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English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
William J Maxwell
"Spontaneous and Leaderless" traces the genealogy of a range of modernist and postmodernist texts, from Ulysses (1922) to Blood and Guts in High School (1978), from U.S.A. (1930-1938) to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), through their shared engagement with anarchist theory. I argue that literary experimentalists drawn to the political Left found that the modernist aesthetic principles of the craft of voice and formal ambiguity formed a natural link with the anarchist political principles of non-didactic education, individual rights, and grassroots organization. Demonstrating the explicitly anarchist context of debates that took place among Joyce and the authors of The Egoist circle and among Dos Passos and his contemporaries at New Masses, I reconstruct an anarchist aesthetics at work in some of the most historically noted texts of Anglophone modernism. Much as Old Left political organizations repressed their members' anarchist impulses, so did modernist impulses to transhistorical social order circumscribe the energies of aesthetic avant-gardes. However, if we uncover the repressed anarchist energies in Marxist and modernist world-historical narratives, we discover in modernism and the Old Left a historical cause for the explosion of those energies that constituted the New Left in politics and the postmodern era of writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Ishmael Reed. This historical cause has been missed because radical scholarship has misunderstood anarchist theory and practice as violent and irrationalist, when it has not ignored anarchism entirely. Reexamining classic works of anarchist theory, I counter with a more accurate sense of anarchism, a political philosophy in which Marxist strategies of nation-building are rebutted by a complex system of thought more concerned with balancing individual rights and ethical altruism than with throwing bombs. In the process, I show that diverse writers across the twentieth-century Atlantic were unified by a near-utopian hope that artistic experiments could foster a world where, as one of Pynchon's anarchist characters puts it, "revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself."
O'Bryan, Michael, "Spontaneous and Leaderless: The Anarchist Impulse in Twentieth-Century Anglo-American Fiction" (2014). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 1329.
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