'In defense of the human' : the survival of moral optimism in post-war American fiction

Chessman, David Ralph

American studies; Literature; Mass media; Performing arts
December 1985

Thesis or dissertation

© 1985 David Ralph Chessman. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

It is widely accepted that early American literature reflects the boundless social and moral optimism of "The Great Experiment", expresses certitude in the ultimate perfectibility of man in the New World. Equally widely held is the belief that American experience in the twentieth century has prompted something of a retreat from this optimistic position, has blunted the belief in -- crudely put -- the American Dream and that this retreat has been particularly marked in American fiction since World War Two.

This thesis seems to confront such assumptions about the "American Nightmare", as described in contemporary American fiction, by examining the work of six post-War American fiction writers: three Jews -- Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud.and Chaim Potok and three non-Jews -- John Cheever, John Updike and William Burroughs. This arrangement allows for a discussion of the obvious literary differenlces between Jew and non-Jew in the period. Moreover, it allows for speculation about the cultural processes underlying such differences, processes which have enabled some writers to produce fictions reinforcing the values and principles of individual significance and moral virtue in a social context while the work of others powerfully argues the irrelevance or impossibility of such values in contemporary society.

My object in this is not to make an equation whereby optimism equals good literature and pessimism equals bad literature. Rather it is to demonstrate the way in which the optimistic strain of American literature abides -- albeit in a somewhat muted form -- and to point up the paradoxical way in which it is the very Jewishness of their writing that has made the work of Bellow, Malamud and Potok seem so thoroughly American. In so doing, I hope to underline the singular contribution of Jewish Ameeican writing since ,1945 to the American literary canon.

Department of American Studies, The University of Hull
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