"Between the old world and the new": National myths in the writings of Willa Cather and Thomas Mann
Selker, Marlene G.
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The topic of national myths has gained current importance in the face of nationalism increasing world wide. This dissertation approaches national myths as cultural constructs, which have been shaped throughout centuries by socio-economic circumstances. It briefly traces the development of specific myths, including their historical context, and then analyzes the extent to which these myths have been accepted or subverted by one US-American and one German writer: Willa Cather and Thomas Mann. Cather and Mann are usually considered representative for their countries in the sense that they are oriented towards a partly glorified national past. However, it is their ongoing occupation with various national cultures, including each other's, and the constant juxtaposition of absorbing certain myths into their writing and of consciously or unconsciously rejecting, modifying, or undermining others, which make their texts particularly suitable examples for an analysis of national myths. A brief presentation of national identity as a cultural construct and the connection of literature and nationalism (Chapter II) is followed by a definition of specific US-American and German myths, structured according to "Community," "Individual," and "Space and Time" (Chapter III). Chapter IV, "Respectability," demonstrates the intertwinement of society's views on manners and morals with nationalism. These three chapters build the theoretical support for an analysis of Cather's and Mann's texts. The analysis focuses on the development of national images and plots used, such as the treatment of the lonely hunter in Cather's work, or rootedness in Mann's. Since respectability has such an important place in national myths, "gender," as an aspect of respectability, plays a major role. Skepticism, conservatism, but also the desire to break down both, gender barriers and other demarcations, as well as attempts to construct androgynous new worlds marks the work of both writers—a conclusion which confirms that dealing with national myths encourages awareness that there may be more than even two sides to a boundary.