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The Myth of Writer's Block: Imagining American Moral Realism

  • Author(s): Moore, Kevin Christopher
  • Advisor(s): Sundquist, Eric J
  • et al.
Abstract

The Myth of Writer's Block takes the prominent postwar cultural myth of the "blocked" writer and reexamines it as an objective historical phenomenon. Modern literary texts often emerge from psychological crises, or seek to capture fictional crises, but once a writer's reputation is marked by a block myth--a negative formulation that a writer has somehow failed to live up to popular or critical standards of production--literary and philosophical problems can take on the appearance of psychological calamity. Block myths take flight because they are marketable; an established author's work increases in cultural value when it is perceived to be scarce. Such myths rarely represent reality, however, and most American authors who are perceived to have encountered a significant block, including Joseph Mitchell, Henry Roth, and Ralph Ellison, published a considerable amount of influential work in their lifetimes. These writers moreover shared an uncanny interest in documenting precarious matters of social and political morality, often disregarding conventions of craft and narrative coherence. This is no thematic coincidence. While all of these writers struggled independently through personal and intellectual crises, explaining the complex works they produced as specimens of mounting, monolithic block evades the unresolved moral questions--especially of race, ethnicity, class, and progress--they each confronted, however incompletely, in boldly realistic fictions and other accounts.

A block myth represents a transfer of the burden of social and political morality from society to the individual writer in crisis. This study identifies this phenomenon as a modern critical problem, resists it where necessary, and documents the specific American moral emergencies that block myths conceal. Part One tracks the history of block as a philosophical placeholder, tracing the concept in American literary history from William James's The Principles of Psychology (1890) through the midcentury psychoanalytic vogue and the rise of psychological realism as a dominant genre. Part Two provides a series of case studies or production profiles of three writers who have supposedly been blocked, Mitchell, Roth, and Ellison, examining how block myths frequently conceal or evade morally realistic literary gestures.

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