Date of Award
College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, English and Literary Arts
Ryan D. Perry
Eleanor J. McNees
1950s, Cold War, Flannery O'Connor, Picaresque, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow
The picaro, a rascal or rogue who tells his or her life story, is an important but understudied figure in midcentury American letters. Critics of the 1960s, such as R.W.B. Lewis, often discussed the picaro and the picaresque, but recent American scholarship has not revisited the role and importance of this figure and genre.
This study employs the methodologies of historicism, formalism, and intellectual history to explain how American authors in the period after WWII used the picaro and picaresque, a figure and genre that originated in 16th century Spain, as vehicles for their explorations of the question of human dignity. As Mark Grief shows in his Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, the central question of this era was about fundamental anthropology: “What is man, and how can we recover him?” Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, and Saul Bellow each adapted the picaresque genre to participate in what Grief calls “discourse of the crisis of man.”
In Invisible Man (1952), Ellison has his picaro articulate an American identity that grounds possibility and necessity in the principle the country was founded on, that all are created equal, including Black Americans like himself. In O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away (1960), God instructs her picaro Tarwater, as he did with the prophet Jonah, that all are created in his image and therefore have dignity, even the disabled and the corrupt. In Henderson the Rain King (1959), Bellow’s picaro Henderson overcomes the apocalyptic romanticism—the belief that humanity is finished—that had infected him, coming to believe that nobility is still possible. Through his picaresque style of narration, he learns how to love humanity while renouncing cyclical violence. The final situation of each picaro is a determination to return to a corrupt society and walk in love while speaking the truth about human dignity. The postwar American picaro as prophet of human dignity, I show, is an important and distinct figure that needs to be examined if we are to fully understand this period of American letters.
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Elijah Clayton Null
Received from ProQuest
Null, Elijah Clayton, "The Post-WWII American Picaro as Prophet of Human Dignity: A Study of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King" (2023). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2313.
Literature, American literature
Available for download on Friday, September 12, 2025