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.
"'One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.' Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933-1973. By 'the discourse of man' Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the 'Family of Man' photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time."--Lorin Stein, Paris Review
"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
Table of Contents:
PART I Genesis 1
CHAPTER 1 Introduction The “Crisis of Man” as Obscurity and Re-enlightenment 3
CHAPTER 2 Currents through the War 27
CHAPTER 3 The End of the War and After 61
PART II Transmission 101
CHAPTER 4 Criticism and the Literary Crisis of Man 103
PART III Studies in Fiction 143
CHAPTER 5 Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison Man and History, the Questions 145
CHAPTER 6 Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow History and Man, the Answers 181
CHAPTER 7 Flannery O’Connor and Faith 204
CHAPTER 8 Thomas Pynchon and Technology 227
PART IV Transmutation 253
CHAPTER 9 The Sixties as Big Bang 255
CHAPTER 10 Universal Philosophy and Antihumanist Theory 281
CONCLUSION Moral History and the Twentieth Century 316