines come from a variety of media, including television, film, a Renaissance festival, and an experiential history museum. For a similar reason, this dissertation explores three distinct historical locales that have been especially marketable in the United States: the English country house of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Renaissance England, and the American Revolution.
This dissertation argues that the media studied is structured by a contradictory desire for the sense of stability promised by notions of pastness and the sense of freedom, flexibility, and novelty promised by notions of modernity and mass production. As a result of these conflicting desires, historicist media in America can best be characterized as contemporary versions of what Elizabeth Outka described as the nineteenth-century aesthetic of the “commodified authentic.” Like the “commodified authentic,” contemporary historicist media offer to help consumers negotiate anxieties caused by rapid social, technological, and economic change by holding history and modernity in productive tension with one another. Whereas the anxieties addressed in the nineteenth century stemmed largely from the Industrial Revolution though, the anxieties negotiated in contemporary media about the past have to do with digitization, neoliberalization, and the global economic crisis of 2007-2008. However, nineteenth century and current examples of the “commodified authentic” are similar in that by turning to history as a source of stability, they tend to reinforce conservative values, even when they incorporate various forms of liberal social critique. As a result, this dissertation pays special attention to the discourses of class-, gender-, and racial privilege that inflect the media texts examined, particularly when considering what kind of communal American identity (a la Benedict Anderson) my sample texts imagine or imply.