The Good Life: Weakness in the Survival Years

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The Good Life: Weakness in the Survival Years

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In a 1948 questionnaire, the editors of the Partisan Review felt safe in asserting that “it is the general opinion that, unlike the twenties, this is not a period of experiment in language and form.” The socially aware writers of 1948 felt the impasse of their situation acutely, a suspended sensibility given its clearest expression by John Berryman, who explained that “this has been simply the decade of Survival.” The decade’s self-image for many of its “Leftish” writers was bereft of the creative, life-building activity that had marked the revolutionary realisms of the past decades. It was underwritten with anguish about the perceived foreclosure of unity between political and aesthetic action from within the total entanglement of both World War 2 and its postwar settlements. My project in this dissertation discloses the conflict between such despairing positions and experiments in the literary re-production of the good life undertaken in the midst of these survival years. By examining a set of writers whose negotiation with the representation of the good life has remained substantially unstudied, I explore the ways their work attempts to suspend an aperture in the “anguish” of the 1940s and early 1950s. The objects of study span from Marshall McLuhan’s turn to popular culture in The Mechanical Bride to the premiere performance of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights in 1951, from the anarchist neo-Romantic writing of British writer Alex Comfort in the first years of the 1940s to the decade-spanning influential work of Paul Goodman. Weaving through multiple genres and critical methods, I demonstrate the persistence of an aspiration to unify the production of radical literature and politics throughout the survival years. I show that this persistence is realized by writers not necessarily by opting out or taking on heroic conflict, but through the tools made available by their weakness within an inescapable system.



University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. December 2018. Major: English. Advisors: Jani Scandura, Maria Damon. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 302 pages.

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St. Lawrence, Robert. (2018). The Good Life: Weakness in the Survival Years. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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