Cold War confessions: autobiographic poetry in the age of anxiety

Beardsworth, Adam (2008) Cold War confessions: autobiographic poetry in the age of anxiety. Doctoral (PhD) thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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This dissertation revisits a contentious group of twentieth-century American "confessional" poets consisting of John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell. It analyzes their poetry in relation to its Cold War political context and argues that the subjective style of these poets was symptomatic of a subversive response to containment culture. Forgoing the impersonality of modernist idiom, these writers developed a poetics of personality that has often been dismissed by critics as maudlin and narcissistic. This dissertation counters this prevailing view. It argues that at a time in American history when civil liberties were routinely threatened by state-sanctioned initiatives such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the turn to an autobiographic style emerged as a covert means of expressing political dissent. For these midcentury poets, an exploration of the abject self was the starting point for a poetics that revealed the guilt, trauma, and anxiety common to Cold War experience and that challenged state incursions upon individual autonomy. -- One of the central arguments of this dissertation is that the insidious nature of Cold War containment pervaded all facets of society. Impositions upon individual autonomy made by an American surveillance state eager to contain the domestic communist threat made it difficult for citizens to express political dissent publicly without reprisal. This study positions the "confessional" style as a subversive poetics that expresses the impact of public anxieties on the private self. The first section argues that John Berryman and Robert Lowell forged a poetics grounded in a negative epistemology in order to articulate Holocaust and nuclear anxiety. The second section explores how Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath used confession to challenge constructions of normalized identity advocated by the increasingly influential institutions of psychiatry and psychology. The third section analyzes Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell's reactions to what they regarded as similarities between cultural containment and the institutionalization of literary studies via the organically "contained" protocols of New Criticism. This dissertation redresses a critical misreading of midcentury autobiographic poetry by demonstrating how its "confessional" style was a voice of resistance to the repressive anxieties of Cold War experience.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral (PhD))
Item ID: 9103
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (leaves 247-257)
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > English Language and Literature
Date: 2008
Date Type: Submission
Library of Congress Subject Heading: American poetry--20th century--History and criticism; Autobiography in literature--Political aspects; Cold War in literature

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