Jean-Paul Sartre, John Steinbeck, and the Liability of Liberty in the Post-War Period

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The polarities of the Cold War impelled many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic to take sides either with capitalism or communism. Both Jean-Paul Sartre and John Steinbeck famously attempted to respond to this ideological choice and would differ in their political leanings: Sartre was an outspoken critic of American capitalist hegemony, whereas Steinbeck became an avid opponent of the communist bloc. They nonetheless shared a dedication to engaging with the social issues of their time, becoming arguably the pre-eminent proletarian writers of the period and eventual Nobel Prize winners. Sartre believed Steinbeck to be `the most rebellious, perhaps' of American writers, whilst Steinbeck so admired the French intellectual scene typified by Sartre that he spent nearly a year in Paris writing for Le Figaro. Their pivotal promotion of individual freedom may have nudged them towards both ends of the political spectrum respectively; yet their emphasis on the changeability of human existence constantly destabilized any position they approached. In this article I argue for a productive return to their writing in order to underline the alternations both encounter when seeking to put the libertarian ideal of individuality into practice. In their novels L'Âge de raison (1945) and East of Eden (1952), as well as in their journals, we can observe how their mutual emphasis on man's indeterminism as an autonomous subject inevitably dissolves the foundation of any normative political ethos. As such, it is crucial to reiterate that their engagement with the post-war period in fact deeply complicates the drive for totalization and systemization implied in the strict allegiances of the Cold War political terrain.
Translated title of the contributionJean-Paul Sartre, John Steinbeck, and the Liability of Liberty in the Post-War Period
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177 - 192
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of European Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2008


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