The Urban Apocalypse In Contemporary American Novels

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


This study demonstrates that the novel of urban apocalypse has its roots in American thought and literature from the beginnings, that in the eschatological times since World War II it appears as a distinct recurrent vision and pattern in American city fiction, and that its formal artistic consequences have implications for the direction of the postmodern American novel. Novels analyzed in detail because they most fully exemplify the type are: Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust as the prototype for form and mode, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, Joyce Carol Oates's Them, Bernard Malamud's The Tenants, and Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins.The Introduction provides the critical vocabulary essential to an extended definition of urban apocalypse by a discussion of the elements the new form shares with the apocalyptic tradition in general: the vision as vehicle, an eschatological sense of history based on situations of imminent crisis, a dualistic world view, a didactic purpose, and an alternating rhythm of despair and of hope. A comparison of Revelation and American urban apocalyptic illuminates the ways in which the authors appropriate the archetypal images, symbols, and sequence of events found in their specific source, the Apocalypse of the New Testament.Chapter 1 demonstrates how the American city as both locale and protagonist reflects the disorders the author considers most apocalyptic. The controlling metaphor implicit in the novels is the dialectic of the two cities--the City of God and the City of Man. The pervasive dystopian imagery projects the authors' overriding concern, the inversion of the American dream of community. The new Babylon as the landscape of nightmare is relieved only by fleeting glimpses of a possible New Jerusalem. Chapter 2 shows the postmodern analogues to the Great Tribulation as perverted materialism, science and technology beyond control, the racially divided city, the death of love, endemic violence, and the ultimate woe--the dissociation of being. Chapter 3 illustrates the authors converting for their narrative lines the sequence of apocalyptic events: the appearance of the contemporary Antichrist, apostate citizens rioting in the new Armageddon, and the catastrophe of the burning city.Inherent in burning Babylon is the crucial element of apocalyptic, the judgment. Chapter 4 points to the new apocalyptists as latter-day Jeremiahs who, having pronounced judgment on the civic and spiritual health of their cities--and by extension, the nation--implicitly exhort the citizens to repent before it is too late.Chapter 5 stresses a salient characteristic of urban apocalypse, the individual eschatology within the larger apocalyptic framework. Both the American city and the central protagonist(s) undergo literal or psychic catastrophe and struggle to reach "the promised end" of caritas regained and community restored. The extent of their survival is an indicator which helps to place the novels on a continuum characteristic of the American apocalyptic temper in general. This continuum ranges from the apocalypse of despair to the apocalypse of qualified hope to the optative apocalypse which envisions real alternatives to disaster.The conclusion expands on the formal consequences of urban apocalyptic in terms of postmodernism. Alternating with naturalistic prose, the new apocalyptists use the gothic mode in conjunction with Surrealist-inspired techniques to project their unreal cities. A parodic stance permits them to write large the disorders. Taken together with the apocalyptic moral vision, the modes and the stance constitute a style of radical figurative art strikingly appropriate for rendering the American city in times of anxiety and crisis.


Literature, American

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