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Responsibility, Freedom, and the State: Toward an Aesthetics and Politics of Guilt in American Literature, 1929-1960

  • Author(s): Haehn, Timothy Jeffrey
  • Advisor(s): Kaufman, Eleanor K
  • et al.

This dissertation proposes a fundamental reassessment of guilt in twentieth-century American literature. I claim that guilt ought to be understood not so much in relation to the Holocaust or the history of U.S. race relations as in relation to the state. In readings of Mary McCarthy, Richard Wright, J. D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, and Saul Bellow, as well as the early Superman comics and fiction and criticism that invoke Fyoder Dostoevsky's work, this project demonstrates how authors of fiction and popular culture mobilize feelings of responsibility and guilt to symbolize anxieties over the diminished role of the state as a vehicle for public relief. As the federal government jettisoned burdens that it had borne since the Depression, the writers in question depict various mechanisms employed by individuals to absorb state burdens and to compensate for the reduced availability of state-backed relief. With renewed emphasis on existential categories such as guilt, freedom, and anxiety, I trace tensions at the core of mid-twentieth-century narratives that situate them squarely within the problematics of antistatism.

The figure of the statesman emerges in the late thirties and early forties as the main inheritor of state burdens. Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps (1943), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's early Superman comics (1938-1942), and Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" (1942) can be read, I suggest in Chapters One and Two, as extended ruminations on how statesmen conceive their function of rendering aid to others as increasingly oppressive in direct correlation with the curtailment of federal relief initiatives. Chapter Three pauses to consider a strain of writing that celebrated antistatist sentiments by invoking (and thereby misreading) Fyodor Dostoevsky as a proponent of the guilty conscience. The first attempt of its kind to chronicle Dostoevsky's influence on an array of prominent American intellectuals, this chapter utilizes my knowledge of Russian to expose a dimension of Dostoevsky's work that is far less antistatist than his readers have presumed. Chapters Four and Five look at Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's Seize the Day and conclude that the celebration of antistatism found in the previous chapter did not last for long. In excavating latent discontents from Miller's and Bellow's work, I reveal a critique of antistatism implicit in guilty musings from the fifties that has gone unnoticed due to abiding Cold War biases.

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