An Aesthetics of Excess: Theorizing Form in the American Postwar Novel

Dissertation Project by Annika Schadewaldt

The years following World War II have long been considered a crucial social and cultural threshold for the United States. The aftermath of the war not only saw the United States’ emergence as a new global superpower but also marked the beginnings of a fundamental change in its social structure and culture, a crucial development still unfolding to this day. Up until recently, scholars have largely perceived the American postwar years as a single monolithic moment, often described as a cold war culture characterized by narratives of containment heavily reflected in the literature and culture of the time. The last ten years, however, have seen a growing number of studies attempting to reevaluate this perspective on the American post-1945 literature and culture by, on the one hand, understanding post-45 literature as a continuation of modernism and, on the other hand, giving a more particularized account of its sub-movements. Despite this important work on the culture of the period as such, scholars have not yet adequately addressed the changing aesthetics of the literature of the two decades following WWII. My project out to remedy this gap by identifying and analyzing a larger narrative trend in postwar American literature toward an aesthetic of excess, that is, a surplus of activity, description, and other conventional elements of realist novel writing, resulting in what could be described generally as overactive prose.

Drawing on recent work at the interstices of affect theory and aesthetics as well as American studies’ central notion of cultural work, my project will examine this narrative trend by proposing to theorize this aesthetic of excess as a specific instance of zaniness, an aesthetic category I argue to be uniquely able to grasp the conundrum of form in this time. In contrast, earlier attempts of categorizing these narratives under adjacent yet decidedly different concepts, such as absurd literature or weird fiction, have respectively obscured varying elements of these texts, thus standing in the way of seeing these texts’ shared concerns. Understanding these texts as zany, in contrast, allows us, I suggest, both to analyze more adequately the unique ambivalent affective mix of identification and repulsion underwriting these narratives and the narratives’ continuing strict adherence to realism, that is, their creation of a comic larger-than-life effect without, in fact, ever breaching its boundaries. Close reading, among others, the works of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov, my project’s central hypothesis is that zaniness allows these writers, on the one hand, to engage with what was then perceived as a crisis of realist novel writing in the aftermath of World War II and, on the other hand, to narrate a specific concern with the performance of identity and belonging. This concern that is traceable on the level of both content and form in these novels, dramatizing the performative nature of these categories at a time of unprecedented change in the understanding of American national identity as such.