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Ralph Ellison and the American Pursuit of Humanism

Purcell, Richard Erroll (2008) Ralph Ellison and the American Pursuit of Humanism. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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In the middle of a 1945 review of Bucklin Moon's Primer for White Folks, Ralph Ellison proclaims that the time is right in the United States for a "new American humanism." Through exhaustive research in Ralph Ellison's Papers at the Library of Congress, I contextualize Ellison's grand proclamation within post-World War II American debates over literary criticism, Modernism, sociological method, and finally United States political and cultural history. I see Ellison's "American humanism" as a revitalization of the Latin notion of litterae humaniores that draws heavily on Gilded Age American literature and philosophy. For Ellison, American artists and intellectuals of that period were grappling with the country's primary quandary after the Civil War: an inability to reconcile America's progressive vision of humanism with the legacy left by chattel slavery and anti-black racism. He saw writers like Mark Twain, Stephan Crane, Henry James, George Washington Cable and others attempting to represent a different version of the human in literature while confronting the various forces that the Civil War unleashed upon American life.As the Cold War and Civil Rights era reached their crescendo, Ellison's attachment to the Gilded Age ossified. By the late 60s, it took the romantic form of aesthetic and political conservatism. This process is part of his participation in what Francis Saunders called the "Cultural Cold War" against communism. For many - including Ellison - this participation made their aesthetic investment in modernism commensurate with their anti-communist ideology. In foregrounding the Cold War, I want to emphasize that the US State's intervention into the sphere of culture is a watershed moment in America's conceptualization of Western humanism. The CIA and the State Department's role in funding academic literary and cultural periodicals, art festivals, fellowships and other institutions of knowledge during the Cold War is a chapter of American intellectual life that shaped Ellison's world as well as those of his contemporaries. Just as importantly, this moment illuminates the key roles African-American intellectuals played in America's pursuit of humanism.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Purcell, Richard Errollrepst13@pitt.eduREPST13
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairBove, Paulbove@pitt.eduBOVE
Committee MemberLooney, Dennislooney@pitt.eduLOONEY
Committee MemberArac,
Committee MemberLandy, Marciamlandy@pitt.eduMLANDY
Committee MemberJudy, Ronaldbuchnfar@pitt.eduBUCHNFAR
Date: 3 November 2008
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 14 May 2008
Approval Date: 3 November 2008
Submission Date: 5 June 2008
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: African-American Literature; CIA; Intellectual History; Racism; Cold War Politics; Congress for Cultural Freedom
Other ID:, etd-06052008-203931
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:46
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:44


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