Thesis ID: CBB413772386

Improbable Realism: The Postwar American Novel and the Digital Aesthetic (2021)


Dore, Florence (Advisor)
Sean DiLeonardi (Author)

Dore, Florence
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Publication date: 2021
Language: English

Publication Date: 2021
Physical Details: 155

This dissertation examines the influence of a new form of statistical thinking on American fiction written between 1950 and 1964, elucidating in particular a tendency by novelists seeking a departure from previous novelistic forms to incorporate mathematical improbability into literary realism. Even as literary critics in the 1950s insisted that fictional events must be probable to be realistic, the most celebrated postwar novelists were drawing from the statistical sciences tools for redefining realism as a form capacious enough for the unbelievable. Why do we find such improbable plot twists as the deus ex machina in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, or the divine miracle in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away? Might we associate these portrayals of the unbelievable with the random coincidences in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and the chance encounters in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Drawing extensively on archival materials related to cryptography, cybernetics, and literary history, Improbable Realism shows that what links these apparent flights from reality is the same statistical thinking that gave rise to digital media during the postwar era. The digital emerged in particular from the tendency at midcentury to quantify apparently unquantifiable phenomena, and I argue that it is the surprising influence of this mathematical formalism on these novels that accounts for the new version of realism I identify. Improbable Realism indeed brings to light a digital aesthetic, revealing a phase of the American novel we have not yet identified—one in which math conditions even those features of the novel that appear to resist quantification. Improbable Realism thus tells a new story about the American novel’s entry into the digital age.

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Authors & Contributors
Berressem, Hanjo
Burke, Colin
Castells, Manuel
Daigle, Jonathan R.
Downey, Greg
Galavotti, Maria Carla
Cold War History
History and Technology
History of Science
New York University
University of Oregon
University of Pennsylvania
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Carocci Editore
Lexington Books
Information technology
Science and literature
Literary analysis
Technology and society
Cold War
Howells, William Dean
Bush, Vannevar
Stephenson, Neal
Coolidge, Clark
Mayer, Bernadette
Time Periods
20th century, late
19th century
21st century
20th century
Gilded Age (1870s-1900)
United States
Soviet Union
National Science Foundation (U.S.)

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