The utopian vision behind the so-called War on Drugs was that, as with other wars, we might sacrifice some amount of individual freedom in order to gain a larger freedom. In this case, the larger freedom was what Nancy Reagan called a “drug free America.” Thus, the War on Drugs era (from roughly 1970 to the present) aligns historically yet exists in tension with what scholars have called the neoliberal era, wherein individual freedom is paramount, and moral, political, and economic responsibility is left to the individual. This dissertation asks what the depictions of drug use in literature from this period might indicate about the relationship between neoliberalism and the War on Drugs. Reading subtle or extended portrayals of drug use in novels by Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, Daniel Cano, David Foster Wallace, and Alfredo Véa, and ambitious literary memoirs by Ann Marlowe and Leslie Jamison, this dissertation finds that these texts depict drug use as a normative moral or political issue, either in a way that demonstrates residual moral thinking, or makes new normative claims about how to live in a fractured, atomistic, and consumption-driven world. This dissertation argues that the depictions of drugs in these literary texts represents a significant complication of the notion that literature in the neoliberal era leaves normative morality and politics to the individual.

Degree Date

Summer 8-4-2020

Document Type


Degree Name





Lisa Siraganian

Second Advisor

Steve Weisenburger

Third Advisor

Jayson Sae-Saue

Fourth Advisor

Lindsey Banco

Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License