John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida

These are dark times for the humanities, or so we are often told. We have had the melancholy litany drilled into us: the best students are gravitating to the sciences; funding for nonscientific research is drying up; good jobs are scarce for graduates with degrees in English or art history. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, the humanities! So shrill are the jeremiads that one might think the fate of humanity itself is somehow at stake in the decline of English departments. Amid so much ritualistic handwringing, it is encouraging to come across the work of a young scholar that offers clear-eyed insight into the origins of the current malaise, while also exemplifying what a fresh contribution to humanistic study might look like today.

Mark Greif graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1997, attended graduate school at Oxford and Yale, and teaches at the New School. He is a founding editor of n+1, the lively and serious-minded magazine of culture and opinion described by another of its editors, Keith Gessen, as “like Partisan Review, except not dead.” Greif’s much-noticed essay “Against Exercise” appeared in the inaugural issue; he has since written smart and sharply faceted pieces on such varied topics as the rock band Radiohead, the rebirth of the hipster, and the philosophy of Stanley Cavell, one of Greif’s teachers.

Reprinted in Harper’s and included in The Best American Essays 2005, “Against Exercise” derides the American obsession with fitness, which turns the gym into a “voluntary hospital” of heart monitors and stress tests. “Were ‘In the Penal Colony’ to be written today,” the essay begins, “Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.” More than Greif’s title recalls Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” another defense of pleasure and the private life against the inroads of quantification and puritanical moralizing. “Running is most insidious because of its way of taking proselytizing out of the gym,” Greif observes, in his distinctive blend of outrage and high comedy:

It is a direct invasion of public space. It lays the counting, the pacing, the controlled frenzy, the Famíliar undergarment-outergarments and skeletal look, on top of the ordinary practice of an outdoor walk. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

One might have expected that Greif’s first book would be a dashing collection of such essays. Instead, we have the ambitious and deeply researched The Age of the Crisis of Man, a revision of his Yale doctoral thesis, which seeks to recover, as from the back shelves of a library, an amorphous period of American cultural history, when serious investigations addressed a perceived threat to mankind, and half-forgotten thinkers like Ernst Cassirer or R.G. Collingwood felt that a bracing opening gambit was to ask, as if for the first time, “What is Man?”

An impressive number of books (some famous, many forgotten) that appeared in the United States in the period 1933 to 1973 carried a particular kind of title. One knows immediately the era in which American and transatlantic intellectuals produced works like The Nature and Destiny of Man (Reinhold Niebuhr), The Condition of Man (Lewis Mumford), “The Root Is Man” (Dwight Macdonald), Existentialism Is a Humanism (Jean-Paul Sartre), The Human Condition (Hannah Arendt), and One-Dimensional Man (Herbert Marcuse), the same era in which a popular photographic exhibition called The Family of Man (Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg) could bring a quarter million visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York before drawing nine million viewers worldwide, and have its title sound not vacuous and naive, as it can today, but stately and exigent.

One would like to report that Greif, like Walter Benjamin rummaging among German Baroque drama or T.S. Eliot among the lesser contemporaries of Donne, has unearthed buried texts of great interest. But most of these books, dominated by what Greif calls a “discourse”—a shared rhetoric of concerns and clichés—regarding the universal nature of humanity or the fundamental dignity of man, have not, he maintains, aged well. “One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking,” he writes, “is how unreadable…, how tedious, how unhelpful” such books can seem today. For a variety of reasons, we are more likely to identify (and, as we like to say, to celebrate) the differences among human beings than to corral them into some hortatory category like “universal man.”


Generations of college students have been taught that the concept of “man” risks excluding women, or that race has often been a barrier to inclusion in the family of man, as in Jefferson’s empty claim, in a society based on slavery, that all men are created equal.* (It is less often added that Jefferson’s words have inspired many liberation movements since.)

Greif suggests that the forty years from 1933 to 1973 can be seen to constitute a single historical age, when Americans were preoccupied by a perceived threat to humanity itself, a worldwide “crisis of man” inaugurated by Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The bombing of Hiroshima and the discovery of the death camps exacerbated the “emergency mood,” as did an expansionist USSR after the war. Some of the most discerning critics, such as Arendt and Marcuse (two thinkers from this period who remain distinguished), diagnosed domestic threats within American society as well, in the growth of a depersonalized industrial economy based on ramping up consumption via “the manipulation of needs,” through advertising and the like, among a docile and carefully managed citizenry. “In this last stage of the discourse of man,” Greif remarks, “the televised smiley face, rather than George Orwell’s 1949 ‘boot stamping on a man’s face—for ever’ had become a symbol of the danger to man’s future.”

Newly demarcated historical periods can always seem suspect, recalling Philip Larkin’s “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three.” One might wonder why the midcentury threat to humanity did not begin with the crash of 1929, a more traumatic event for many Americans than the comparatively remote rise of Hitler four years later. And what precisely came to an end in 1973? It was the year of the end of the draft and also of the Paris Accords, but Greif doesn’t say.

What he is trying to accomplish is not so much an overall characterization of an extremely complex era, however, but rather what he calls “the history of a single episode” in midcentury thought, the attempt to define some fundamental bedrock notion of man. In this regard, his book can be seen to resemble Arthur Lovejoy’s history of ideas, in which a single concept like the Great Chain of Being is followed through the work of varied thinkers and periods, while also recalling the useful surveys of modern thought by the intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes, whose work Greif acknowledges.

Some of Greif’s strongest pages use his scheme of the discourse of man to explain otherwise puzzling episodes in American cultural history. Kafka’s The Castle made “no discernable impact” on American critics when it was published in English translation in 1930. Ten years later, helped along by émigré writers’ interpretations and the pressure of the war, “Kafka’s works were understood to be parables of ‘modern man’”; his labyrinthine bureaucracies and arbitrary judicial procedures seemed prescient views of the crisis unfolding in Europe. Kafka seemed to be asking, implicitly, what of the human spirit could survive such horrors. So pervasive was Kafka’s influence that “an obscure Czech German Jewish outlier modernist…stands over postwar American fiction as, from one vantage point, its most significant ‘new’ author.”

Something analogous happened with the reputations of Faulkner and Hemingway, both of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize during the 1950s when, as Norman Mailer wrote, their work had become “singularly barren and flatulent.” Greif shows how American literature emerged as a literary discipline during the cold war, when it was felt that a national literature commensurate with American political and military power was needed. Melville and Whitman could be seen as the heroic founders of a national literature, but who were the twentieth-century writers of comparable achievement? Faulkner and Hemingway seemed obvious candidates. But, Greif writes, there wasn’t much that seemed “uplifting, full of values” in Faulkner’s work, which was laced with “Gothic horror, excitement, degeneracy, disintegration, Southern violence.”

The challenge, undertaken by Malcolm Cowley and others, was to refashion these Lost Generation writers as defenders of human dignity, with Faulkner’s “Southern decay and nihilism…magically changed in the postwar period to signs of indomitable human spirit and American tradition.” Faulkner himself contributed to the transformation. “Unlike other writers spruced up for new purposes of criticism, he was available to join in this recasting and act out the role of grand old gentleman and house writer for the crisis of man.” For Cowley’s Portable Faulkner, Faulkner added an appendix to The Sound and the Fury, with the famously uplifting line about Dilsey and the other African-American servants of the Compson family: “They endured.” The culminating work of this transformation was Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize speech: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure…. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”


Hemingway, at midcentury “a washed-up monument of a previous age,” was also “redirected, again with his own active participation, to crisis of man–style humanism.” It is possible, Greif notes, that Faulkner’s Nobel speech directly provoked The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway’s contribution to the literature of the indomitable human spirit. Faulkner, according to Hemingway, “made a speech, very good. I knew he could never, now, or ever again write up to his speech. I also knew I could write a book better and straighter than his speech and without tricks or rhetoric.”

Greif offers a generous reassessment of The Old Man and the Sea, still a popular high school text but not generally thought to be one of Hemingway’s strongest works. The tale of a Cuban fisherman who hooks the catch of his life only to have it stripped to the bones by marauding sharks is, for Greif, a parable of subtraction: What is man, alone in the cosmos? “Hemingway might equally have put a character on the moon; he seems to be in complete isolation,” Greif writes. “Then commences an incredible tour de force of natural description, as the fisherman watches flying fish, waterbirds, weather, signs of dolphins, and hints of prey fish, in a sort of descriptive argument that isolated man’s true pairing is not with other men but with nature.” When the old man returns to port empty-handed, “the pure stripping-down of man” is complete. “Hemingway’s is one way of abstracting the ‘human condition,’” Greif concludes, “writing a book of maximum isolation in which a minimal natural ‘code’ is adumbrated.”

Saul Bellow had already lampooned Hemingway’s hard-boiled code in the opening paragraph of his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), another book to which Greif gives renewed attention. “Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled,” Bellow’s narrator, Joseph, remarks. “They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game.” Dangling Man, set in wartime Chicago, turns out, in Greif’s analysis, to be another parable of stripping-down, an attempt to answer the question of what “man” is in essence.

Joseph, a name that recalls Kafka’s Joseph K, has quit his job at a travel agency in anticipation of being drafted; “neither employed nor inducted,” and having abandoned a series of essays he is writing on the philosophers of the Enlightenment, he “dangles.” The novel, like Sartre’s Nausea or Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, is composed of diary entries that record Joseph’s increasing isolation. It is a relief when the call from the military finally comes. “Perhaps the war could teach me, by violence, what I had been unable to learn during those months in the room.” According to Greif, Dangling Man

starts with man’s nature, in abstract reason and freedom, with a humanity unencumbered by any gravity but that of weightless thoughts. It turns out to be about the desperate need to get recognized, to be seen as something, even though this falsifies, demolishes, or denies the hope for a free abstract man.

A major premise of Greif’s book is that American novelists were the most prescient observers of American society and its treasured illusions regarding human universality. Intellectuals “could say in outline what man had been and project a silhouette of what he was becoming,” Greif claims.

But they did not have to portray him in concreto, vivify character, set their ideas against a backdrop of worldly objects, planks and driven nails, hot sidewalks, and empty bottles. Novelists have to test abstractions on the world.

This seems a puzzling claim. The narrator of Dangling Man is immediately recognizable as a literary type, the “superfluous man” of much European fiction. Moreover, the novels Greif selects to portray man in concreto happen to be conspicuously abstract, mostly lacking in planks and driven nails. Larded with allusions to Goethe and Diderot, Dangling Man seems “unsure, in its first pages,” as Greif notes, “whether it would prefer to be an essay in Partisan Review.”

The “invisible man” of Ellison’s great novel is another recognizable type, the underground man of Dostoevsky placed in a new setting of racial conflict, his invisibility reconceived as the result of white repression. The novel itself is filled with long meditations and speeches on abstract questions. (“One must pause for a minute to talk about Hegel,” Greif remarks without irony.) Ellison may well have been “an intellectual first…who happened to write his ideas once as a novel,” as Greif suggests. It isn’t clear from Greif’s analysis, however perceptive, of these idea-driven fictional works why poetry regarding the threat to humanity—Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” Eliot’s Four Quartets, or Lowell’s “Waking Early Sunday Morning”—might not have served equally well to illustrate the shortcomings of the abstract claims of theorists.

In any case, it is in history and biography that one encounters concrete cases. Greif’s discussion of The Origins of Totalitarianism makes a convincing case that Arendt, who had experienced firsthand the Nazi persecution of Jews and had been interned in a concentration camp in southwestern France, was an unusually sharp-eyed observer of how illusory the “family of man” had proved to be when nation-states failed to protect their own citizenry. Much of the vitality of her book is based on its concrete engagement with specific historical moments. Arendt didn’t need to invent a protagonist who saw through the illusions of British imperialist policy in Arabia; she had T.E. Lawrence.

In Greif’s somewhat sketchy final sections, about the 1960s and after, he tries to determine why the “discourse of man” seemed increasingly vacuous and finally fell into disarray. His answer, that “universal man came into doubt throughout the 1960s,” under pressure from liberation movements of African-Americans, gays, and women, is predictable and not particularly illuminating, for the members of movements had to face some of the same questions in different form. The writing is weakest when Greif adopts the ready-made phrases of multiculturalism, the rhetoric of “inclusion” and of marginalized voices, “those who go unrecorded and don’t count.” His analysis seems distant from the actual events of that tumultuous decade: the Vietnam War, the draft, the race riots. “‘The sixties’ for me names a phenomenon and set of thought-complexes rather than a calendar decade,” he writes in a revealing aside. There are superficial passages on the ideology of long hair and Wonder Bread, and unconvincing suggestions that the discourse of man somehow morphed into the 1960s locution of “The Man,” referring to the police or the fearsome white guardians of society.

More persuasive is Greif’s account of the rise of so-called “theory” in the social sciences and the humanities. He is right to insist on the central contributions of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, as conveyed to American audiences by Susan Sontag and H. Stuart Hughes. Lévi-Strauss introduced a new way of talking about mankind that was impersonal and structural, and dispensed with the old sentimental claims about the supposed dignity of the individual. A related development in literature departments sought to banish a belletristic engagement with individual writers of genius in favor of close analyses of metaphorical language or structural approaches to literary genres, as pursued, for example, in the architectonic analysis of one of Baudelaire’s sonnets by Lévi-Strauss and the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson.

Greif argues that these seemingly new ways of reading, such as the exotic version known as Deconstruction that flourished at Yale when Jacques Derrida was a visiting professor there, were extensions of methods developed by the New Critics of the 1950s, who sought to interpret literary works independently of historical or biographical considerations. “Deconstruction briefly revivified the flagging fortunes of the New Criticism in literature departments in the 1970s by giving a new theoretical and avant-garde cast to postwar procedures of extremely close readings of small passages of text,” he writes. “Formerly, one discovered the condition of ‘paradox’ in language; now, its decenteredness and undecidability.”

It should be said that new ways of reading often seem antihumanistic to an older generation of readers. New Criticism, with its premise of the Intentional Fallacy (the presumably mistaken notion that a writer’s intentions should be taken into account in making sense of a literary work), was also greeted with alarm by traditionalists as an overly clinical approach to literature. Similarly, the recent rise of digital humanities, a technologically based “distant reading” that replaces the individual reader’s engagement with a poem or work of fiction with “big data” gleaned from, say, the recurrence of words describing emotions in the nineteenth-century novel, has seemed to some yet another step away from the reassuring notion that great literature and art are the foundation of civilization.

Greif ends his book with some dark reflections, added in 2014, about the recent resurgence of modes of writing that remind him of the vapid books on the crisis of man, but are now directed at the dangers of climate change or the rise of global terrorism. “Thus, the dead generations weigh on the brains of the living,” he writes.

Speaking as a layperson, or a contemporary, a mind within the flow of time and decision—in simplest terms, outside the guise of scholar—my feeling from investigating the efforts of the mid-twentieth century to reopen a fundamental philosophical anthropology, bearing upon the most urgent crises, under the question “What is man?,” is that, for my own time, I want to tell my contemporaries: Stop! Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, “At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are, our solution and salvation must lie in a new picture of ourselves and humanity, this is our profound responsibility and a new opportunity”—just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment. Your answers will be preprogrammed in ways you can’t even begin to imagine or see, which the future will unhappily exhume. Answer, rather, the practical matters, concrete questions of value not requiring “who we are” distinct from what we say and do, and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.

How tempting, how American, to put one’s trust in the practical, the doable. But one can still ask why shouldn’t the question of climate, for example, be addressed in the way he suggests. And is there any reason to believe that a modest pragmatism of the kind that Greif endorses will seem any more satisfactory to future generations? The naive universalism he derides in The Age of the Crisis of Man may have proved inadequate amid the racial and postcolonial divisions of the late twentieth century; the approach to “practical matters” he embraces instead may, in the long run, turn out to be equally ill-matched to the realities of a shrinking world, whose inhabitants have their own differing convictions and illusions.

Maybe we should take a different lesson from the questions of the past that each generation is condemned to “exhume.” Perhaps they were the right questions for their day. We have different questions.