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Existential suburbia: the influence of Sartrean existentialism on US fiction of the suburbs from the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century

Latham, PG; (2017) Existential suburbia: the influence of Sartrean existentialism on US fiction of the suburbs from the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

American suburban fiction is often viewed as satirical social commentary, critiquing its affluent, dull, and conformist cultural environment. In this thesis, however, I argue that a significant strand of such fiction, published between the early 1960s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, was concerned with broader existential themes, and was strongly influenced by European existentialism, particularly by Sartre’s philosophy. While this influence is apparent in American urban fiction of the 1950s, for example in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953), it is far more fully developed, and ‘Americanized’, in the suburban fiction of the 1960s – in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (1961), and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1962), all of which, I argue, are fundamentally concerned with the notion of existential authenticity. I suggest that existentialist, and specifically Sartrean, themes are developed in subsequent fiction – from a concern with existential contingency in an increasingly threatening and violent suburban environment, apparent in such novels as Joyce Carol Oates’ Expensive People (1968), John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1969), Updike’s Rabbit Redux (1971), and Ann Beattie’s Falling in Place (1980), to an obsession with entropy, emblematic of the desire to escape existential freedom through stasis, in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), Updike’s Rabbit is Rich (1981), and the stories of Raymond Carver; and a retreat into solipsism portrayed in later twentieth-century fiction, in Heller’s novel, but also Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels, published between 1986 and 2014 (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and Let Me Be Frank with You), and Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) and Aloft (2004). I argue that the spatial and conceptual indeterminacy of the suburbs, their liminality, engenders existential anguish and unease, thus making them an especially conducive cultural environment for these authors’ thematic concerns, one in which they are able to explore the ideas central to Sartre’s existentialism. Existential Suburbia traces the influence of Sartre’s philosophy, developed primarily in Being and Nothingness (1943), on the authors of suburban fiction in this period, both directly and indirectly, and provides a thematic (rather than chronologically based) analysis of the novels and stories based on key Sartrean concepts. Finally, the thesis discusses the revisionist TV series Mad Men (2007-2015), set in the 1960s and heavily influenced by the stories of John Cheever, considering its concern with existential authenticity and gender relations.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Existential suburbia: the influence of Sartrean existentialism on US fiction of the suburbs from the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century
Event: University College London
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Keywords: Sartre, Existentialism, US fiction, Suburbs
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1534535
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