The Death of Things

Ephemera and the American Novel

2020
Author:

Sarah Wasserman

The Death of Things

A comprehensive study of ephemera in twentieth-century literature—and its relevance to the twenty-first century

Sarah Wasserman delivers the first comprehensive study addressing the role ephemera played in twentieth-century fiction and its relevance to contemporary digital culture. Creating an alternate literary history of the twentieth century, The Death of Things delivers an insightful and idiosyncratic journey through objects that were once vital but are now forgotten.

“Nothing ever really disappears from the internet” has become a common warning of the digital age. But the twentieth century was filled with ephemera—items that were designed to disappear forever—and these objects played crucial roles in some of that century’s greatest works of literature. In The Death of Things, author Sarah Wasserman delivers the first comprehensive study addressing the role ephemera played in twentieth-century fiction and its relevance to contemporary digital culture.

Representing the experience of perpetual change and loss, ephemera was central to great works by major novelists like Don DeLillo, Ralph Ellison, and Marilynne Robinson. Following the lives and deaths of objects, Wasserman imagines new uses of urban space, new forms of visibility for marginalized groups, and new conceptions of the marginal itself. She also inquires into present-day conundrums: our fascination with the durable, our concerns with the digital, and our curiosity about what new fictional narratives have to say about deletion and preservation.

The Death of Things offers readers fascinating, original angles on how objects shape our world. Creating an alternate literary history of the twentieth century, Wasserman delivers an insightful and idiosyncratic journey through objects that were once vital but are now forgotten.

The Death of Things

Sarah Wasserman is assistant professor of English and material culture studies at the University of Delaware. She is coeditor of Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age and cocurator of the “Thing Theory and Literary Studies” colloquy on the Stanford Arcade website.

The Death of Things

Contents

Introduction: The Death of Things

1. Yesterday’s Tomorrowland: E. L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon, and the 1939 World’s Fair

2. Counterhistory, Counterfact, Counterobject: Philp K. Dick, Philip Roth, and the Second World War

3. Zoned Out: Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, and Urban Infrastructure

4. Time, Stamped: Thomas Pynchon’s Media Systems

5. The Disorder of Things: Marilynne Robinson’s Transient Women

6. Ephemeral Gods, Billboard Saints: Don DeLillo’s Apparitions

Coda: The Afterlife of Things: Ephemera in the Digital Age

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index