Has bracing and revelatory things to say about American culture in the 1940s; also, by contrast and implication, about American culture today. The book brings into focus intellectual and emotional realities of the decade during and after World War II that current historical memory largely occludes behind heroicizing or condescending stereotypes ... redraws the cultural map of the 1940s by tracing connections that critics and historians have mostly ignored ... The culture and literature of the 1940s were, Hutchinson found when writing about them, 'both unexpected and inspiring.' As is this book.
It’s no great surprise, when we turn to Facing the Abyss, to find separate chapters on Jewish, black, gay and women’s writing: this is the period when those on the margins moved to the centre, indeed became the centre. But the burden of Hutchinson’s book is that we also see them through a lens sharpened but also subtly distorted by our contemporary debates over identity politics ... Hutchinson turns each chapter into a mosaic of individual works, pivoting nimbly from one to another. Some of the juxtapositions are startling, since he is resolutely anti-canonical and makes few strictly literary discriminations ... Hutchinson sets out to write the inner history of the decade, often relying on quirky, unexpected choices to fill out the picture. But this pursuit of felt experience and perception allows him to skip past the public world of the 1940s. Harry S Truman, the President for half the decade, is mentioned only once, in passing. Turbulent labour unrest goes missing along with electoral politics and economic change ... essentially an Ellisonian reading of post-war American culture, eschewing aggressive nationalism for a cross-cultural human standard ... Above all, Hutchinson makes an appealing and unfashionable case for humanism over identity politics ... Even in its biases, Facing the Abyss shines a light on a neglected decade, turning it into an overture to the rest of the century, and it contributes a rich historical viewpoint to our own conflicting concerns about identity.