Book Review

From Empty Discourse to the Postmodern

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 crisismanby 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 flannerycultural 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:

[iii] David Hollinger, “What is our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of Their Field” Modern Intellectual History 9:1 (2012): 186.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Patrick, thank you for this great review! Like you, I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, but while I was reading I thought, gosh, this would be difficult to review–so many moving parts and, as you write, levels of argument! To do justice to it all is quite a feat.

    One of the fascinating points you make is that Greif provides no evidence that Bellow or O’Connor had a greater role as mediators of this discourse for the lay public than did Arendt or Niebuhr. I’m not so sure that’s the argument that Greif is making though. The way I read it was that he was making an argument not about reception but about form: that fiction, and particularly the elements of character, dialogue, and plot, posed different intellectual requirements for the discourse of the crisis of man than did formal argument. Thus, new possibilities and hidden limitations for this discourse were illuminated through fiction that remained only latent in the abstract reasoning of Arendt or Niebuhr or Tillich. So conceivably, Niebuhr himself could learn something different (and likely something more profound, or at least more challenging) about the discourse by reading Ellison than he could by reading himself. (With that, I would most heartily agree!)

  2. Thanks for those kind words, Andy. There _are_ a lot of moving parts to this book–which is what made is so much fun to review!

    In many respects, I think you are correct about how Greif understands the relation of mid-century fiction to the earlier “crisis of man” discourse articulated by intellectuals. That is, the genre of intellectual argument allowed for one type of argument, but limited its thinking in some ways, while the genre of literary fiction, which must pursue a more intense degree of particularity (character, dialogue, plot, etc.) was able to attend far more profoundly to instances of human difference (race, class, religion, etc.). (A nice precis of this idea comes on the bottom of p. 319, where Greif aligns literature with anthropology as “disciplines of the concrete,” over against philosophy. For Greif, novels are where “high philosophical obligations intersect the ordinary.”)

    And if he had structured his study synchronically rather than narratively (i.e. had stopped after the chapters on fiction) then I wouldn’t have a problem. But, in my view, Greif has structured his book not on the model of “varieties of discourse” (which would have been safer, but probably less interesting) but rather as a narrative argument about how we got from pt. A to pt. B, from the postwar consensus to the postmodern/posthistory/posttheory problematic of our own times. Chapter 4 is entitled “Literary Criticism and the Crisis of Man” and is labelled “Pt. II ‘Transmission.” This suggests a narrative of mediation: how we get from one discursive site to another. To me, that suggests a narrative of causality: how one type of writing led to another type of writing (and Greif makes clear that figures like Trilling, Bellow, O’Connor, etc. read and responded to some of the major crisis figures, i.e. Arendt, Cassirer, Dewey, Heidegger, Mumford, etc.)

    Now, it is true that I happen to be obsessed with this problem of historical causation because of other projects I’m working on. Maybe I’m pressing too hard here — few historical studies can boast of tracing an unbroken chain of causality. Still, when Greif uses terms like “transmission” or “the Sixties as Big Bang” it suggests some kind of driving force moving American culture from one point to another, rather than just an analysis of two sides of a cultural dialectic (philosophy vs. literature).

    Having said all this, I hope it is clear from the review how much I admire Greif’s book. I truly consider it one of the most accomplished works of scholarship written by someone of my generation. I’m more than willing to forgive this slight organizational hiccup for the sake of the whole–I learned so much from the book. As a reviewer, though, it seemed important to raise the question of evidence and reception, esp. for an audience of historians who tend to obey stricter rules about establishing empirical foundations for discursive “context” than do literary critics. This particular question of how mid-century fiction mediated mid-century philosophy went unmentioned in reviews of the book by Kevin Mattson and James Livingston, so I thought it might be an interesting issue to debate on this forum.

    • I think the question of causality is absolutely a crucial concern here, and I think you’ve put your finger on a definite problem. I think Greif hedges a few causal arguments that make some of these moving parts obey a kind of uncertainty principle: we either know their position or their velocity, but not both at the same time!

      Probably because I also am influenced by a current research obsession, my questions about the causal arguments of the book revolved around what we could call the other “Big Bang” of the book–1933. There’s no real build-up acknowledged to the crisis of man discourse, no precursor texts. There’s Hitler and then, bam, there’s the discourse–maybe not fully-formed, but generally complete in its parts. I think Greif’s argument there is that the discourse is catalyzed by the physical arrival of Mitteleuropean émigrés in the US, which is undoubtedly true, but perhaps not without qualification. I don’t know what The Good Earth is other than a novel of the crisis of man; certainly Man’s Fate can only be considered as a bulwark of the discourse. Lion Feuchtwanger and (I should think) Brecht are other likely candidates, but at any rate the point is that I think there were important pre-1933 roots of the discourse that get overlooked because of the focus on the émigré-as-catalyst narrative.

      But I also think that narrative has some effects on the sequence you’ve identified, which appears to run from formal argument to fiction. (I would say, fwiw, that in real chronology, the texts that Greif emphasizes are more diversely located–Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism for one, is only a year or two older than Invisible Man and Augie, and Greif pays a good bit of attention to Bellow’s Dangling Man and The Victim, which are 40s novels.) Because the émigrés Greif highlights were not novelists or playwrights, and because the main thrust of the book is a sort of transplantation narrative, the arc of the book almost *has* to look like it moves from formal philosophical argument to fiction, as if the novelization of these ideas is also an Americanization and a popularization. The only real exception to this that Greif discusses–where American novelists were translating a European novelist’s crisis of man discourse–is Kafka. Otherwise, the arc of the book does force a kind of image of this discourse as a relay–from the philosophers to the critics to the novelists.

      I saw that arc as largely an unintended consequence of Greif’s selection of texts rather than a deliberate causal argument, but maybe it is that–and my reading certainly doesn’t answer your point about where Greif takes the book after the chapters on fiction!

      • Andy, you are absolutely right that Greif doesn’t _want_ to claim a causal narrative, at least not in the body of the text. The only place where he appears to do so is in the Table of Contents, where he uses labels like “genesis,” “transmission,” “transmutation” that imply some kind of narrative arc, and thus some causal order of events. But the main thrust of his argument is not in a causal direction.

        I finally found the passage where Greif specifically says that he doesn’t want to imply a causal relation b/t diff. levels of discourse: “when the sixties intervened, it wrote out in political actions and activism some of the contradictions we will have seen that the novelists had intuited or foundered on, synthesized or papers over. . . I am not claiming influence for the novelists on action or politics but formal and diagnostic depth helpful to retrospection” (Preface, xiii). So Greif says here that the novels didn’t “cause” the sixties discourse of difference (though, if so, then why label this section “transmutation”?). I confess I don’t understand what he means by “helpful to retrospection”–the diagnosis of the novelists was useful, but only to those (like us) who can view their discourse retrospectively, in light of the events of the 1960s? I guess what I’m pointing to is simply a discrepancy b/t the narrative arc implied by the Table of Contents and the Foucauldian language of the text itself. Greif seems more comfortable with laying out a sequence of fragmented genealogies without worrying too much about questions of “influence”–how one type of discourse (fiction, say) impacted the other (politics, say). Overall, he doesn’t seem particularly worried about who read who and when; methodologically, I suspect he’s somewhere in the orbit of D. Hollinger’s “communities of discourse” and their shared questions with distinct replies.
        (That said, he does have offer this caveat: “How does high discourse weigh upon other levels, if it does? How does one know, or prove, if it does? Preface, xii). Greif doesn’t go quite far enough in _proving_ this relationship; he hints at it, and allows the possibility to insinuate itself in the mind.

        As for your point about what _precedes_ 1933–Greif says–again puzzlingly, that the crisis did not originate in 1933, but he gives no clear reason why this is so (he does menation, in footnote #9 of Ch. 1, that a discourse of the “new man” circulated in WWI avant-garde circles, but this is not elaborated upon).

        Interestingly for our purposes. Greif cites Edmund Purcell’s _Crisis of Democratic Theory_ (1972) as a rival account of the period in question. He might also have mentioned Morton White’s _Social Thought in America_ (1949). Both books focus on the “crisis” of human nature wrought by new modes of intellectual argument (pragmatism, naturalistic behaviorism) and both discuss many texts prior to 1933.

        Finally, I can’t resist a literary allusion: when T.S. Eliot writes in _The Waste Land_ (1922), “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” what is he saying other than “we’ve entered the age of the crisis of man”!

        And while we’re on the question of overlooked sources, one might begin to wonder about why Greif chose these particular four authors. What about other major novelists writing in these years—Jones, Mailer, Yates, Baldwin, Nabokov, Malamud, Kerouac, Kesey, Roth, McCarthy—how did they respond (or not) to the crisis of man? And what about those working in genres such as poetry and drama? A figure like W.H. Auden—intimate friends with Arendt and close to the Partisan Review circle—wrote frequently about “man” and the “human” in these years (his poem “September 1, 1939” addresses the threat that fascism poses to human nature, and _The Double Man_ was published in 1940); surely a figure like Auden belongs to a study of this topic, even though he wrote in verse.

  3. Re: 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.

    Greif also could have thrown in Karl Jaspers’ (1961) The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (translated from the orig. German title). (Hans Morgenthau, incidentally, was influenced by the book.) I haven’t read the Jaspers book, but I have read a book that came out roughly at the same time that sounded, I think, some similar themes; it doesn’t have “man” or “human” in the title, though: John Herz, International Politics in the Atomic Age (1959).

    Re: 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.

    Personally I don’t think appealing to the “universal language of logic” necessarily makes one a “cosmopolitan” in the senses of the word that I usually think of. Cosmopolitanism as a political-philosophical stance (either in the 18th cent. or 20th cent. guises) is not something I would connect with analytic philosophers of logic, like Quine, or logical positivists like Carnap. But any author who can lump Quine, Carnap, Levi-Strauss and Derrida into the same box is either very brilliant or perhaps living in a state which has legalized marijuana (sorry, couldn’t resist).

    • I plead ignorant of the wide body of theoretical writing about cosmopolitanism, but Greif makes a fairly compelling case, at least to me, about the left-leaning origins of the early figures of logical positivism. This aspect of their legacy is apparently better known among those who read biographies of Carnap, Quine, and Jacobson, and Greif builds on this work to paint a broader picture of the shared motivations of “Anglo” and “continental” theory in these years. It is certainly a counter-intuitive argument — there’s a lot of ground to cover between Carnap and Cixous — but I found the argument utterly fascinating.

  4. Great discussion!

    I haven’t read Greif’s book yet because I wanted to read McGurl on “The Program Years” first (in part because of Andy Seal’s writing about it a while ago), and putting them together raises even more questions about specifically American precursors to the preoccupations of the 1950s. So, O’Connor (as McGurl shows) was influenced by the Southern R.P. Blackmur and the midwestern Paul Engle. Trilling was also influenced by Blackmur, as well as by the Europeans. But who was Blackmur influenced by–what can we know about what was brought to the table by the strands of thought that were (in Alfred Kazin’s words) “native”? It makes sense that Mark Greif, like Adam Kirsch, would be interested in the European roots of this thought, I guess, and I expect him to illuminate what someone like Trilling or O’Connor saw as the significance of what resulted when all those strands were brought together, but I’m also interested about the questions Andy raises.

    • I’m really glad to see someone mention McGurl’s book here. I suspect that Greif had this book on his mind just as much as he had texts better known among historians like _Uncertain Victory_ or _Age of Fracture_ (McGurl offers a blurb on the back of Greif’s book). I tried to search for Andy’s citation of McGurl but couldn’t find it in the USIH archives. Can anybody help me out?

      As for Blackmur’s intellectual sources: one key one was Christian Gauss, one of his colleagues at Princeton. Two of Blackmur’s contemporary appreciators, Edward Said and Denis Donoghue, have great essays about him and his style of criticism. I’d also recommend Morris Dickstein’s _Double Agent_–very good on positioning Blackmur’s particular strengths and weaknesses against a broader American milieu of criticism. Lastly, I’d point to his affiliation with the modernist little magazine _Hound and Horn, which he edited from 1928-1930, alongside contributors like Allen Tate, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens. (Speaking of Tate–it _is_ surprising how little Greif has to say about the “crisis of man” experienced by Southern New Critics like Ransom, Tate, or Warren. But perhaps theirs was more a crisis of industrial capitalism rather than a question of philophical anthropology–though if you look at Ransom’s _The World’s Body_ (1941) you’ll see him make direct analogies between poetic form and ontology.

      • Patrick, thanks for the reply. (Dickstein’s son was in my class at Columbia, as was I think Trilling’s grandson and also Lawrence Kroeber’s son, though the only one I’d kind of heard of when I was eighteen was Trilling, and possibly because my aunt had pointed the name out to me. Not that that’s relevant to anything.)

        L.D., thanks to you too. I’d forgotten that USIH post, and was thinking of older ones, from Andy’s old blog and from The Valve.

        I was thinking of writing this comment in haiku form as an allusion to the narrowness of the column. Maybe the next one.

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