Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



First Adviser

Whitley, Edward

Other advisers/committee members

Keetley, Dawn; Moglen, Seth; Kinealy, Christine


This dissertation examines how the Irish Famine (1845-1852) and its concomitant hunger were viewed by a diverse selection of American writers from the antebellum era. Selected texts from the following figures are analyzed: Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Asenath Nicholson, Fitz-James O'Brien, and Henry David Thoreau. Viewed collectively, their works show how antebellum American notions of individuality and nationhood were challenged by Irish hunger. Hunger could not be easily accommodated in the antebellum period because many Americans preferred to think of themselves as self-sufficient and strong, never hungry. Thus, sympathy for the hungry Irish called into question the very notion of being American. Famine hunger was an Irish problem, but it became an American opportunity, a credit to a nation that viewed itself as exceptionally able to identify, alleviate, and capitalize upon such suffering. By showing them what they could not imagine themselves experiencing, the Famine forced Americans to engage with the trauma of hunger at the core of the nation and to become even more grateful for the land of plenty in which they lived. Indeed, some Americans saw hunger, in addition to whiteness, as an ironic marker of Irish privilege. This examination of the literary representation and rhetorical manipulation of Irish hunger highlights the hypocritical nature of American attitudes towards immigration. The Irish who survived the Famine and emigrated to the United States were able to Americanize because their hunger was viewed, along with their whiteness, as a qualification for potential citizenship. Ultimately, Famine hunger became a harbinger of assimilation, paradoxically demonstrating that the immigrant Irish had the self-reliance and independence expected of them as potential Americans.