American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Cosmopolitan Ethics and the Limits of Tolerance: Representing the Holocaust in Young Adult Literature

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/English

First Advisor

Beth Griech-Polelle (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Kimberly Coates (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Vivian Patraka (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Nancy Fordham


This dissertation critically evaluates the concepts of tolerance and toleration and how these two ideas are often deployed as the appropriate response to any perceived difference in American culture. Using young adult literature about the Holocaust as a case study, this project illustrates how idealizing tolerance merely serves to maintain existing systems of power and privilege. Instead of using adolescent Holocaust literature to promote tolerance in educational institutions, I argue that a more effective goal is to encourage readers' engagement and acceptance of difference. The dissertation examines approximately forty young adult novels and memoirs on the subject of the Holocaust. Through close readings of the texts, I illustrate how they succeed or fail at presenting characters that young adults can recognize as different from themselves in ways that will help to destabilize existing systems of power and privilege.

I argue this sort of destabilization takes place through imaginative investment with a literary "Other" in order to develop a more cosmopolitan worldview. Using the theories of Judith Butler, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Gerard Delanty I contended that engagement with and appreciation of difference is possible when reading young adult Holocaust literature. By looking at how Jewish, Roma-Sinti, disabled, and homosexual victims are portrayed I illustrate how victimized populations are represented as vulnerable and grievable in ways that will help readers understand how particular populations were viewed as less than human and targeted for cultural annihilation as well as physical death. I also look at how Germans and neo-Nazis are portrayed in young adult literature, arguing for nuanced portrayals of the Germans themselves and how unethical choices are represented. I also remind readers not all books are created in ways that enable cosmopolitan engagement; many fail on the grounds of historical inaccuracies, vague characterizations, and the presentation ongoing stereotypes. The ultimate goal of the project was to challenge rigid binary systems of identity categorization and to encourage readings of the literature that contest ongoing unequal distributions of power and privilege. Young adult Holocaust literature has the potential to do this, but it must be reconceptualized as a tool that can do other work besides teaching tolerance.