My dissertation focuses on the uses of literature in public spaces by large groups of diverse people tied to particular political ends. I document and study these "tactical readings" in the process of arguing that in the United States, between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, literature has helped people transform their communities and their world. I document how Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn intervenes in discussions of women's rights among soldiers during World War II; how poems by William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka, W.H. Auden and Lorna Dee Cervantes become a mass voice against racism and imperialism in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001; how John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath becomes a tool for discussing immigration reform and organizing communities against foreclosure during the "Great Recession" in 2009. In each of these chapters, I specify particular texts being used at particular times by particular actors and leading to particular ends.
In linking texts, their readers, and the political consequences of reading, my critical approach runs contrary to the specter of New Critical hermeneutics that still haunts literary criticism in rarefied close readings or Derridian deconstruction. My approach also runs contrary to previous literary-critical attempts to situate literature in the world, such as reader-response theory with its focus on solitary, elite, or imagined readers. To challenge these paradigms, my sociological approach draws on the intersubjective theories of language pioneered by Jurgen Habermas. With Habermas's theory of communicative action and deliberative democracy, I produce a methodology for literary studies that allows for a focus on texts, their readers, and contexts of consumption--both particular (at the level of reader and text) and general (the way texts relate to particular cultural climates, for instance). Habermas offers a way to move between systemic analysis, institutional contexts, and the particularities of the way texts are used by everyday readers. I work to show literary studies what we might learn from such tactical readers in the hopes that working collaboratively with them, we can shape new tactical interventions.