Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015) 434 pages.
Review by Patrick Redding
Mark Greif’s first monograph, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, proposes a new conceptual and historical framework for understanding American intellectual life at mid-century. The book aims to bridge the gap between progressivism’s “uncertain victory” in the 1920s and 30s and the age of “fracture” and “contradiction” in the 1960s and 70s.
Part I, “Genesis,” is comprised of three chapters and is focused on the wartime causes behind the rise and fall of a certain style of universalizing discourse by which intellectuals sought to reconstitute the category of “man.” The moral horror of the concentration camps and the atom bomb, Greif argues, rendered the basic question of philosophical anthropology—what is the core of the human?—newly urgent and relevant. Greif is interested in the way that this discourse “exerts gravity upon seemingly unrelated questions across the whole public space of thought” (xi). Though many works of historical scholarship have been written about influential mid-century figures like Mumford, Niebuhr, Dewey, Marcuse, and Arendt, few scholars have portrayed these thinkers as responding to a single conceptual problematic.[i] After reading Greif, one begins to wonder how we could have overlooked what was hiding in plain sight. Consider, for example, how many works of social criticism and philosophy in these years feature the word “man” or “human” in their title: The Condition of Man, “The Root is Man,” The Nature and Destiny of Man, Human Nature and Conduct, One-Dimensional Man, Existentialism is a Humanism, The Human Condition. One of Greif’s signal contributions is to identify this species of discourse as a coherent intellectual genre, with common tropes and a shared idiom, addressed to the specific anxieties of the post-war moment.
Part II, “Transmission,” tracks how crisis discourse infiltrated and energized the increasingly professionalized discipline of English in the 1930s and 40s. His narrative of the cultural aspirations of literary criticism in these years is a brilliant synthesis of apparently disparate strands of literary activity. It ties together the polemical work of Lionel Trilling, who called for contemporary novelists to recuperate “losses of culture, personality, humanness,” to the canonizing project of classic American literature pursued by F.O. Matthiessen and the editors of The Literary History of the United States (1948), to the metamorphosis in the 1950s of abrasive modernists like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Kafka into figures of humanist wisdom. Greif’s approach illuminates the intellectual significance of works of middlebrow modernism such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (“what a man can do and what a man endures”) and Faulkner’s Noble Prize acceptance speech (“I decline to accept the end of man”).
Part III, “Studies in Fiction,” features four chapters on four novelists—Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon—who wrestled with, and in some ways rejected, the abstract, universalizing premise of crisis discourse by way of their dramatic portrayal of the concrete specifications of human identity. Each novelist is paired with a relevant theme—ethnicity, race, religion, and technology; the result, as Greif puts it, is that “their books—read closely—are often much more troubling about the discourse’s possibilities than the contemporary critics who praised them ever really came to understand” (134). Over the course of nearly 100 pages, Greif shows how Bellow’s despairing tone in Dangling Man (1944) led to the affirmative vernacular patois of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), how Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) anticipated his complex stance towards race in the later essays, how O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) and “The Artificial Nigger” (1955) build upon theological assumptions to challenge liberal pieties about evil and race, and how Pynchon connects communication infrastructures to the management and display of human bodies in V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).
Each chapter in Part III has many local insights and interpretive surprises. Taken as a whole, however, “Studies in Fiction” was the least satisfying segment of Greif’s book. These chapters seek to blend literary criticism with biography and literary history, but the constant toggling between different levels of analysis (text, genre, author, reception) requires some conspicuous shortcuts. Greif’s discussion of Invisible Man, for example, offers a wonderful account of Ellison’s knowledge of Hegel, but he has almost nothing to say about the first two hundred pages of the novel. Nor do these chapters always succeed in demonstrating how specific works of fiction reflect (or depart from) the philosophical and social writings that Greif discusses in parts I and IV. I would have liked to know more, for example, about how Bellow’s idealization of “types” in classical antiquity compares to Arendt’s classicizing account of “the human condition”; how O’Connor’s stories relate to the humanist thought of Maritain and de Chardin; whether Pynchon’s attraction to anarchy and hatred of bureaucracy resembles contemporary social criticism by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills. Greif situates works of fiction within the context of each author’s career, but fiction’s relation to broader social forces and discursive patterns remains underdeveloped.
The book’s organizational scheme places tremendous pressure upon the genre of fiction as an instrument of historical explanation. Fiction is treated as a privileged medium for the “transmission of authority” from one discursive site to another. Fiction is the means, Greif says, by which the “high ideas” of philosophers and social critics gained “their entryways into vernacular thinking and practice” (xii). I’m not so sure about this premise. Did Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Pynchon have a larger readership, or possess more cultural authority, than Niebuhr and Arendt at mid-century? Did Bellow and Ellison impact American folkways more deeply than John Dewey or Paul Tillich? Greif provides little empirical data to support this thesis about fiction’s ability to mediate the abstract questions of philosophy to a lay public.
Part IV, “Transmutation,” concerns the repudiation of crisis discourse in the 1960s. One chapter focuses on the growth of social movements based on identity categories. Greif contrasts MLK’s integrationism to Malcolm X’s black separatism, and traces feminism’s critique of gendered language (when history becomes “herstory”). Whereas white liberals had once hoped to rescue and defend “man,” in the 1960s they became hostile to “the Man”; whereas huge audiences flocked to Steichen and Sandburg’s photography exhibit The Family of Man (1955), Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag judged the show inattentive to the specificities of human difference. The second chapter in Part IV claims a common stimulus for the cosmopolitan ambitions of analytic philosophers such as Rudolph Carnap, W.V.O. Quine, and Roman Jakobson, who appealed to the universal languages of logic and Esperanto, and the “anti-humanist” provocations of French philosophers like Levi-Strauss and Derrida. In the end, intellectuals in the sixties split into warring camps: on one side we encounter Chomsky’s public critic of power, defending truth in the universal language of reason, while on the other we have Foucault’s specific intellectual, tracing epistemic contradictions that yield discrete discursive regimes.
In his attention to the origins and effects of the “crisis of man,” Greif claims to have identified a “common determinant” for “ideas that scholars treat superbly but separately: totalitarianism, Enlightenment, universalism, existentialism, human rights, relativism, Cold War unity, technology, and critique” (xi). The concluding chapter discloses the motives that led Greif to construct his synthesis: a high-minded desire to overcome the rigid polarities between “universalism or difference, human rights or political liberation, law or critique, normativity or the struggle for power and representation” (316). We have inherited a set of false choices, he tells us, but these “opposed projects passed on to us by preceding generations” appear less inimical when seen as descending from a common ancestor (317). Thus, for Greif, the mid-century crisis becomes a way to understand the common origin of seemingly unrelated strands of contemporary critical thought. Theories of “the postmodern,” “the posthuman,” and the “posthistoric” (i.e., “the end of history”), Greif believes, are “essentially one complex” (325). He remains unsure, however, what to do with this knowledge. As a historian, he must remain “without judgment” when his contemporaries repeat the errors of the past by trying to decide, yet again, “who we fundamentally are”; as a cultural critic of the present, he thinks we should stop worrying about philosophical anthropology and focus pragmatically on “the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim” (328-9).
Readers of this blog will surely debate Greif’s handling of source materials (letters, stories, journal articles, books; few archives are consulted), his use of fiction as a form of historical evidence, and his characterization of the 1960s as an intellectual rupture from the post-war consensus, what he calls “The Sixties as Big Bang.”[ii] Greif is often an elegant writer, though sometimes his prose is tainted by theoretical jargon. I found the phrases “recognition communities” and “type idealism” very helpful in understanding Bellow’s attitude towards culture and history, but I doubt many historians will be drawn to the notion of “empty discourse,” or adopt the term “maieutics” to refer to a mode of thought that consolidates sentiments without clarifying meanings.
If, as David Hollinger has observed, the field of American intellectual history has become increasingly focused on political ideas and social theory at the expense of philosophy and literary culture, then Greif’s book shows just how engaging it can be to glimpse philosophy in its human setting and view fiction as an agent of thought.[iii]
Patrick Redding is an Assistant Professor of English at Manhattanville College. He is working on a book entitled, “Democracy Unbound: American Poetry and the Scope of Equality, 1850-1940,” which explores how egalitarian ideals shaped cultural debates about poetic form, artistic judgment, the human body, and public space. He is currently finishing two essays about the use and misuse of quantitative methods in literary history, and beginning a reference essay on “Stevens and Politics” for the edited volume Wallace Stevens in Context forthcoming from Cambridge Univ. Press in 2016.
[i] Richard Pells’s Liberals in an Age of Conservatives covers most of the figures named here, but his focus is mainly on their diverse reactions to a shared political climate, not to a specific intellectual problem faced by all.
[ii] See, for example, the recent discussion on this blog about the 1960s as an Age of Fracture vs. the Age of the Culture Wars: https://s-usih.org/2015/03/age-of-fracture-v-age-of-culture-wars.html
[iii] David Hollinger, “What is our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of Their Field” Modern Intellectual History 9:1 (2012): 186.