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

General Programming

  • Center for American Studies
  • Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Free and open to the public
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  • First come, first seated

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.

About the Speakers:

George Hutchinson’s teaching and research focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature. He is the author of Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s(Columbia UP, 2018); In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (Harvard UP, 2006), which won the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa, among other honors; The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Harvard UP, 1996), a finalist for the Rea Non-Fiction Prize; and The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union (Ohio State UP, 1986). He brought to light Anita Thompson Reynolds’s previously unpublished memoir, American Cocktail: A ‘Colored Girl’ in the World (Harvard UP, 2014). He also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (2007) and co-edited with John K. Young Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850 (U Michigan Press, 2013). His Penguin Classics edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane will appear in January 2019. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. In addition to teaching in the English department, Hutchinson directs the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines.

Paula Rabinowitz's research and teaching are in the areas of American materialist feminist cultural studies. Her work considers the interlocking roles of cinema, photography, painting and material culture in and through twentieth-century literature. She focuses on contemporary and modernist American women’s art and literature; her work explores hidden histories within working-class, pulp and popular cultures. Her books include LABOR AND DESIRE: WOMEN'S REVOLUTIONARY FICTION IN DEPRESSION AMERICA; THEY MUST BE REPRESENTED: THE POLITICS OF DOCUMENTARY; BLACK & WHITE & NOIR: AMERICA'S PULP MODERNISM; and AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET, which won the 2015 DeLong Prize for Book History Book from Society for the History of Authorship, Readers and Publishing (SHARP). She is co-editor with Cristina Giorcelli of HABITS OF BEING, a four-volume series of essay on clothing, fashion, dress and identity; and co-editor, with Ruth Barraclough and Heather Bowen-Stryuk of RED LOVE ACROSS THE PACIFIC: POLITICAL AND SEXUAL REVOLUTIONS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. She has also co-curated gallery exhibits on women and pulp fiction, women’s sound installation art and feminist film. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LITERATURE.

Casey Nelson Blake works on modern U.S. intellectual and cultural history, with an emphasis on the relationship between artistic modernism, cultural criticism and democratic citizenship. His publications include Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne,Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford, The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State, and The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution—the last a catalogue for a major exhibition on the centennial of the 1913 Armory Show at the New-York Historical Society for which he served as Senior Historian. He is currently at work on At the Center: American Thought and Culture, 1948-63, co-authored with Howard Brick and Daniel Borus, as well as a cultural biography of the writer and critic Paul Goodman. He also writes regularly for Commonweal, Dissent, Raritan, and other journals of opinion. Professor Blake came to Columbia in 1999 as founding Director of the Center for American Studies after directing American Studies programs at Indiana University and Washington University, and teaching at Reed College. While at Columbia Professor Blake has overseen the development of a civic engagement initiative within the Center, which has as its centerpiece the “Freedom and Citizenship” partnership program with the Double Discovery Center.