The Puritan and the Cynic: Moralists and Theorists in French and American Letters

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Why do Americans, and so often, American writers, profess moral sentiments and yet write so little in the traditionally moralistic genres of maxim and fable? What is the relation between moral concerns and literary theory? Can any sort of morality survive the supposed nihilism of deconstruction? Jefferson Humphries undertakes a discussion of questions like these through a comparative reading of the ways in which moral issues surface in French and American literature. Humphries takes issue with the amoral view of deconstruction espoused by many of its detractors, arguing that the debate between the theory's advocates and opponents comes down to two opposing literary and moral traditions. While the American tradition views morality as a rigid system capable of being enforced by injunctions along the lines of Thou shalt and Thou shalt not, the French tradition conceives of morality as a function of a relentless and unsentimental pursuit of truth, and finally, an admission that truth is not a static thing, but rather an ongoing process of rigorous thought.