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American Unexceptionalism

The Everyman and the Suburban Novel after 9/11

Kathy Knapp

Publication Year: 2014

American Unexceptionalism examines a constellation of post-9/11 novels that revolve around white middle-class male suburbanites, thus following a tradition established by writers such as John Updike and John Cheever. Focusing closely on recent works by Richard Ford, Chang-Rae Lee, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Anne Tyler, Gish Jen, A. M. Homes, and others, Kathy Knapp demonstrates that these authors revisit this well-trod turf and revive the familiar everyman character in order to reconsider and reshape American middle-class experience in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and their ongoing aftermath.

The novels in question all take place in the sprawling terrain that stretches out beyond the Twin Towers—the postwar suburbs that since the end of World War II have served, like the Twin Towers themselves, as a powerful advertisement of dominance to people around the globe, by projecting an image of prosperity and family values. These suburban tales and their everyman protagonists grapple, however indirectly, with the implications of the apparent decline of the economic, geopolitical, and moral authority of the United States. In the context of perceived decay and diminishing influence, these novels actively counteract the narrative of American exceptionalism frequently peddled in the wake of 9/11.

If suburban fiction has historically been faulted for its limited vision, this newest iteration has developed a depth of field that self-consciously folds the personal into the political, encompasses the have-nots along with the haves, and takes in the past when it imagines the future, all in order to forge a community of readers who are now accountable to the larger world. American Unexceptionalism traces the trajectory by which recent suburban fiction overturns the values of individualism, private property ownership, and competition that originally provided its foundation. In doing so, the novels examined here offer readers new and flexible ways to imagine being and belonging in a setting no longer characterized by stasis, but by flux.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Series: New American Canon


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Series Page, Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Writing can feel like a lonely endeavor, but in truth every sentence in this book has benefited from the fine insights, suggestions, and support of a multitude of friends, colleagues, and family members. ...

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Introduction: The Suburb and the Everyman in Transition

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pp. xi-xl

When Matthew Weiner, the creator of the hit television series Mad Men, announced in 2011 that the show would stop production after its seventh season, fans immediately began to wonder how the story of Don Draper, its iconic white upper-middle-class 1960s advertising executive, would conclude. ...

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1. The Canonical Everyman: Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe Trilogy and the Challenge to Neoliberal Suburbia

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pp. 1-22

In what would launch one of the more fabled literary feuds of recent history, Colson Whitehead issued a scathing review of Richard Ford’s short story collection, A Multitude of Sins (2002), in which he asserts, “The characters are nearly indistinguishable. If I were an epidemiologist, I’d say that some sort of spiritual epidemic had overtaken a segment of our nation’s white middle-class professionals” (“The End of the Affair” n.p.). ...

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2. The Assimilated Everyman and the Business of Forgetting: Postwar Living Memorials and the Posttraumatic Suburb in Chang-rae Lee’s Aloft

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pp. 23-49

In one of two essays to date devoted to Chang-rae Lee’s third novel, Aloft (2004), Mark Jerng observes that critics have struggled to make sense of the book, both in the context of Lee’s earlier work and within the emerging canon of recent American fiction.1 The conundrum centers on the novel’s protagonist: ...

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3. “How to Live?”: The Case for Failure in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

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pp. 50-79

The name of the chapter that introduces Chip Lambert, the central character of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 breakout novel, The Corrections, could not be more apt: “The Failure.” Chip, a straight white male and the middle child of middle-class parents from a midwestern suburb, has been situated comfortably for much of his life in society’s center. ...

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4. Dead Man Walking: Philip Roth’s Engagement with the Everyman Tradition and the Reimagination of Middle-Class Identity

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pp. 80-109

For the 2012 Super Bowl, the Chrysler Corporation reprised the risky but successful advertising campaign it had launched the year before—a two-minute, $10 million spot featuring the controversial rap artist Eminem—with another $14 million halftime gambit, this time featuring the iconic actor and director Clint Eastwood. ...

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5. That’s What She Said: The Everyman in Recent Suburban Fiction by Anne Tyler, Gish Jen, and A. M. Homes

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pp. 110-136

The so-called war on terror may drag on along with its insidious “us versus them” rhetoric, but the famous feud between Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey that likewise began in the fall of 2001 officially came to an end on September 17, 2010, after Franzen apparently sent Winfrey the galleys of Freedom along with a personal note. ...


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pp. 137-156

Works Cited

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pp. 157-172


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pp. 173-184

E-ISBN-13: 9781609382513
E-ISBN-10: 160938251X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609382285
Print-ISBN-10: 1609382285

Page Count: 227
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: paper
Series Title: New American Canon
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 881243901
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Unexceptionalism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 21st century -- History and criticism.
  • Suburban life in literature.
  • September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001 -- Influence.
  • Authors, American -- 21st century -- Political and social views.
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