Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s

Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s

by George Hutchinson


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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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this account of how U.S. literature and culture reacted to the crises of the 1940s, Hutchinson, an English professor at Cornell University, overreaches. Had Hutchinson focused even more narrowly on the literature, where his strength clearly lies, the book would have benefitted. Hutchinson is on firmest ground when closely reading the texts—Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Ann Petry’s Country Place, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and so on—that he considers pivotal examples of cultural trends. The definition of culture, in this context, is fuzzy, however, and Hutchinson’s forays into other art forms, such as music and painting, are incomplete. The book begins by touching on an impressive array of general topics—the role of publishers such as Bennett Cerf and James Laughlin, the rise of New Criticism, the impact of WWII on writers and writing—and then veers into chapters about literature by and about marginalized groups. This section, however, fragments the study even as Hutchinson tries to create a cohesive, linked picture. For those who wish to begin exploring the literature of this tumultuous period, Hutchinson’s study might well be a good introduction, but for a wider perspective on the true breadth of American culture during the ’40s, one should look further afield. (Jan.)

Times Literary Supplement - Morris Dickstein

Facing the Abyss shines a light on a neglected decade, turning it into an overture to the rest of the century, and it contributes a rich historical viewpoint to our own conflicting concerns about identity.

Ross Posnock

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.

Maria DiBattista

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.

The New York Review of Books - Edward Mendelson

George Hutchinson’s Facing the Abyss has bracing and revelatory things to say about American culture in the 1940s; also, by contrast and implication, about American culture today. . . . The culture and literature of the 1940s were, Hutchinson found when writing about them, 'both unexpected and inspiring.' As is this book.

The Journal of American History - Bernard F. Dick

A dazzling work of cultural history. . . . Facing the Abyss is a book to ponder, argue with, and admire for the author’s ability to cut across genres and art forms without leaving readers stranded in a dead end.

Arnold Rampersad

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.

Kirkus Reviews

In post-World War II America, literature revealed the nation's attitudes about patriotism, race, gender, and ecology."In the 1940s," Hutchinson (American Culture/Cornell Univ.; In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, 2006, etc.) writes, "literature mattered." His capacious, informative cultural history amply supports that declaration: writers, he adds, "were celebrities" whose works were widely read and whose ideas were discussed on the radio and in newspapers and magazines. Book publishing thrived, fueled by demand, not least among returning soldiers, who had hungrily devoured free books published under the auspices of the Armed Services Editions. Public libraries and the proliferation of inexpensive paperbacks made books available to a huge reading public. Colleges began creative writing programs, and New Criticism came to dominate English department offerings. Hutchinson attentively examines works by a pantheon of writers, some of whom have become canonical (Carson McCullers, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wright), some enjoying popular contemporary acclaim (Irwin Shaw, Jo Sinclair, Howard Fast); he also draws on influential literary critics, such as Lionel Trilling; memoirists, such as Alfred Kazin; and historians. Hutchinson appears to have read everything written during the prolific decade. Among the themes that recurred in 1940s literature was the war itself, where a "sense of separation, of loneliness and unreality, surfaces over and over again, in accounts of both the battlefront and the home front." Writers expressed disillusionment about what they were fighting for, hatred toward their officers, and fear of being ground up "in the maw of history." Hutchinson devotes chapters to Jewish and African-American writers who negotiated the relationship among ethnic, religious, and racial identity "and the ideal of universality or a planetary humanism" that arose after the horror of the war. Einstein notably suggested that "the only solution for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government." Planetary humanism, however, was undermined by pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny.A richly detailed investigation of burgeoning creativity in a decade marked by both hope and dread.

Library Journal

Previously, Hutchinson (Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture, Cornell Univ.; In Search of Nella Larsen) has written about the Harlem Renaissance and related topics. In this study, he shifts focus to ask what was going on in American literature and arts in the 1940s. In particular, how did the experience of war awaken new styles and preoccupations among American writers, painters, and social thinkers? The result is a cross-genre study that illuminates common ideational content drifting across American culture in that tumultuous decade. Hutchinson's impressive command of the material allows him to dismiss categorizations of black, Jewish, queer, feminist, and ecological literature as each in its own pocket in favor of a more nuanced analysis of their commonalities. Most notably, artists in all camps favored a somewhat abstracted universalism, seeking more universal patterns of human being. The book starts with Gore Vidal's pioneering Williwaw (1946) and ends with the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In between, it's quite a ride. VERDICT Hutchinson's study bodes fair to become a classic in the field of American literary studies.—David Keymer, Cleveland

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231163385
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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