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The Age of the Crisis of Man

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Age of the Crisis of Man
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5210-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. PART I Genesis

    • CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION The “Crisis of Man” as Obscurity and Re-enlightenment
      (pp. 3-26)

      In the middle decades of the twentieth century, American intellectuals of manifold types, from disparate and even hostile groups, converged on a perception of danger. The world had entered a new crisis by 1933, the implications of which would echo for nearly three decades to follow: not just the crisis of the liberal state, or capitalist economy generally, and not only the imminent paroxysm of the political world system in world war. The threat was now to “man.” “Man” was in “crisis.” This jeopardy transformed the tone and content of intellectual, political, and literary enterprise, from the late thirties forward,...

      (pp. 27-60)

      The public origins of a crisis of man lie first in the shifting disputes between well–documented thinkers in America at the start of the European war. Intellectual history has dealt extensively with John Dewey and his antagonists over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, studying in detail the rival philosophical, theological, and educational doctrines. Anti-Deweyans, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Lewis Mumford, received some of the best biographies and analyses the last generation of intellectual historians produced.¹ Adjutants and followers on both sides, such as Sidney Hook and Mortimer Adler, left testimonies and autobiographies, and...

      (pp. 61-100)

      The historian Paul Boyer, chronicler of the atom bomb’s reception in America, has pointed out that the shock of the bomb was much greater than any other tragedy of the war since Pearl Harbor, precisely because of the project’s secrecy. Americans had absolutely no preparation for the headlines announcing that a Japanese city had been vaporized with a single unconventional weapon.¹ The mass killing of the Jews, in contrast, had been foreshadowed by mass killings of soldiers, torture of prisoners, and Hitler’s hatred and persecution of Jews since 1933. The atom bomb really was unprecedented (except to those members of...

  5. PART II Transmission

      (pp. 103-142)

      Humanism has always been animated by texts. The fifteenth-centuryumanistiprojected their philosophical focus onto man to escape supernaturalism and Christianity, and develop Renaissance learning. They were capable of doing so because they had inherited and plumbed a particular trove of books: the manuscripts of classical antiquity.

      Since that time, “humanism,” partly by its sound, has worn other, looser meanings, of something like a love forHomo sapiens, respect for mankind. Malcolm Cowley praised this commonsense humanism very eloquently, a few years before the crisis of man, in 1930: “Partly it is an emphasis on the qualities it considers...

  6. PART III Studies in Fiction

    • CHAPTER 5 SAUL BELLOW AND RALPH ELLISON Man and History, the Questions
      (pp. 145-180)

      Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison took walks together in Riverside Park. New York had made each of them famous, and a particular metropolitan milieu introduced them to each other and to the literary world. This was the circle of the New York Intellectuals, who managed the journals, likePartisan ReviewandCommentary, in which Bellow and Ellison could read each other’s work and who helped determine what was then outstanding as an intellectual problem, and what a writer at midcentury was obliged to do.

      At that time, these obligations included addressing the problem of man. Both writers’ first novels were...

    • CHAPTER 6 RALPH ELLISON AND SAUL BELLOW History and Man, the Answers
      (pp. 181-203)

      Harlem goes up in flames in the last chapter ofInvisible Man. Black people are killed fighting the police. Why does it happen? The book offers multiple possibilities: because Ras the Exhorter, the nationalist, who refuses the white man’s present–day planes and guns, along with his society, tries to lead Harlem forward to its historical destiny by leading it backward, on horseback with a spear—a form of history-drunk suicide? Because the Brotherhood pulled its support for Harlem at the crucial moment, anticipating a race riot as a cause célèbre, spilling black blood on history’s canvas, to make...

      (pp. 204-226)

      One of the outstanding problems in the moral and intellectual history of the twentieth century and of modernity as a whole is the persistence of religion alongside social secularization. The general secularization of our collective life seems undeniable, yet it does not stop individuals from thanking Jesus for personal successes or beseeching him for relief from affliction. A medicalization of bodily experience has meant that one is not reliant on divinity to allay disease. The physician, his tamed microbes, and his stainless machines determine which natural plagues will persist (based on the latest state of his expanding knowledge) and which...

      (pp. 227-252)

      At the beginning of this study, for the world crisis with its bull’s-eye centered on the early 1940s, concentric rings spilling outward, I identified four areas of concern for the intellectuals of the crisis of man:philosophy,history,faith, andtechnology. Each generated its own set of complex questions.

      The last area in a way seems the simplest in its afterlife. Does technology change human nature by altering man’s habits, his body, by conditioning him, by fitting him to the machine? Or does it even make man obsolete by superseding his puny strengths or threatening to vaporize him from the...

  7. PART IV Transmutation

      (pp. 255-280)

      This study has taken many chapters to chart the rise, migrations, and complications of the crisis of man. I have hinted throughout this study that the period that eventually ended the discourse of the crisis of man is the time, or set of events, or change of mood that we call “the sixties.” Part of this ending was intellectual and drew on culminating insights from pure philosophers who had taken part in the earlier creation of the discourse of man. The discourse of man transformed and undid itself, among some of its best practitioners, in iterations in the later years...

      (pp. 281-315)

      From social history, we return to high intellect. As universal man came into doubt throughout the 1960s, existing resources in America for philosophizing the practical situation did not seem satisfactory. New sorts of tracings must be made of the social system. In 1965, standing before the assembled demonstrators at an April anti–Vietnam War rally in Washington, DC, Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), made his often-quoted declaration: “We must name the system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.”¹ Theorizations of structure acquired new urgency. Not only must...

  8. CONCLUSION Moral History and the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 316-330)

    What should be the starting point for twenty-first-century thought?

    A friend, older than I, who had been educated in the 1980s and 1990s, once usefully clarified for me that he believed the intellectual tragedy of his generation had been a division between equally attractive camps. On one side, human rights and humanitarianism defended the human individual. On the other, the critique of the subject and the discovery of difference exposed the all-too-human coercions that kept the individual from true liberation. Each camp thought the other naive.

    I came to this division as it was losing force at the turn of...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 331-400)
    (pp. 401-404)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 405-434)