Princeton University Press

20/21

Published by: Princeton University Press

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American Hungers

The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945

Gavin Jones

Social anxiety about poverty surfaces with startling frequency in American literature. Yet, as Gavin Jones argues, poverty has been denied its due as a critical and ideological framework in its own right, despite recent interest in representations of the lower classes and the marginalized. These insights lay the groundwork for American Hungers, in which Jones uncovers a complex and controversial discourse on the poor that stretches from the antebellum era through the Depression.

Reading writers such as Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, James Agee, and Richard Wright in their historical contexts, Jones explores why they succeeded where literary critics have fallen short. These authors acknowledged a poverty that was as aesthetically and culturally significant as it was socially and materially real. They confronted the ideological dilemmas of approaching poverty while giving language to the marginalized poor--the beggars, tramps, sharecroppers, and factory workers who form a persistent segment of American society. Far from peripheral, poverty emerges at the center of national debates about social justice, citizenship, and minority identity. And literature becomes a crucial tool to understand an economic and cultural condition that is at once urgent and elusive because it cuts across the categories of race, gender, and class by which we conventionally understand social difference.

Combining social theory with literary analysis, American Hungers masterfully brings poverty into the mainstream critical idiom.

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Being Numerous

Poetry and the Ground of Social Life

Oren Izenberg

"Because I am not silent," George Oppen wrote, "the poems are bad." What does it mean for the goodness of an art to depend upon its disappearance? In Being Numerous, Oren Izenberg offers a new way to understand the divisions that organize twentieth-century poetry. He argues that the most important conflict is not between styles or aesthetic politics, but between poets who seek to preserve or produce the incommensurable particularity of experience by making powerful objects, and poets whose radical commitment to abstract personhood seems altogether incompatible with experience--and with poems.

Reading across the apparent gulf that separates traditional and avant-garde poets, Izenberg reveals the common philosophical urgency that lies behind diverse forms of poetic difficulty--from Yeats's esoteric symbolism and Oppen's minimalism and silence to O'Hara's joyful slightness and the Language poets' rejection of traditional aesthetic satisfactions. For these poets, what begins as a practical question about the conduct of literary life--what distinguishes a poet or group of poets?--ends up as an ontological inquiry about social life: What is a person and how is a community possible? In the face of the violence and dislocation of the twentieth century, these poets resist their will to mastery, shy away from the sensual richness of their strongest work, and undermine the particularity of their imaginative and moral visions--all in an effort to allow personhood itself to emerge as an undeniable fact making an unrefusable claim.

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From Guilt to Shame

Auschwitz and After

Ruth Leys

Why has shame recently displaced guilt as a dominant emotional reference in the West? After the Holocaust, survivors often reported feeling guilty for living when so many others had died, and in the 1960s psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in the United States helped make survivor guilt a defining feature of the "survivor syndrome." Yet the idea of survivor guilt has always caused trouble, largely because it appears to imply that, by unconsciously identifying with the perpetrator, victims psychically collude with power.

In From Guilt to Shame, Ruth Leys has written the first genealogical-critical study of the vicissitudes of the concept of survivor guilt and the momentous but largely unrecognized significance of guilt's replacement by shame. Ultimately, Leys challenges the theoretical and empirical validity of the shame theory proposed by figures such as Silvan Tomkins, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Giorgio Agamben, demonstrating that while the notion of survivor guilt has depended on an intentionalist framework, shame theorists share a problematic commitment to interpreting the emotions, including shame, in antiintentionalist and materialist terms.

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A Pinnacle of Feeling

American Literature and Presidential Government

Sean McCann

There is no more powerful symbol in American political life than the presidency, and the image of presidential power has had no less profound an impact on American fiction. A Pinnacle of Feeling is the first book to examine twentieth-century literature's deep fascination with the modern presidency and with the ideas about the relationship between state power and democracy that underwrote the rise of presidential authority.

Sean McCann challenges prevailing critical interpretations through revelatory new readings of major writers, including Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein, Henry Roth, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, Don Delillo, and Philip Roth. He argues that these writers not only represented or satirized presidents, but echoed political thinkers who cast the chief executive as the agent of the sovereign will of the American people. They viewed the president as ideally a national redeemer, and they took that ideal as a model and rival for their own work.

A Pinnacle of Feeling illuminates the fundamental concern with democratic sovereignty that informs the most innovative literary works of the twentieth century, and shows how these works helped redefine and elevate the role of executive power in American culture.

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Postmodern Belief

American Literature and Religion since 1960

Amy Hungerford

How can intense religious beliefs coexist with pluralism in America today? Examining the role of the religious imagination in contemporary religious practice and in some of the best-known works of American literature from the past fifty years, Postmodern Belief shows how belief for its own sake--a belief absent of doctrine--has become an answer to pluralism in a secular age. Amy Hungerford reveals how imaginative literature and religious practices together allow novelists, poets, and critics to express the formal elements of language in transcendent terms, conferring upon words a religious value independent of meaning.

Hungerford explores the work of major American writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson, and links their unique visions to the religious worlds they touch. She illustrates how Ginsberg's chant-infused 1960s poetry echoes the tongue-speaking of Charismatic Christians, how DeLillo reimagines the novel and the Latin Mass, why McCarthy's prose imitates the Bible, and why Morrison's fiction needs the supernatural. Uncovering how literature and religion conceive of a world where religious belief can escape confrontations with other worldviews, Hungerford corrects recent efforts to discard the importance of belief in understanding religious life, and argues that belief in belief itself can transform secular reading and writing into a religious act.

Honoring the ways in which people talk about and practice religion, Postmodern Belief highlights the claims of the religious imagination in twentieth-century American culture.

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William Faulkner

An Economy of Complex Words

Richard Godden

In William Faulkner, Richard Godden traces how the novelist's late fiction echoes the economic and racial traumas of the South's delayed modernization in the mid-twentieth century. As the New Deal rapidly accelerated the long-term shift from tenant farming to modern agriculture, many African Americans were driven from the land and forced to migrate north. At the same time, white landowners exchanged dependency on black labor for dependency on northern capital. Combining powerful close readings of The Hamlet, Go Down, Moses, and A Fable with an examination of southern economic history from the 1930s to the 1950s, Godden shows how the novels' literary complexities--from their narrative structures down to their smallest verbal emphases--reflect and refract the period's economic complexities. By demonstrating the interrelation of literary forms and economic systems, the book describes, in effect, the poetics of an economy.

Original in the way it brings together close reading and historical context, William Faulkner offers innovative interpretations of late Faulkner and makes a unique contribution to the understanding of the relation between literature and history.

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