May 17, 2019
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v2.1 Reference

Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream

Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies

The many con men, gangsters, and drug lords portrayed in popular culture are examples of the dark side of the American dream. Viewers are fascinated by these twisted versions of heroic American archetypes, like the self-made man and the entrepreneur. Applying the critical skills he developed as a Shakespeare scholar, Paul A. Cantor finds new depth in familiar landmarks of popular culture. He invokes Shakespearean models to show that the concept of the tragic hero can help us understand why we are both repelled by and drawn to figures such as Vito and Michael Corleone or Walter White.

Beginning with Huckleberry Finn and ending with The Walking Dead, Cantor also uncovers the link between the American dream and frontier life. In imaginative variants of a Wild West setting, popular culture has served up disturbing—and yet strangely compelling—images of what happens when people move beyond the borders of law and order. Cantor demonstrates that, at its best, popular culture raises thoughtful questions about the validity and viability of the American dream, thus deepening our understanding of America itself.

About the Author

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He has also taught at Harvard University in both the English and the Government departments. His books include Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (named by the Los Angeles Times one of the best nonfiction books of 2001) and The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.


"Paul Cantor combines a critic's acumen with a fan's love of popular culture in a tour that takes us from the con men of the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn to the self-reliant individuals in the postapocalyptic world of The Walking Dead. All possibilities are open to us in America. But when we choose to change our lives, the dream can become a nightmare."—William Irwin, coeditor of Introducing Philosophy through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House

"Paul Cantor is one of our liveliest cultural critics and historians, and one of the few whose works will endure. Cantor is a profound analyst of the subjects he studies, and the range of his subjects would daunt almost anyone else. Shakespeare, economic theory, romantic poetry, the literature of the Weimar Republic, the political crises on Gilligan's Island—Cantor has written superbly on all these topics. Now comes Popular Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream, a subject on which it seems that everyone else has written. Can Cantor say anything new? The answer is yes, emphatically. Cantor's style is lively, but his research is rock solid, even when he's concerned with the zombie apocalypse. Again, this is fun, and this will last."—Stephen Cox, University of California–San Diego

"In this book Cantor continues his vital work analyzing American popular culture and shows why it's well worth investigating. The five essays comprising the work focus on Huckleberry Finn, W. C. Fields, The Godfather, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. Each insightful and highly readable chapter exposes elements of the American dream gone awry. Cantor shows us yet again why he's one of the leading authorities in popular culture and philosophy."—Mark T. Conard, editor of The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

University Press of Kentucky

9780813177304 : pop-culture-and-the-dark-side-of-the-american-dream-cantor
224 Pages
$30.00 USD

Other Titles by Paul A. Cantor

Totalitarianism on Screen

edited by Carl Eric Scott, F. Flagg Taylor, IV, with contributions byLauren Weiner, Paul A. Cantor, Dirk Johnson, James F. Pontuso, Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, Manfred Wilke, Wolf Biermann, Paul Hockenos, Peter Grieder, F. Flagg Taylor,...
Jul 2014 - University Press of Kentucky
$30.00 USD - Hardback
$30.00 USD - Electronic book text
$30.00 USD - Electronic book text

The Philosophy of Tim Burton

edited by Jennifer L. McMahon, Ph.D., with contributions byKen Hada, Ryan Weldon, Daniel Sullivan, Mark Walling, Paul A. Cantor, Steve Benton, Kevin S. Decker, Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray, Jennifer L. Jenkins, Deborah Knight, George McKnight...
Apr 2014 - University Press of Kentucky
$35.00 USD - Hardback
$19.95 USD - Electronic book text
$45.00 USD - Electronic book text

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

Paul A. Cantor
Nov 2012 - University Press of Kentucky
$40.00 USD - Hardback
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text

Other Titles in SOCIAL SCIENCE / Popular Culture

The Frontier Mind

Arthur K. Moore
Dec 2025 - University Press of Kentucky
$25.00 USD - Paperback / softback
$12.95 USD - Electronic book text

Monsters on Maple Street

David J. Brokaw
Aug 2023 - University Press of Kentucky
$40.00 USD - Hardback
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text
$40.00 USD - Online resource

Creating Identity

Jayashree Kamble
Jun 2023 - Indiana University Press
$85.00 USD - Hardback
$32.00 USD - Paperback / softback

Other Titles in Media studies

Contesting Copyright

Augusta Dimou
Jun 2023 - Central European University Press
$105.00 USD - Hardback

Consent Culture and Teen Films

Michele Meek
Apr 2023 - Indiana University Press
$75.00 USD - Hardback
$30.00 USD - Paperback / softback

Under the Radar

R. Eugene Parta
Oct 2022 - Central European University Press
$95.00 USD - Hardback