The Age of the Crisis of Man by Mark Greif

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 BY Mark Greif. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 448 pages. $29.
The cover of The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973

Long before Feminism, or Theory, or the Great Recession, the category of “Man” was a problem. In fact, the creation of the category in the late eighteenth century already signified an ideological crisis, because to assert the “Rights of Man” as such was to justify rebellion against all existing forms of rule, including slavery. Every generation since that age of revolution has known its own time as yet another age of the crisis of man, for the word itself is both infinitely plural and narrowly singular, and the idea it conjures is at once universal and particular.

So what could be new or different, or even interesting, about the mid-twentieth-century moment Mark Greif names as The Age of the Crisis of Man?

Above all, the profound sense of an ending—of History, Progress, Society, and even of the “objective correlative” of those Enlightenment categories, the Novel itself. Before the twentieth century, most arguments about “man” were fierce debates about what the category contained and permitted: who belonged, what followed? Greif shows that American intellectuals at mid-century addressed a more apocalyptic possibility: the end of man, which they depicted as the technological erasure of human being as such under the supervision of expert, pragmatic, bureaucratic states of mind that could organize death camps and drop atomic bombs.

But Greif is less interested in the discourse of crisis than in what novelists made of it. He argues that the remarkable literary achievements of that moment—the preliminary redefinition of the canon, for example, in the works of Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor—were products of direct engagement with the nonfictional discourse of the “crisis of man.” In that sense, he demonstrates that the novelists were intellectuals in their own right: Their novels, stories, and essays addressed, corrected, and redeemed the non-narrative discourse of man by rendering crisis as opportunity, as comedy, in effect by returning the content of the repressed—what the idea of man left out—to consciousness.

So Greif is interested in how “high ideas” entered the vernacular expression available to novelists, and this is a matter, as he frames it, of how one kind or level of discourse “weighs upon” others: He’s writing what he calls “philosophical history,” without apology. His studied indifference to Marxist questions for literary criticism—what social forces does this fiction condense and represent?—is refreshing, because, as a result, the texts he reinterprets don’t have to stand in for any external reality. Still, he’s able to show that by treating the “crisis of man” as an issue best addressed in fictional settings, the novelists themselves were deeply concerned with the political implications of what they wrote.

German emigres in flight from the Nazis—mostly members of the Frankfurt School—were of course key figures in imagining the “crisis of man” as an apocalyptic ending. But Greif shows that the discourse of the “crisis of man” was a homegrown product, not an early imposition of exotic European theory on the innocents over here. Among the American inventors of the discourse he cites are the middle-to-highbrow intellectuals Reinhold Niebuhr, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Cousins, Lionel Trilling, and Lewis Mumford, who—like Leon Wieseltier or Lewis Lapham in our own time—fervently sermonized on the “crisis of man” as an imminent ending for magazines like The New Republic, Saturday Review, Commentary, and Partisan Review. In Part I of this book, Greif places Mumford’s Condition of Man alongside Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, two scabrous indictments of modern-industrial society published in 1944, to prove that the native son and the alienated exiles were on the same page.

By this accounting, Lionel Trilling, the leading figure of Greif’s Part II, was the middlebrow mole—“the voice of low seriousness,” as Bellow put it in 1957—who burrowed between every kind and level of discourse. It was Trilling, after all, who interviewed Nabokov for television audiences, bringing high to low in Leonard Bernstein style, and who meanwhile became the “forceful and enterprising critic who transposed the intellectuals’ argument about the “crisis of man” into the terms of the novel.” This form of fiction was actually dying, he argued, because “humanness” itself had degenerated in the twentieth century. But there was light at the end of the tunnels Trilling dug. At any rate his diagnosis of near death was taken seriously, Greif insists, “in the quarter where it most mattered—among novelists.”

How so? How did Bellow and Ellison respond to Trilling’s proleptic mourning? How did they reinvent the novel, and make way for O’Connor and Pynchon—also the 1960s, plus Philip Roth—by appropriating and transforming the discourse of the “crisis of man”? Greif claims that they did so by giving us a “new reading of history.”

Ellison, for instance, rewrote the master-slave dialectic at the heart of Hegel’s Phenomenology to cast his black protagonist as the omni-American, the man whose life contained all the multitudes and movements and contradictions of the most modern of societies. Bellow revised the curriculum of the bildungsroman—in other words, he dropped out of the school of the European novel—to cast the wandering Jew as Emerson’s representative man, the Wilhelm Meister of the new world, where education means having a job, getting a living, and climbing the ladder, not staging Hamlet.

These writers rebuked Trilling and resurrected the novel by proving that the ending he regretted hadn’t even begun—except for the privileged few who could smugly assume that they belonged in that hallowed category of Man. By explicitly acknowledging, addressing, and refusing the exclusions the discourse of the “crisis of Man” had built into its extraordinary intellectual mass, they escaped its gravitational pull.

So they, too, were writing “philosophical history.” Bellow and Ellison invented a future for the American Novel by producing what the Young Intellectuals of the 1920s—particularly Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, the founding fathers of American literary criticism—called a “usable past.” By this they meant a story of cultural origins analogous to the story of political origins in the Revolution, an event that each generation could renew by retelling it. Like the Agrarians, they discovered that founding moment—an American literary canon—in what Mumford called the Golden Day of the 1850s, in what F. O. Matthiessen later named the “American Renaissance” (the antebellum moment of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman). The Young Intellectuals didn’t try to go back to this past because for them it wasn’t even past: They believed they were just catching up to its attitudes and achievements.

Mark Grief has followed their example: He’s produced a “usable past” that we’re just now catching up to. But the “philosophical history” he has given us is perhaps not philosophical enough.

As Greif demonstrates in Part I, the discourse of the “crisis of man” was built on the ruins of pragmatism, where John Dewey and Sidney Hook fought a losing battle against Lewis Mumford, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Mortimer Adler, and many others, all of them sworn enemies of the philosophy William James introduced to the world in 1898. But the American literary canon was built in the 1920s and consolidated in the 1940s on these same ruins. Mumford, who inspired Matthiessen to write American Renaissance (1941)—“very likely the most influential book of literary criticism of America, ever,” as Greif rightly characterizes it—was also the most eloquent, angry, and consistent critic of pragmatism after Randolph Bourne. The Golden Day, the masterpiece of 1926 that first installed Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville as the stars in a new literary firmament, was, not incidentally, Mumford’s furious polemic against what he named the “pragmatic acquiescence.” His Condition of Man was no less furious in defining pragmatism as an enabling condition of fascism.

Bellow and Ellison, good friends and for a brief while upstate roommates, created another literary constellation, and a new gravitational field for writers of fiction, by restoring pragmatism to its formative, insurrectionary place in twentieth-century American—and European—thought. Greif knows this, and he demonstrates it, but he never quite says it.

Bellow accomplished that restoration by reclaiming Dewey and George Herbert Mead, another pragmatist, writing out their idea of vocation in Augie March after suffering through Adler’s Great Books, which had an exalted co-sponsor in the University of Chicago (literally: Bellow was a copy editor on that monumental project). Augie’s education is his employment record: he learns by doing, not reading. Ellison made the same pragmatic move by listening to Kenneth Burke and Albert Murray, Mumford’s opposites among literary critics, inventing an itinerary that refused all nostalgia for any moment, antebellum or not, that rejected modern-industrial society. When the nameless narrator of Invisible Man decides that Mr. Norton’s demand for a drink must be met, for example, he drives to the local brothel. It’s called The Golden Day. There he finds enough rural idiocy to point him North, away from home, toward a new understanding of Enlightenment.

He never quite gets there, no matter how well-lighted a place that last underground refuge in Harlem might be: the project of “re-enlightenment,” as Greif calls the best of the discourse of the “crisis of man,” ends here, out of sight. Bellow slipped the yoke: In fiction, anyway, Jews became characters in the white mainstream, while African Americans “stayed black.” Ellison couldn’t change the joke.

But with this brilliant book Greif is restarting the project of “re-enlightenment,” pointing us toward what Hegel called the spiritual daylight of the present—where literary purposes and political agendas are moments on an intellectual continuum, not the terms of an either/or choice.

James Livingston teaches history at Rutgers. He's finishing a book called Fuck Work, or, Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.