In a midcentury American cultural episode forgotten today, intellectuals of all schools shared a belief that human nature was under threat. The immediate result was a glut of dense, abstract books on the “nature of man.” But the dawning “age of the crisis of man,” as Mark Greif calls it, was far more than a historical curiosity. In this ambitious intellectual and literary history, Greif recovers this lost line of thought to show how it influenced society, politics, and culture before, during, and long after World War II.
During the 1930s and 1940s, fears of the barbarization of humanity energized New York intellectuals, Chicago protoconservatives, European Jewish émigrés, and native-born bohemians to seek “re-enlightenment,” a new philosophical account of human nature and history. After the war this effort diffused, leading to a rebirth of modern human rights and a new power for the literary arts.
Critics’ predictions of a “death of the novel” challenged writers to invest bloodless questions of human nature with flesh and detail. Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright wrote flawed novels of abstract man. Succeeding them, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon constituted a new guard who tested philosophical questions against social realities—race, religious faith, and the rise of technology—that kept difference and diversity alive.
By the 1960s, the idea of “universal man” gave way to moral antihumanism, as new sensibilities and social movements transformed what had come before. Greif’s reframing of a foundational debate takes us beyond old antagonisms into a new future, and gives a prehistory to the fractures of our own era.
Mark Greif is assistant professor of literary studies at the New School. He is a founder and editor of the journal n+1.
"Mark Greif's original and compelling history of the 'crisis of man' shows how important this debate was not just to American intellectual life in the middle of the twentieth century, but to the postmodernity that was to follow, and to theoretical questions that still engage us. Through a series of dazzling readings, Greif shows that literature, not theory or philosophy, provided by far the best analyses of the problem of the nature and future of 'man.' Anyone interested in theories of human rights and the posthuman, in the constant tug of war between universalism and difference, or in the relationship between literature and philosophy should read this book."--Toril Moi, Duke University
"This book offers more than a fine history of midcentury intellectual life. A set of ideas that have long seemed deader than the paper they are printed on are given, not credence, but a thrilling sense of energy and urgency. The strength of the conceptual framework lets one see how the restless ghosts of the 'age of the crisis of man' have been keeping us company all along. Against the odds, Greif's account provides us with new tools for understanding our present, when the category of the human has never seemed a less reliable beacon to the making of a better world."--Mark McGurl, author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing
"Mark Greif is one of my favorite contemporary essayists, and it's a pleasure to read his analysis of a time of change so fundamental to our culture and artworks today. This is a brilliant history of midcentury American (and European) thought. His writing is witty, profound, and able to change the inner landscape of anyone who encounters it."--Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?
"An utterly surprising prehistory of our present, and one of the best imaginable roadmaps to the intellectual and literary geography of the last seventy years."--Elaine Scarry, Harvard University