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The Contemporary Literary Scene

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980
Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing. Edited by Daniel Hoffman. Harvard. $18.50.

Can ten writers and critics make sense of the past 30 years’ proliferation of American fiction, drama, poetry, criticism, and intellectual thought, all in one book? It is a monumental undertaking, and our closeness to the subject makes it difficult to gain critical persepective. Daniel Hoffman, editor of the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, is assisted in this ambitious enterprise by an able group of literary scholars. The most valuable contributions are those adopting a particular perspective that makes it possible to discern major trends and significant relationships; the least interesting comprise capsule summaries of movements, groups, or individual authors, devoid of any overarching view or conceptual framework. In his introduction Hoffman declares his goal to be to enlarge and enlighten the readership of contemporary American literature. The Harvard Guide is enlightening and has whetted my appetite to sample a dozen authors I have not previously encountered; for readers less familiar with contemporary American writing, the effect may be even more stimulating. The $18. 50 price, however, while not excessive for a volume of substance and elegance, may deter purchasers other than scholars and reference librarians.

Alan Trachtenberg’s summary of the “Intellectual Background” strives less to make sense of the contemporary scene than to point up our inability to do so. Every critic invokes and illustrates the lack of a unified world view, the loss even of any generally accepted values. Trachtenberg implies science itself might provide such a world view, but his comments on post-Einsteinian science show how impossible this is—apart from the fact that science is value-free. The objects of contemporary science “seem more and more to lie in the realm of ephemeral experience, of subatomic particles or black holes in space. . . . It is this apparent leap between the invisibilities of the scientific enterprise and the visible world constructed by modern technology that has characterized the cultural and spiritual dilemma posed by science.” Science and technology, unguided and unbridled by a sense of values, have contributed most to the absurdity and meaninglessness of the contemporary scene.

A. Walton Litz’s excursus through the tangled thickets of literary criticism is a masterly analysis of a very complicated field. Litz identifies the same general movement from relative consensus to bewildering diversity others discern in tracing the course of fiction, drama, and poetry. Criticism of the late forties and fifties, like poetry, was dominated by Eliot and his formalist disciples. The past two decades have seen a shift from formalism to structuralism. Indeed, the best way of understanding criticism now is to view it as still in revolt against the New Criticism. The foremost New Critics, Ransom, Tate, Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Wimsatt, and Empson, were poets and practitioners of the art they criticized. Their criticism centered on the work itself, considered as autonomous or selfsufficient. Focusing exclusively on the work, New Critics shunned historical criticism (the relation of the work to its age), biographical criticism (the relation of the work to its author), and psychological or affective criticism (the relation of the work to its reader)—I. A. Richards was a notable exception. Determined to see works precisely and to see them whole, New Criticism dispensed with peripheral vision. Its finely myopic close readings are the antithesis of, say, Northrop Frye’s presbyopic, panoramic surveys of the whole body of literature with its underlying universal structures and mythic motifs. Frye, uninterested in the individual features that distinguish one work from another, searches out family resemblances. He approaches literature like Aristotle, prepared to classify “a system of organisms, picking out its genera and species, formulating the broad laws of literary experience. . . writing as though. . . there is a totally intelligible structure of knowledge attainable about poetry which is not poetry itself, or the experience of it, but poetics.” Autonomy has shifted from the work of art to the act of criticism. Litz points out American criticism, like English, has traditionally been a pragmatic, “post facto process, in which the critic generalizes on. . . what has been written.” Criticism nowadays is intensely theoretical, witness the Yale School of Hartman, Bloom, and De Man, which has founded its structuralism on continental models, Lacan and Derrida. Litz ascribes this change to a dearth of new “revolutionary writers who could command the critic’s attention and force him to come to terms with their untidy accomplishments.” Unable to feed on literature, criticism becomes self-regarding, self-sustaining, and feeds upon itself. This is regrettable because criticism, by its nature, is not autonomous; it must be criticism of something. Litz detects an unfortunate tendency in American criticism to tack back and forth between the Scylla of materialism and the Charybdis of fantasy, “either to treat literature as a self-sufficient ‘second nature’ or to judge it by extraliterary standards.” He observes the best critics steer a middle course, avoiding both extremes, but his schema prevents his considering some notable examples.

Leo Braudy’s discussion of “Realists, Naturalists and Novelists of Manners” and Mark Shechner’s of Jewish-American writers are distinguished for incisive thinking and fine writing. Braudy remarks a considerable narrowing of the scope of naturalism post World War II, though the yearning for a total vision of American remains. Mailer, a notable exponent of this yearning, still nurtures an ambition to write the “Great American Novel.” He deplores the cleavage between upper-class novelists of manners and lower-class hefters of brute facts, whereby, he believes, the great body of the American public has been delivered over to pulp journalism. Braudy distinguishes the novel of manners from the naturalist novel by the former’s emphasis on a realism that is internal or psychological, rather than external; it makes up in depth what it lacks in scope. The narrowing scope of naturalism presages the balkanization of contemporary literature, its subdivision into categories such as Jewish, black, women’s, or gay fiction— most of which provide chapter topics for the Harvard Guide.

Braudy notes what many contemporary critics have observed: the contemporary celebration of the underdog, the failure, drifter, dropout, or dopester who inhabits the underside of society. Why? Because the rebellious, doomed, and unintegrated live closer to the bone, are more dramatic and picturesque, and feel life more intensely than the denizens of the middle class do the gray flannel (now faded blue denim) of their existence. As Braudy remarks, “The dispossessed of American society, who lived the nightmare rather than the dream, became more symbolically important in a postwar world. . . if you didn’t know them, you didn’t know yourself.”

Jewish-American novelists, excepting Mailer and Roth, are particularly eloquent in celebrating failure. The protagonists of many Jewish novels are antiheroic bumblers and schlemiels. According to these novelists, when a Jewish American negotiates the route from rags to riches, he is seldom able psychologically to escape the confines of the ghetto and rarely fails to pay the psychic costs of material success. Since Leopold Bloom, the Jew has appeared the archetype of contemporary man as alienated outsider, vulnerable and helpless. Karl Shapiro, in the introduction to Poems of a Jew, says the holocaust “revived the spiritual image of the Jew. . . as man essentially himself, beyond nationality, defenseless against the crushing impersonality of history. He is man left over, after everything that can happen has happened.” Mailer’s Sam Slovoda in “The Man Who Studied Yoga” illustrates the dilemma of the Jew, “straddled between the loss of a country he has never seen, and his repudiation of the country in which he now lives.” (The description applies to many another contemporary fictional character. ) Jewish fiction is haunted by the apprehension or actual experience of disaster; Shechner is right in detecting the shadow of the holocaust overhanging it. Bellow’s dangling man, Asa Leventhal in The Victim, Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, Herzog, and Arthur Sammler are all mourners. What they mourn, as they weep before the corpses of unknown citizens, is a past that has been destroyed and is irretrievable. Malamud’s protagonists cannot escape the ghetto; the confined settings and situations of The Assistant and The Tenants, particularly, prompt Shechner’s remark that Malamud creates “real ghettoes with imaginary Jews in them.” Shechner alludes to the allegorical strain in Malamud, objecting to a morality that is applied rather than immanent. Perhaps one price of having no single world view or accepted code of morals is that allegory becomes peculiar to the allegorist, unintelligible to others, radically outmoded. While not agreeing with Shechner’s final assessment of Malamud, I find he brilliantly epitomizes this writer’s special gifts. Malamud is “par excellence the writer of the half-life, the shabby region of mediocre attainment between pure wish fulfillment and total disaster, and he has perfect pitch for the language of poignancy and loss.” One also assents to Shechner’s insight that in Malamud the repressed returns: an abandoned, buried past returns unfailingly as the future.

Braudy sees more and more writers “documenting the special place of minority and private perception in American society.” Nathan Scott, Jr. and Elizabeth Janeway, writing about black and women’s literature, respectively, are both worried by the literary segregation or apartheid that relegates black and women writers to a separate class, though each finds cause for temporarily accepting such separation from the mainstream.

Nathan Scott contributes a fine essay on black literature, discussing a number of new, little-known black writers who deserve to be known better. Scott deeply regrets black writing should be treated as a literature unto itself, but he acknowledges the separatist Black Arts Movement of the sixties determined it must be by dictating what black literature should be about and banning white criticism. Thus black literature has become forbidden territory to whites and many a promising black writer condemned to obscurity. Scott is saddened by this evidence of “a profound collapse of faith in the indivisibility of the human family and in the unity of culture.” It is, as he says, a distinguishing feature of the period. Examining the tradition of the black protest novel, Scott recognizes the difficulty black writers show in moving beyond naturalism and didacticism. Ellison’s Invisible Man, a kaleidoscopic conspectus of different styles, genres, and viewpoints, is a landmark; it is little short of tragic that its very universality causes militant blacks to ignore or condemn it.

After worrying about a definition of women’s literature, Elizabeth Janeway upholds its documentary value, recalling Henry Adams’ observation: “This study of history is useful to the historian by teaching him his ignorance of women. The woman known only through men is known wrong.” Women, now convinced the unexamined life is not worth living, are writing to assess what they have made of life and what it has made of them. Like blacks, women writers are constrained to ask themselves which is more important, to be a woman or a writer? And women, like blacks, run peculiar risks as writers. The occupational hazard of the female writer has been an inability to move beyond the autobiographical or confessional mode, to gain distance on her subject, usually herself. Women’s fiction shares with that of blacks and Jews a sense of confinement; like contemporary fiction at large, it emphasizes the powerlessness of its protagonists. For Jews, blacks, and women, powerlessness has been a condition of being. For male picaresque, women’s literature substitutes internal voyages.

Leopold Bloom has proven prototypical, not only as Jew, but as what he called the new kind of “feminized man.” A recurrent theme in contemporary fiction (noted by several contributors to the Harvard Guide) is embattled masculinity: what possible outlet can be found for masculine will and energy in the postwar world? Beside the blazon calls of such as Mailer and James Jones, more muted and uneasy retreats are sounded from society and women. As Braudy says, “The theme of retreat from both society and the control of women has been a staple of American literature” since its beginnings. Elizabeth Janeway notes some reversal, as well as a radical questioning of sex roles in women’s literature, while Josephine Hendin sees contemporary literature as obsessed with power and powerlessness, depicting men and women alike as powerless puppets.

Hendin’s chapter on “Experimental Fiction” examines an odd collection of writers, only a few of whom, such as Hawkes and Pynchon, qualify as experimental. Hendin detects trends distinguishing contemporary from modern fiction. Postmodern art has given up trying to see things whole. “A primary defense against perceiving oneself as a victim is not to put the pieces of experience together, to fragment feeling and act, reality and perception, so that there is no possibility of seeing anything whole. Where the modernist writer saw brokenness as a mark of the fall from tradition and order— “These fragments I have shored against my ruins’—the postwar novelist employs it as a switch to turn off pain.” Compare the gravamen of Eliot’s fragments with Barthelme’s flip and canny “Only trust the fragments.”

Nearly all the contributors to the Harvard Guide refer to the epistemological crisis. Contemporary fiction has given up the attempt to know anything, settling instead for describing the myriad ways phenomena may be observed. It exhibits a pervasive discontinuity of character. Without stability or continuity of character, communication between characters is impossible; without communication there is no interaction between people, and without interaction, no shared memory. Without memory, there is no sense of causation, of one thing leading to another. The fear of involvement springing from a precarious hold on the self is acutely, paradoxically voiced by Nabokov’s Pnin. “One of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish . . . death is communion.” The inhabitants of contemporary fiction are often hermetically sealed off from contact with each other.

Daniel Hoffman has done a fine job of editing and organizing the Harvard Guide overall, but his own chapters on contemporary poetry are confusing and somewhat chaotic. By his account contemporary poetry is even more tribal and subdivided than other literary areas and so even harder to map. Hoffman’s first chapter deals with elder statesmen of modernism in mid or late career—Pound, Eliot, Frost, Williams, and Stevens—and then with poets at first under their spell but later branching out on paths of their own—among them, Roethke, Jarrell, Wilbur, Bishop, Lowell, and Berryman. A second chapter, “Schools of Dissidents,” surveys schools such as Black Mountain, the West Coast Beats, and the New York School; a third, “Dissidents from Schools,” discusses poets belonging to no group. Among such loner poets are Ammons, Dickey, Hecht, Hollander, Kinnell, and Swenson. Hoffman’s distinction between organized and unorganized “dissidents” is blurred, however. Raw and cooked poetry are served up side by side; beats and academics rub shoulders. Why are unaligned poets like Richard Howard, Sylvia Plath, and Ann Sexton discussed under “Schools of Dissidents”? Hoffman writes well about many, memorably about some, but his survey disintegrates into a series of seemingly unrelated capsule careers. Richard Kostelanetz gave a clearer sense of recent American poetry in nine pages of his On Contemporary Literature than Hoffman does in the more than 150 pages he allows himself of the Harvard Guide. He finds the contemporary poetic scene invigorating in its variety and overall quality but depressing in its bitter partisanship. The “fratricidal intensity” of rivalry between different schools and poets of different vision and persuasion Hoffman believes is peculiarly American, as is the missionary zeal with which poets claim that, in making it new, they have rendered all previous poetry obsolete! As Hoffman says, “In the United States we not only inhabit the present, we invent the future, while with greater energy than other peoples we perfect the forgetting of the past—mainly because most of the human past seems to . . . Americans not to have been ours. . . .” Poets today are inditing a record of how it is to live, think, and feel during these unprecedented times, but such a record (as Lewis P. Simpson says of Southern literature) will be impoverished without a recognition of the presence of the past in the present.


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