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date: 26 February 2024

American Surrealismlocked

American Surrealismlocked

  • Andrew JoronAndrew JoronDepartment of Creative Writing, San Francisco State University


Surrealism, whose doctrine was originally conceived as an uncanny hybrid of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Arthur Rimbaud, was not easily transplanted from its Parisian hothouse to the wide-open spaces of the United States. Surrealism’s materialist dream-logic caught on mainly among the poets and painters of New York City during World War II when war refugees André Breton and his cohort spread their influence there. After the war and the return of the French surrealists to Europe, American surrealism withered until the cultural revolution of the 1960s when it underwent a new and even more vigorous flowering, often blending with left-wing political activism. With the end of postwar economic expansion, paralleled by a more conservative turn in American culture, surrealism as a self-conscious literary movement once again receded to the margins. At the same time, the surrealist image has become broadly disseminated in contemporary American poetry as a readily available and legible trope, used whenever a moment of sublime estrangement is needed in a poem. Surrealism persists in this way as an individualized stylistic flourish, maintaining a dilute yet ubiquitous presence in American literary culture. Yet even as surrealism appears to have been assimilated into and domesticated by the larger culture, a number of more or less marginalized American poets have remained committed to the original vision of surrealism as a revolutionary worldview, as a word- and world-transforming practice.

The second wave of surrealist writing in the Untied States broke and bifurcated during the 1950s and 1960s into various channels represented by the New York School, Deep Image, and the orthodox Chicago Surrealist Group. In the first quarter of the 21st century, few American poets claim a purely surrealist identity. Nonetheless, an occulted surrealist practice runs through the dominant trend in contemporary American avant-garde poetry, namely, the synthesis of Language writing and the New York School.

American culture in the 21st century, characterized by a more or less complete commodification of the life-world, where desire—another key term in surrealism—has been sublated into consumerism, brings a new set of challenges to the surrealist imperative to achieve utopia by way of profane illumination.


  • Literary Theory

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