Date Approved


Degree Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department or School

English Language and Literature

Committee Member

Elisabeth Däumer, Ph.D., Director

Committee Member

John Staunton, Ph.D., Reader


This thesis explores the role of literature and practices of literary study in American government. Specifically, it looks at how the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE) and the Supreme Court have deliberately embraced the humanities to fulfill their respective responsibilities. I begin by examining the interpretive practices these groups employ, then turn to lists of recommended reading published by the PCBE and Justice Anthony Kennedy. I investigate how their endorsements of texts such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Antonia, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird promote certain constructions of traditional American values that are central to the choices these government organizations make. To close, I draw from the work of Martha Nussbaum to show how the lessons the PCBE and Justice Kennedy take from this fiction translate into executive orders, legislation, and legal opinions that shape public policy in America.