Haunted by Waters: The Hydropolitics of American Literature and Film, 1960-1980 Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Vernon, Zackary
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown characterizes the chief engineer of L.A.'s Department of Water and Power as having "water on the brain." During the 1960s and 1970s numerous Americans shared a similar preoccupation with water as they were inundated with everything from floods to droughts, rivers dammed to rivers on fire, oceanic radiation to lunar seas. Such events quickly became a cultural obsession that coincided with an era of water-related political debates about the preservation of the nation's aquatic ecosystems. I contend that these hydropolitical concerns had far-ranging implications; in an era when unease over damming and industrial contamination converged with a larger Cold War culture of containment and conformity, many postwar Americans were attracted to and identified with neo-romantic images of "wild," "natural" water. However, the irreconcilable gap between these images and the unprecedented water crises of the period gave rise to crises of the self. Such existential fears were amplified as nuclear societies confronted the all-too-real prospect of an end of nature and the corresponding end of humanity. Out of this milieu emerged a subgenre of American environmental literature and film that was both a manifestation and an index of posthuman apprehension. Consisting of canonical and non-canonical figures in the environmentalist tradition--including Pare Lorentz, Rachel Carson, Kurt Vonnegut, Elia Kazan, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, James Dickey, Roman Polanski, Edward Abbey, and Leslie Marmon Silko--this subgenre deploys hydrocentric metaphors of fluidity, containment, and contagion as a way to discuss broader Cold War concerns over the status of American culture, nature, and the increasingly indistinct boundaries between the two. In addition to literary texts and films, this project draws on a wide variety of materials--including legal documents and governmental propaganda--that previously have fallen outside the purview of ecocritical scholarship. Considered in conversation, these hydrocentric texts illustrate a historical trajectory from the birth of postwar American environmentalism to the apogee of radical ecological philosophy and activism.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Kenan, Randall
  • Grimwood, Michael
  • Hobson, Fred
  • Dore, Florence
  • Gwin, Minrose
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2014
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • This item is restricted from public view for 2 years after publication.

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