Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2024

Document Type

Thesis (Master's)

Department or Program

Master of Arts in Liberal Studies

First Advisor

Donald Pease

Second Advisor

Nancy Fraser

Third Advisor

Patricia Stuelke


In 1958, William Lederer and Eugene Burdick were driven to spend six days frantically drafting a novel. In their view, the United States was losing the Cold War and the nation’s post-war image of innovation and benevolence was under threat. Lederer and Burdick feared that U.S. diplomacy was chauvinistic and detached and, as such, the United States was beginning to be associated with the very forms of imperialism it claimed to fight. This anxiety over U.S. imperialism gave rise to The Ugly American, in which Lederer and Burdick appear to attempt to alleviate imperial anxieties by providing an alternative image of an American abroad, one more in line with what they term the “American ethic” of hard work, humility, and sacrifice: the development worker. The book was an immediate success, selling millions of copies and inspiring the creation of the Peace Corps.

However, very quickly people began to use the term ‘ugly American’ not to refer to benevolent development workers but to describe arrogant and self-serving U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad, the very image, in other words, that Lederer and Burdick were trying to counter. In 2024, the pejorative trope of the ‘ugly American’ continues to frequent news headlines and common parlance, but the novel and its ‘positive’ usage of the term have fallen victim to a case of national amnesia. In a presidential election year, where the international image of the United States is forefront in many minds, this thesis considers how the memory of ‘the ugly American’ may unlock a key piece of the relationship between U.S. imperialism, imperial anxiety, and the self-representation of American identity.

Beginning by situating ‘the ugly American’ as a mythical signifier in Roland Barthes sense, this thesis considers the way in which the phrase’s origin evokes a primal scene of imperial anxiety, ultimately overdetermining the image of the ‘ugly American’ and providing generative ground to intervene in social memory processes around American mythology. Turning to these scenes of anxiety, this thesis argues that the bodies of the development workers in the novel emerge as sites of performative memory, where queer anxieties around the destabilization of identity deepen and problematize the initial imperial anxiety that drove Lederer and Burdick to write the novel.

Available for download on Friday, May 15, 2026