Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

David Cowart


In 'Refuse: The Aesthetics of Waste in American Fiction,' I analyze works of contemporary literature by Pynchon, DeLillo, and Wallace, among others--authors whose attention to garbage (and the sea change in twentieth-century literary aesthetics that this attention suggests) offers a vital new perspective on the key issues of green criticism. Following a number of post-structural and posthumanist critics who implore us to abandon dualistic patterns of thought that suppose an irreparable division between 'nature' and 'culture,' I suggest that a critical practice that hopes to intervene effectively and responsibly in contemporary matters of environmental concern must begin by examining the aesthetic attachments that precede and inform our ethical convictions. Garbage, whose liminal existence challenges the clear-cut conceptual boundaries dividing nature and culture and whose aesthetic value has experienced a dramatic surge among artists in recent years, serves as a useful topic for exploring this complex dynamic.

I begin by contrasting the aversion to refuse that dominates and is tacitly endorsed by the modernist "aesthetics of omission" (articulated in the critical and creative work of Cather and Hemingway) with the presence of a whole valley of industrial ash in a famous work by Fitzgerald and with modern waste disposal practices engaged, thematically and stylistically, in the work of Dos Passos. From there, I examine garbage's proliferation in postmodern literature, an interest accompanied by alternative stylistic paradigms--metafictional gestures, descriptive amplitude, encyclopedic prolixity, manipulation of the paratext--that challenge modernist fiction's Spartan ideal. Grounded in recent scholarship concerning the cultural history of trash, the close readings I offer describe a general trend among certain prominent authors toward embracing and even celebrating trash through the form and content of their work. This move toward welcoming the accumulation of "refused" objects in a literary work, I argue, fosters a keener awareness of the nonhuman world we inhabit and a more ecologically sound attitude toward the waste matter whose low profile and rampant proliferation suggests a potentially serious threat to the world's habitability.


© 2011, Kevin Douglas Trumpeter