The Beautiful white ruins / of America: Surrealist Poetry and the Cold War

Henry, Peter, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Luftig, Victor, Department of English, University of Virginia
Cantor, Paul, Department of English, University of Virginia
Cushman, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia

This dissertation focuses on the rise and fall of American Surrealist poetry, a mid-twentieth century aesthetic movement that has been largely dismissed by the major critics, anthology-builders and literary historians of contemporary American poetics (Shetley, von Hallberg, Ramazani). Indeed, the prevalent narrative is that American Surrealism was an awkward adolescent moment in contemporary American poetry, falling between the birth of contemporary poetics in the 1950s and its maturity in the canon-opening and postmodernist work that began to bloom in the 1980s.

This dissertation attempts two goals. Firstly, it seeks to tell a fuller story of this movement: by examining the poetic successes of the Surrealists—and the intense threat they posed to their more canonical peers—I argue that this movement played a far more significant role in the development of postwar American poetics than it is afforded. Secondly, this dissertation interrogates the cultural, historical and literary phenomena that allowed American Surrealism to emerge in the 1950s and, just as quickly, to disappear. Ultimately, I argue that American Surrealism was a poetic response to the Cold War, and the study of American Surrealism offers unique insight into the relationship between literature and politics during the Cold War. The Surrealists came at a moment when American poetry—and American culture—was roiling: amid the global expansion as a new postwar superpower; amid the post-GI Bill swelling of universities and the further democratization of education in general and literary study in particular; amid changing ideas (geographically, culturally, educationally) of what it meant to be American. In their history, we see a series of tensions at play in Cold War America and our collective memory of the Cold War. As the concluding chapters of this dissertation argue, the disappearance of American Surrealism occurred as the academy became far more concerned with the Culture War than the Cold War, and American Surrealism was a casualty of this erasure.

In the introduction, I provide a brief historical overview of the rise of Surrealism out of the Dadaist movement and follow its spread across three continents in the years between World War I and World War II. Chapter One examines the first generation of American Surrealists by looking at two Midwestern poets, Robert Bly and James Wright, and placing them in an era defined critically, politically, and popularly by Robert Frost. I argue that the emergence of Surrealism in their writing was both a political and a poetic response to American empire-building and the idea that the Midwestern heartland was the epicenter of essential American values. Chapter Two examines the links between the Cold War, American Surrealism, and poetic form by focusing on two 1967 responses to the emerging crisis in Southeast Asia, Robert Lowell’s Near the Ocean and W.S. Merwin’s The Lice. In comparing these volumes, I argue that Merwin’s volume established American Surrealism as the poetic mode of Cold War dissent. Chapter Three examines the pinnacle of the movement in the 1970s, focusing on the Surrealist volumes of a number of practitioners—James Tate, Charles Wright, Larry Levis, Charles Simic—and positioning them against the context of the “poetry wars” of the 1980s. In the Conclusion, I chronicle the disappearance of American Surrealism and argue that this was the result of two phenomena: the Culture Wars’ displacement of the Cold War at the center of American letters; and the embrace of literary theory in American poetry; finally, I suggest the ultimate costs of forgetting American Surrealism and suggest the possibility of the movement’s heirs.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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