Bending steel with bare hands: Modernity and the American superhero in the twentieth century

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Robin F. Bachin - Committee Chair


Bending Steel with Bare Hands argues that Americans have historically employed the concept of the superhero to articulate notions of race, class, gender and nationalism as a means of navigating the intricacies and dislocations of the nation's encounter with modernity. As contested cultural terrain, superheroes and the processes by which they are imagined have been, and continue to be, contingent on the social positioning of those involved in their creation. As such, mainstream expressions of heroic identity have evolved from elite formulations such as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, to the working-class heroes of dime novelists in the 1850s, to middle-class Anglo-Saxon conceptualizations epitomized by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and finally to the New Immigrant imagined superheroes that exploded onto the cultural scene with Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1. Dwelling on the latter, this dissertation employs content analysis, biography, cultural history, literary criticism and audience response theory to highlight the ways in which superheroes blur the lines between high and low culture, complicate notions of audience involvement in the creation of popular culture and provide transgressive possibilities that have allowed both individuals and groups to redefine ethnic identity and claim social power in a variety of ways. This dissertation simultaneously explores the ways in which this transgressive potential is limited by the legacies of race, class and gender that pervade the genre of superhero adventure fiction as well as the culture as a whole. Thus, by using superhero adventure fiction as a prism, this dissertation aims to highlight issues relevant to a broader understanding of American cultural history.


American Studies; History, United States; Literature, American

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