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Across the Veil: Thorton Wilder, Artifice and Camp

Grace Vowels headshot
Grace Vowels
Faculty Adviser(s)

​Camp as an aesthetic sensibility was first clearly articulated by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” Since then, much more scholarship on the subject has been released and camp has been incorporated into the field of queer theory, bringing its relevance both in popular culture and academic theory into the twenty-first century. Camp, defined by exaggeration and extravagance and emphasizing style over content, has many classic examples; some named by Sontag include Oscar Wilde, Greta Garbo, and Mae West as personages among various movies, musicals, and novels. However, one figure to whose work camp theory has not been applied is the twentieth-century author Thornton Wilder. Seen as a writer of both Americana and didactic moral truths, Wilder has largely been ignored by queer theorists working in the area of camp. In my study, I will apply Sontag’s theories, among those of other scholars, to Wilder’s 1934 picaresque novel Heaven’s My Destination, whose main character George Brush maintains an exaggerated artifice of American masculinity defined by religion and a quest for a nuclear family in a morally ravaged Depression-era environment. In this study, George Brush is viewed through a camp lens and seen as a purposefully hollow and exaggerated character of American masculinity. Furthermore, the implications of such a depiction during the Depression era by a writer such as Wilder will be explored, as I discuss how camp, despite its apparent frivolity, works as a means of social critique.

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Grace Vowels is an English and History major from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. During her time at Salem, she has been involved in various clubs such as Open Up (as secretary), Incunabula (as prose editor), and Junior Marshals. Her studies have centered around the representation of sexuality and queer identity in twentieth-century English literature. Additionally, Grace has interned under faculty mentor Jo Dulan in the English department. She would like to thank all of the professors in the English and History departments, particularly her advisors Dr. Dulan and Dr. Thomas, for all the encouragement and advice they have given her over the last four years.


As a fan of some fairly campy stuff (especially campy sci-fi and Monty Python's Flying Circus), I look forward to your presentation!

Submitted by Paula_Young on Tue, 04/13/2021 - 20:41 Permalink