Made in America: fictions of genetic industry
Holcombe, Heather E.
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This dissertation focuses on contemporary American fiction that explores the intertwined histories of genetics and industrialism. I argue that Jeffrey Eugenides, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Powers interpret industrial and scientific texts from the early twentieth century to tell a previously untold history of the era. Emphasizing the connections between emerging understandings of genetics and new methods of manufacturing, they present the story of how the gene made life seem buildable. These writers trace fantasies of the literal mass production of Americans, exposing how immigrants, Native Americans, and women became particular targets of an industrial impulse toward standardization. Yet the novels in my study also recover an alternative history of the gene, in which it possesses a range of abilities enabling it to resist efforts to industrialize not just social, but also organismal, life. Genes are portrayed in these fictions as agents of transformation as well as replication, thus inspiring optimism about the possibility of unsettling the future of corporate capitalism in American life. Chapter One argues that Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex draws parallels between Henry Ford's factory, Thomas Hunt Morgan's genetic laboratory, and the Stephanides family lineage to show how naturally occurring mutations subvert the pursuit of exact reproduction. Chapter Two examines Louise Erdrich's Tracks, and its portrayal of the Pinkham Medicine Company's commercial hybridization of plants. Pointing to the genetic reversion that often accompanies hybridity, Erdrich undermines Pinkham's efforts to cultivate a uniform American populace from diverse racial roots. Chapter Three discusses Richard Powers' depiction of corporatization in Gain, focusing on Procter and Gamble's pursuit of self-perpetuation by crossing not merely into legal, but also embodied, personhood. Turning to chromosomal chiasmus as a mechanism that makes reproduction a process inherently variable, and therefore unstable, Powers portrays the genetic body as a dubious model for corporate longevity. Taken together, my central texts address the relationship between fiction and history, literature and science, and human and industrial reproduction.