Vulgar or valuable? The function of popular culture in the works of Vladimir Nabokov and Bobbie Ann Mason

Patricia Becker Lee, Fordham University


What happens when elements of the popular culture are incorporated into works of literature such as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country? Beyond marking a particular place and time, popular culture's inclusion in such works—both by accident and design—complicates notions of geography and temporality, gender and desire, power and exclusion, and the aesthetics of the work of art and the world in which it is received. Certainly, the study of mass culture within academic disciplines has evolved since Marshall McLuhan first proclaimed that “The Medium is the Massage” in 1967. However, much of that academic energy is devoted to studying popular culture as popular culture—to see, for example, what the television show Murphy Brown (and Dan Quayle's condemnation of it) says about us as a people. While this study recognizes popular culture's power to shape and reflect our attitudes, it seeks specifically to discover how and why Nabokov and Mason choose to harness that volatile power in their stories. The project began as a reaction to the critical marginilization of all but postmodern authors, such as Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon, who incorporate popular culture into their work, while the rest, like Mason, are relegated to the status of “Kmart Realist.” Comparing Mason to a canonized author seemed an appropriate measure, and Mason herself made the choice of author easy, since she wrote her dissertation on Nabokov and voices a kinship with him in her interviews. The dissertation begins with a chapter encapsulating the history and reception of popular culture within academic circles, from Matthew Arnold to Susan Sontag, indicating at what point in the critical debate Nabokov and Mason begin writing their fiction. After this framework is established, each chapter explores how popular culture functions to complicate traditional literary perceptions of time and space, character, and erotic desire. Turning from popular culture's influence on the texts to the writers' influence on the culture, the final chapter addresses whether Nabokov and Mason necessarily offer a social critique by employing the tropes of mass culture in their fiction.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Lee, Patricia Becker, "Vulgar or valuable? The function of popular culture in the works of Vladimir Nabokov and Bobbie Ann Mason" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3017554.