Where Histories Literary and Political Converge: An Interview With Mark Greif

Mark Greif2 - Credit Jen Arron

Some books have titles elliptical or poetic. The title of Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, by contrast, provides a quick overview of what you’ll get once you start reading. It’s an ambitious look at political thought in the 20th century, and how that thought was reflected in the work of of several notable American writers. Greif focuses primarily on four–Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, and Saul Bellow–but what emerges is a complex portrait of a literary culture, and the theories that informed it. Greif and I conducted this interview via email, where we discussed several of the concepts and figures discussed in his book.

What was the first spark of thought that inspired you to write The Age of the Crisis of Man?

I was thinking about something else entirely. The interesting current of history, to me, was the way in which reformers tried to prove the rights, or standing, of people who weren’t recognized as equals, like African Americans, women, laborers, children in the nineteenth century, and then non-human beings like animals, environmental features, fetuses in the twentieth century. It’s a compelling sequence.

But I had also noticed an anomaly, or what seemed like one to my eyes: an intensive return to claims about the adult human being himself or herself, a fundamental human nature, at a point when thinkers said that “the human” might be in jeopardy, might go away or be wiped out. That anomaly—and its era, in the first half of the twentieth century—became this project.

1933 seems like a logical starting point for the era of thought covered in your book; how did you settle on 1973? Did you have that in mind from the beginning, or was that more difficult to figure out?

Both limits of the era were hard to work out. I wasn’t sure how far back I needed to go in the earlier period, whether World War I and the Progressive Era would be necessary; and in fact the book does treat materials a bit earlier, and go back to antecedents and preparatory things, especially when German thought and its influence on America has to be explained.

But once I came to realize that American thought about dangers to “Man” had taken so much energy from Hitler’s election, and the influx of German refugee thinkers obsessed with his claim to undo civilization and remake human beings from scratch, 1933 became a very clear signpost year. Nazism takes control, and all professors who are Jewish or left-liberal or suspicious get prohibited from teaching, and the famous ones go abroad.

1973, though—well, it could have been other years, but I needed to get just past the Sixties. I knew that if I could explain the Sixties, then I would have produced the roots of our time. I would achieve my goal of showing how our own era, now, came into being. But when exactly the Sixties ended, you know—it could be 1972, 1974, 1975, depending what you focus on. . . .

Of course in economic terms and Marxist historiography they use 1973, for oil shocks, and stagflation, and the transition of the American economy away from the postwar three decades of equality, of rising wealth distributed to a broad middle class. And, just empirically or fortuitously, I had some key ending episodes that happened to take place in 1973. Plus, 1973 just gave me a nice 40 year span. I thought, oh man, if I end in 1972, surely people will say, “why only 39 years?” Maybe that was more than you wanted to know.

Most of the intellectual thought that you cite in the book seems to come from the left-wing side of the political spectrum. Do you see conservative thought as having a comparable impact–or would you say that that’s represented via the Chicago school of thought?

It’s funny, I felt like I was writing a book that included the right side of the political spectrum more than most books do that don’t treat the right by itself. I wanted to see everybody within a common lens. All sorts of weird people, difficult to categorize politically, too. I wanted to figure out how this story—“we must save Man, we must preserve Man, what is Man”—had swept up so many people of opposed schools, and then not just direct opponents, but everybody, in all sorts of unexpected political configurations. So, on the right in a general way, Friedrich Hayek in London, and the neo-Orthodox Protestant theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, and the French neo-Thomists like Jacques Maritain, and then the American neo-Thomists like that Chicago duo of Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, and then the German Jewish refugee Leo Strauss. . . . Those were, in effect, my “right” representatives and thinkers, and certainly they made up some key intellectual antecedents of conservatism as we have it now, the philosophy of modern conservatism. But of course it was a cliché of the mid-twentieth-century that there was no politically conservative intellect anymore, it didn’t exist as a viable force—even Hayek says he’s not a conservative—that’s part of why the appearance of Barry Goldwater in 1964, then Ronald Reagan, leading toward 1980’s “revolution,” were so shocking. My earlier thinkers were folks who allowed the resurgence at a later moment, you could say. And, actually, good old Russell Kirk is in the book for a brief cameo, the man who carried the torch for conservatism, by name, in its dark decades. He turns up on a porch in Georgia in the 1950s hanging out with the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, and they’re laughing about how much they hated John Dewey, the pragmatist and arch-progressive, and how delighted they are that he’s dropped dead.

The complaint I mostly hear from people about the book is that it’s not primarily a history of the left. But I definitely wanted readers to have the experience that they were seeing a background, or field, like the bed of the ocean, that made room for all kinds of sea creatures—you know, red coral, blue coral. Someone said to me it’s “eccentric,” literally, in recentering our story of the century. But actually I think I’m telling the story of the center in terms of what took up most room, what people experienced when they opened a magazine or heard a lecture—just trying to draw a much bigger circle around a bunch of small political groups we know in depth.

James Laughlin shows up briefly in your book, and–having just read Ian S. MacNiven’s biography of him, I was wondering if you saw any parallels between Laughlin’s attempts to rehabilitate Ezra Pound’s postwar reputation and the ways in which Martin Heidegger surfaced after World War II?

I’d really like to read that book. In a way, the Pound case seems much less fraught. His defenders just said he was a titanic poet, a major poet, he’d had a long crazy episode, but they were loyal, you know. I think they went along, too, with his placement in St. Elizabeth’s rather than in jail—they went along with the conceit of madness? Is that right? Whereas, with Heidegger—it’s true that people like Hannah Arendt, in her most honest moments, and maybe mostly in private, wound up saying, “This man taught me so much, and you just don’t abandon your true teachers, even if as human beings they’re monsters.” But after the very initial period, when the people who cared about such things and were in intellectual or academic networks knew just how much of a Nazi Heidegger had been, how enthusiastic he was, and he’s forbidden to teach or publish by the American-led denazification proceedings, I think there comes to be a much more complicated and bad-faith effort to minimize his Nazism, and especially the close match, in parts, of some of his philosophical arguments with the ethos of Nazism. Not that such closeness condemns them as philosophy—just that it seems blind or misguided not to notice. I mean, even now people still argue about that. For what it’s worth, the sort of people I tend to treat in the book, who were very focused on responsibility, guilt, restoring man, true intellectual seriousness (I say that with some irony), they were pretty hostile to the apologists for Pound and pretty furious when he’s given the Bollingen Prize. It was not cool to separate the fascist broadcasts from the Cantos, at least as far as they were concerned. They would have viewed Laughlin as an aesthete, I think—a WASP aesthete.

What was your process like for selecting the four writers whose work you focus on? James Baldwin is frequently referenced in that section; was there some debate over discussing his work more formally as well?

Well, my heart is really with literature. That’s where I start, and it’s what I know, or what I see the rest of the world through. So it was pretty natural, pretty intuitive. I knew Ralph Ellison was going to answer questions I wanted answered, and I sort of knew how he was enmeshed in these currents, biographically and through the Communist Party and New York. And Ellison is a super-genius, the more time I spent with Ellison, the happier I was going to be. Thomas Pynchon, ditto—I just thought, right, the things I can explain about Pynchon, that other people don’t get, are also the things that will help think about where technology goes, fears of technology, interest in technology, even a kind of comedy of it, in the Sixties. Flannery O’Connor, again, I loved, and there was a kind of grit and darkness and attach in her stories that I couldn’t get to the bottom of; I felt like she was laughing at me, which is true, in her preoccupation with theology taking over all my secular ideas of humanity, and I wanted to figure it out and explain it right. Then Saul Bellow, you know, I have to admit, I resisted. I knew he was part of the story—almost more self-consciously than anyone, because Bellow worked really hard, really deliberately, to install himself in American literature. But I didn’t have the same love for him. I was given good advice, though, to grit my teeth and start with Bellow, and I was told this by another non-Bellow lover whom I trusted. That was the right advice, too. And then Hemingway crept in, and Faulkner, and Richard Wright, and Baldwin kind of crept in, in the same way. Originally I had planned to end with Toni Morrison, and I kept toying with that. But I wasn’t quite ready to cross the barrier into the late 1970s and 1980s—it was like, look, I want to bring us across the threshold to where we are now, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Forty years is enough.

At the very end of the book, you mention that The Age of the Crisis of Man was written in lieu of a history of morals. Has work resumed on that as of now?

Yes. And I say that with a great rush of relief and happiness. Because I’m back to the project that I meant to do, the one I described to you first, on moral expansion. Unless of course I find another thing that I just have to answer, before I can get on with it, again. I’ll tell you in ten years.


Image: Jen Arron

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