PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis dissertation analyzes a strain of American literature from the 1950s and 1960s that displays an historically specific form of social disengagement and pessimistic feeling that manifests as cynicism. How do we define cynicism? Timothy Bewes writes, “Cynicism is a matter of the individual’s relationship to society at large” (Bewes 1), and so cynicism seems to be located between the individual and society, as a gap of dissatisfaction between the subject and their social context. But cynicism is also a way to perform social norms, and as such it demonstrates the potential ambivalence and ambiguity in conformism. To conform, in other words, is not necessarily to endorse. Merriam-Webster defines “cynical” as “having or showing the attitude or temper of a cynic: such as: contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.” Contempt is central, both to the ancient form of cynicism and to modern cynicism, as the OED says that ancient cynics exhibited “ostentatious contempt for ease, wealth, and the enjoyment of life.” The modern form, or mutation, of cynicism I’m interested in, however, is a particularly social or political mode of cynicism. The cynics I deal with in this dissertation are not distrustful of human nature (whatever that might be) so much as they are distrustful of the political system or culture of which they are subjects or members. These midcentury literary cynics are disappointed in their social reality, though they nevertheless participate in it. Their cynicism necessarily courts conventionality and normativity, while at the same time maintaining a negative relationship to those social norms—it exposes the coercive quality of norms though it does not seek to directly subvert them. This dissertation develops a theory of literary antisociality through looking at the 1950s and 1960s work of Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin, Ann Bannon, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, Shirley Jackson, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion.
Degree ProgramGraduate College