Born on this day in 1921, Patricia Highsmith was a prolific author of intense psychological thrillers. Her characters, misfits and con artists plagued with identity crisis, class envy, and sexual frustration, often met sensational ends, but Highsmith’s writing maintained a literary and philosophical sophistication that separated it from pulp crime fiction of her time.
A 2015 film adaptation of Highsmith’s novel Carol (originally titled The Price of Salt and published in 1953 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), has lavished new attention on Highsmith’s work with a string of award nominations. In the most recent issue of American Literature, Benjamin Mangrum’s “The Age of Anxiety: Patricia Highsmith, Existential Psychology, and the ‘Decline’ of American Naturalism” (87:4), isolates the unique historical moment of two other Highsmith works with famous film adaptations: Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955).
Mangrum identifies the American adoption of European existentialism and the postwar gravitation to psychoanalysis as explanatory agent of human behavior as keys to understanding Highsmith’s troubled characters. He writes,
The growing public purchase of these developments had significant consequences for American intellectual life: in effect, the ego and its vicissitudes—rather than socioeconomic or structural conditions—became the normative template for understanding society and the self. Highsmith’s novels helped shape this intellectual terrain by representing public phenomena such as violence, class envy, and social alienation as existential crises of an embattled private realm.
Tracing Highsmith’s study of existential philosophy—in particular that of Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard—alongside her own struggles with sexual identity (she wrote Strangers on a Train shortly before attempting therapy to “cure” her same-sex preference), Mangrum notes that “Highsmith’s sensibilities about humanity’s universal penchant for evil become an avenue for replacing a discourse about crime and morality with concerns about authentic existence. She presents a narrative world beyond good and evil, identifying instead the authentic willing of a self as the narrative center of gravity.”