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

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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 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 emigres, 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.


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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 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 emigres, 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Big fan of books on books and this is a good one. Great sections on Kafka, Ellison, Bellow, O'Connor, and Pynchon. Big fan of books on books and this is a good one. Great sections on Kafka, Ellison, Bellow, O'Connor, and Pynchon.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sean Guynes

    An absolutely important intellectual history of American thinking and fiction that reframes our understanding of the twentieth century and its major concerns mid-century.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bookforum Magazine

    "Crisis of Man is a remarkable narrative synthesis of transatlantic intellectual history between the rise of Hitler and the oil shocks. Greif's work is almost overpopulated with relevant antecedents. Though his prose is often handsome, and always funny, it never feels effortless; n+1 is known, even now, for the rigor of its editorial apparatus, and his paragraphs bear signs of the labor that must have gone into the smooth consolidation of such diverse debts." Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Mark Greif's T "Crisis of Man is a remarkable narrative synthesis of transatlantic intellectual history between the rise of Hitler and the oil shocks. Greif's work is almost overpopulated with relevant antecedents. Though his prose is often handsome, and always funny, it never feels effortless; n+1 is known, even now, for the rigor of its editorial apparatus, and his paragraphs bear signs of the labor that must have gone into the smooth consolidation of such diverse debts." Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Mark Greif's The Age of the Crisis of Man in the Fall 2016 issue of Bookforum To read the rest of this review, go to Bookforum: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    More to come.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dan Gorman

    Brilliant philosophical history, but not for the casual reader. This is a book where you have to read sentences multiple times to grasp their meaning. Greif shows how scholars, philosophers, and public intellectuals in Britain and America tried to articulate philosophies of Man (notice the capital M and the gendered word), to stand against Nazism. The philosophy of John Dewey, who believed in deriving morals from experience, not abstract absolutes, was sidelined. After the shocks of the atomic b Brilliant philosophical history, but not for the casual reader. This is a book where you have to read sentences multiple times to grasp their meaning. Greif shows how scholars, philosophers, and public intellectuals in Britain and America tried to articulate philosophies of Man (notice the capital M and the gendered word), to stand against Nazism. The philosophy of John Dewey, who believed in deriving morals from experience, not abstract absolutes, was sidelined. After the shocks of the atomic bombs and the Holocaust, attempts to articulate singular or universal philosophies of man were unsettled. Authors kept trying to stake their claims (see the works of Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, and Herbert Marcuse, among others). Even the U.N. was an attempt at a universal path forward for humanity; the Declaration on the Rights of Man (again, MAN, a gendered word) assumes innate conditions. Greif clearly sympathizes with those who instead embraced difference, pluralism, critique, and relativism — novelists and scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Olson, Ruth Benedict, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes. These figures argued for multiple (or, in O'Connor's case, contrarian) definitions of what it is to be human. Greif inspired me to think deeply about the discourse of human rights. The U.N. dream is beautiful, but is it ethnocentric, biased on Western-only assumptions? I still think we should try to construct bigger frames of meaning for ourselves, but like Greif I think we have to think through difference before getting to the bigger picture.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Paige McLoughlin

    Note to publisher: I have good eyesight for a 54-year-old but I was seriously straining with the small print by the time I was reaching the end of the book. Please use a bigger font. A book on the evolution of the mid-century intellectual scene from the thirties to the early seventies. Starting in the crisis decade of the 1930s and through WWII where questions centered around big shaggy ideas like Communism, Fascism, Socialism, Democracy, and political questions around the political economy in Note to publisher: I have good eyesight for a 54-year-old but I was seriously straining with the small print by the time I was reaching the end of the book. Please use a bigger font. A book on the evolution of the mid-century intellectual scene from the thirties to the early seventies. Starting in the crisis decade of the 1930s and through WWII where questions centered around big shaggy ideas like Communism, Fascism, Socialism, Democracy, and political questions around the political economy in general. The trauma of WWII and the holocaust and the Bomb cast a shadow for intellectuals in the 1950s about the survival of the species let alone society. Authors also start to refocus on civil rights issues and the technicolor explosion of the sixties of various marginalized groups seeking recognition especially civil rights and the women's movement starts to set the stage for arguments of the late 20th century and early 21st century. This shows how this period (which holds a fascination with many) had the seeds of today's intellectual culture. Maybe a little whiggish to say so but it gives a story of how things came to be in later eras which is one function of history.

  7. 5 out of 5

    June

    “Vernacular ferment made an upper realm of abstract philosophy effervesce.” Boost, for me to take a leap on reading, selective and thoughtful. Beacon, shine on the past, present, and be prescient to future.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Winston Plum

    Sometimes, actually, often, I wonder why I bother to finish books. I didn’t finish the Zizek title I picked up from the library last month (and I’m glad about that). Most of the time, however, I feel it’s a failure of will to not finish. And so I finished the “The Age of the Crisis of Man.” I immediately picked this up after reading Grief’s collection of essays “Against Everything,” which I did enjoy. He’s a sharp dude and many of the essays in that book have unique, compelling analyses. Usually Sometimes, actually, often, I wonder why I bother to finish books. I didn’t finish the Zizek title I picked up from the library last month (and I’m glad about that). Most of the time, however, I feel it’s a failure of will to not finish. And so I finished the “The Age of the Crisis of Man.” I immediately picked this up after reading Grief’s collection of essays “Against Everything,” which I did enjoy. He’s a sharp dude and many of the essays in that book have unique, compelling analyses. Usually I don’t look at reviews on here before I write mine (sometimes because there are hundreds; sometimes because I want to see what I can remember without jogging my memory--even if I read the book in question years prior). Since there are only eleven reviews of “The Age,” I perused them quickly. It looks like everyone had positive things to say about it. It’s been three years since I read it, but I remember I did not enjoy it. I finished for no other reason than I didn’t want to quit. It was laborious as hell to get through. A real slog. I wasn’t the right audience for this book. Of course, I had no idea that was the case when I bought it. I enjoyed “Against Everything.” It was heterodox, contrarian, and original. IIRC, most of the essays were originally published in the journal n+1, which he started. The essays were written for a general audience. “The Age” was not. Maybe this was his doctoral thesis tweaked here and there and prepared for commercial release. It’s dense as hell. I just peaked back at the reviews again and one reviewer said her problem with the book was it was terribly written. Ouch. And then she gave a sentence to prove her point. Double ouch. It’s a jumbled, pedantic mess. Yet she gave the book four stars. Very generous. After seeing her sample sentence, I concur with her assessment about the writing. I know Greif can write well. I read all the essays in “Against Everything.” Maybe in “The Age” he chose to write in an inscrutable, erudite register because that was the way he felt he could most effectively get his points across to fellow scholars in his field. Which brings me to one last thing I’ll say. I don’t know what the field is. In fact sitting here I can’t remember what this book is even about. What I do remember is that the thesis, the conceptualization Greif put forward about what he was going to address in the text, was confusing. It took him several pages to explain what his project was going to be, and even after he did so, I wasn’t sure where he was going, and more important, he didn’t convey the importance of the project he was setting forth on. Maybe that was a “him” problem; maybe it was a “me” problem. I’m glad to see other readers enjoyed it. I didn’t.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nils

    While I am in great sympathy to his central philosophical arguments, and I believe he has uncovered an important thematic in midcentury thought that does a great deal to illuminate not just the postmodern turn, but also the political impotence of critical thought today, I found the book frustrating on two levels. First, as with Age of Fracture, I was annoyed by the lack of any discernible selection principle to the texts Greif chooses to write about. Mostly it appears to be texts where the word " While I am in great sympathy to his central philosophical arguments, and I believe he has uncovered an important thematic in midcentury thought that does a great deal to illuminate not just the postmodern turn, but also the political impotence of critical thought today, I found the book frustrating on two levels. First, as with Age of Fracture, I was annoyed by the lack of any discernible selection principle to the texts Greif chooses to write about. Mostly it appears to be texts where the word "Man" appears portentously in the title, but he's not consistent about that. And while he's relentlessly high brow in his selections (which I appreciate: what bugged me most about Rodgers's book was his treatment of all political texts, from Peggy Noonan to John Rawls, as equals in their expression of "fracture"), he never justifies that choice in any direct way. In fact, the one way in which he does make a stand on text selection -- namely, in claiming that the tensions and aporias he is interested in uncovering find their clearest manifestation in complex works of fiction -- I remain unconvinced: not only is this claim asserted rather than proven, I think it is undone by the evidence he himself presents. Second, I found the writing almost unbearably bad. Consider this passage, in which he explains that his book is meant to bridge from Kloppenberg and Menand to Rodgers and Brick: "Why do we have this hole in the historiography? In part, this book has suggested, because we haven't tracked the seemingly baffling and unpromising but actually underlying and discernible processes of constitution of the human subject as the subject of human nature, history, technology, and faith, not at the apodictic but the maieutic level— in negotiations and articulations of man and the human." That sentence takes so many crook-backed turns that even Pocock would have been ashamed to write it—and there are plenty of other examples I could adduce of unparallel contrasts, piling up of clauses, bizarre verb choices, and needless adverbs. Those two caveats aside, it is an important and worthwhile book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sean

    An interesting book, and a well-executed re-exploration of the traditional centers of US intellectual thought during the first half of the twentieth century — New York, Partisan Review &c. The heart of this book, the four chapters on literature, do stand above the rest, both for my own personal interest and in their execution in general. In particular, his chapters and sections on Ralph Ellison and Flannery O'Connor prove enlightening (pun half-intended) in terms of re-orienting this authors tow An interesting book, and a well-executed re-exploration of the traditional centers of US intellectual thought during the first half of the twentieth century — New York, Partisan Review &c. The heart of this book, the four chapters on literature, do stand above the rest, both for my own personal interest and in their execution in general. In particular, his chapters and sections on Ralph Ellison and Flannery O'Connor prove enlightening (pun half-intended) in terms of re-orienting this authors toward the central focus of his argument, the discourse of man, even as he notes that O'Connor doesn't see it as much of a problem. Good things.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Holly Foley (Procida)

    Mark Greif provides a very comprehensive look at the concept of "man" from several angles. Some were a lot more interesting than others. I was very intrigued by his discussion of Thomas Pynchon's work on consumer society and inanimate things. Greif's analysis of Saul Bellow's novels is also referenced in other work I am reading on race as a component of man's condition. I am always surprised when reading electronically when the notes of a book are so large that I finish 62% of the way in. His co Mark Greif provides a very comprehensive look at the concept of "man" from several angles. Some were a lot more interesting than others. I was very intrigued by his discussion of Thomas Pynchon's work on consumer society and inanimate things. Greif's analysis of Saul Bellow's novels is also referenced in other work I am reading on race as a component of man's condition. I am always surprised when reading electronically when the notes of a book are so large that I finish 62% of the way in. His comprehensive notes are a tribute to his hard work and research in this. I had flashbacks of my liberal arts education throughout.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Summer Reading

    Simon

  13. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Schulof

    Simply a must-have for anyone interested in the development of 20th century thought. Good both as a reference and as a commentary. Brilliant analysis.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dustin

  15. 5 out of 5

    David

  16. 4 out of 5

    Beverly Bentley

  17. 5 out of 5

    Pschnee

  18. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Saunders

  19. 4 out of 5

    Will

  20. 5 out of 5

    Daniel G.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  22. 4 out of 5

    Andy

  23. 4 out of 5

    Billy Lennon

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cass

  25. 5 out of 5

    Colton

  26. 5 out of 5

    James Robertson

  27. 4 out of 5

    Christopher McQuain

  28. 4 out of 5

    Atlas Can

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ken Derr

  30. 4 out of 5

    Elliott

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