Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Benjamin Mangrum's "Land of Tomorrow"

Benjamin Mangrum is a fellow with the Michigan Society of Fellows and an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mangrum applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Land of Tomorrow: Postwar Fiction and the Crisis of American Liberalism, and reported the following:
Page 99 features the end of one subsection in the third chapter and the beginning of another. It’s a transitional moment, and I can’t say much for it as a stand-alone entry into the argument of Land of Tomorrow. The book’s aspiration is to unpack how trends in literary history help us better understand why American liberalism after WWII turned against parts of the reform agenda that characterized the New Deal during the 1930s. If you open up Land of Tomorrow without reading anything else and turn to page 99, you won’t see that wider argument, but you would see technical terms that I explain earlier in the book. In other words, it would probably be disorienting for readers to start on this page without reading anything else.

The context of this transitional moment is that I’m discussing why writers believed a literary style called “naturalism” (think Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser) suffered a “decline” in its cultural standing during the 1940s and 1950s. There were many reasons for this perceived decline, including the cultural fad of existentialism among the American elite and the spread of psychology and professional therapy. These are parts of the history of ideas I explain earlier in the chapter. However, on page 99, I suggest there may be other reasons that writers turned against the literary naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
For some writers, the deficits of naturalism were not so much its politics or deterministic logic as its marginalization of women of color. (99)
What follows this passage is a discussion of Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel Maud Martha (1953). You could say that this discussion beginning on page 99 contains a kind of self-criticism—that is, an acknowledgment of the limitations of this chapter’s argument. In other words, I am trying to acknowledge cultural work that doesn’t fit neatly into the map of American history that I’m offering in the book. Of course, I invite readers to judge for themselves whether the wider argument and such moments of self-criticism are successful. I hope this page at least gives readers a sense for the many moving parts in the argument, including parts that add further complexity to an already complex moment in American intellectual life.
Learn more about Land of Tomorrow at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue