"Existential Realism: Modernism and the Ethics of Agency in the Franco-American Existentialist Tradition, 1937-1955"

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2022

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"Existential Realism: Modernism and the Ethics of Agency in the Franco-American Existentialist Tradition, 1937-1955” unearths the pivotal role American fiction played in the development and dissemination of the French existentialist ethics of agency. French intellectuals regarded American fiction as a reinvention of novelistic realism based on its engrossing quality. Through readings of novels by John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and Patricia Highsmith, I show how such immersive narratives invite readers to inhabit characters’ agency. These novels illuminate a dimension of character agency that has gone overlooked in the prevailing modernist accounts of twentieth-century literature in that they allow the reader experience by proxy moral clarity and blindness. By tracing agency through the motif of gratuitous murder, I show that this fiction critiques a notion of authenticity that prizes overweening ability of one’s own ability to act. Ultimately “Existential Realism” shows both how existentialist thought enriches our appreciation of a strain of American fiction, and also how action-driven fiction dramatizes the triumphs and failures of agency.

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Spencer, Kevin (2022). "Existential Realism: Modernism and the Ethics of Agency in the Franco-American Existentialist Tradition, 1937-1955". Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25812.

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