Cover of Atrocity by Bruce Robbins
A Literary History
Bruce Robbins

February 2025
320 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503640559



Exploring literary representations of mass violence, Robbins traces the emergence of a cosmopolitan recognition of atrocity.

Mass violence did not always have a name. Like conquest, atrocity was not always seen as violating a moral norm or inviting indignation. Could the concept of atrocity even exist before people could accuse their own country of mass violence committed against the inhabitants of another country? Drawing on a vast archive, Bruce Robbins seeks to give atrocity a literary history.

With penetrating insight, Robbins takes up such literary representations of atrocity as Bartolomé de las Casas's account of his fellow Spaniards' atrocities, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Grimmelshausen's 1668 novel Simplicissimus, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Homero Aridjis's short novel Smyrna in Flames, and Tolstoy's Hadji Murat. What's achieved is a profound exploration of the longer trajectory of the emergence of abhorrence and indignation in the face of mass violence and a critical examination of the conditions for the emergence of cosmopolitanism—the ability to look at your own nation with the critical eyes of a stranger.

In the presence of atrocity, what we want most is for someone to bear witness. What is it literature can do with atrocity that simple testimony cannot? Robbins answers by showing how literature goes beyond the legal paradigm of accusation. Meanwhile, venturing from the Bible to Zadie Smith, Robbins pursues the bold proposition that, in the midst of relentlessly repetitive slaughter and nameless, shapeless, irredeemable suffering, humanity's moral history might include a cosmopolitan arc.

About the author

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. He has authored several books, among them Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction (Stanford, 2022).