Facing the Abyss

American Literature and Culture in the 1940s

George Hutchinson

Columbia University Press

Facing the Abyss

Pub Date: January 2018

ISBN: 9780231163385

464 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $35.00£27.00

Pub Date: January 2018

ISBN: 9780231545969

464 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $34.99£27.00

Facing the Abyss

American Literature and Culture in the 1940s

George Hutchinson

Columbia University Press

Mythologized as the era of the “good war” and the “Greatest Generation,” the 1940s are frequently understood as a more heroic, uncomplicated time in American history. Yet just below the surface, a sense of dread, alienation, and the haunting specter of radical evil permeated American art and literature. Writers returned home from World War II and gave form to their disorienting experiences of violence and cruelty. They probed the darkness that the war opened up and confronted bigotry, existential guilt, ecological concerns, and fear about the nature and survival of the human race. In Facing the Abyss, George Hutchinson offers readings of individual works and the larger intellectual and cultural scene to reveal the 1940s as a period of profound and influential accomplishment.

Facing the Abyss examines the relation of aesthetics to politics, the idea of universalism, and the connections among authors across racial, ethnic, and gender divisions. Modernist and avant-garde styles were absorbed into popular culture as writers and artists turned away from social realism to emphasize the process of artistic creation. Hutchinson explores a range of important writers, from Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy to Richard Wright and James Baldwin. African American and Jewish novelists critiqued racism and anti-Semitism, women writers pushed back on the misogyny unleashed during the war, and authors such as Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams reflected a new openness in the depiction of homosexuality. The decade also witnessed an awakening of American environmental and ecological consciousness. Hutchinson argues that despite the individualized experiences depicted in these works, a common belief in art’s ability to communicate the universal in particulars united the most important works of literature and art during the 1940s. Hutchinson’s capacious view of American literary and cultural history masterfully weaves together a wide range of creative and intellectual expression into a sweeping new narrative of this pivotal decade.
Bringing together art, literature, philosophy, and music, Hutchinson has created a kind of critical mosaic that produces insights that open up the 1940s as a cultural field, grounded in the ungrounded processes of art as incalculable experience. The juxtapositions of unconnected figures induce in the reader a new vision of the era and new dimensions of the authors and works discussed. It is a work of exceptionally deft intellectual choreography, conducted with enviable precision and concision. Ross Posnock, Columbia University
In Facing the Abyss, George Hutchinson brilliantly reorders our understanding of an era long overshadowed by the spectacular events of World War II. This is an important and exciting book—original, revisionary, visionary—that deserves our full attention and praise. Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University
Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s is a brilliantly conceived project destined to become a landmark book. With just the right amount of polemical energy, Hutchinson mobilizes his facts with verve and precision in this indispensable work that transforms our sense of this turbulent decade. Maria DiBattista, Princeton University
A richly detailed investigation of burgeoning creativity in a decade marked by both hope and dread. Kirkus Reviews
A cross-genre study that illuminates common ideational content drifting across American culture in that tumultuous decade. . . . Hutchinson's study bodes fair to become a classic in the field of American literary studies. Library Journal
List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. When Literature Mattered
2. Popular Culture and the Avant-Garde
3. Labor, Politics, and the Arts
4. The War
5. America! America! A Jewish Renaissance?
6. A Rising Wind: “Literature of the Negro” and Civil Rights
7. Queer Horizons
8. Women and Power
9. Culture and Ecology
Epilogue: One World
Notes
Index

About the Author

George Hutchinson is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture in the Department of English at Cornell University, where he also directs the John S. Knight Institute. His books include The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (1996) and In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (2006).