When the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , William Styron, Daniel Boorstein, and Gore Vidal picked F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as the second most important 20th-century English-language novel (after James Joyce’s Ulysses), many readers nodded their agreement, including those with more than a few bones to pick with the composition of the Modern Library Series editorial board. Singling out books as distinguished, influential, and important as Ulysses and The Great Gatsby made sense, but the same thing could not be said for the remaining 98 choices on the top 100 English-language novels list. Many choices struck the second-guessers as suspect, if not downright strange, and (not surprisingly) critics of the Modern Library Series critics were only too happy to provide examples of writers who had been robbed. Given the fact that the original list makers were predominantly white, male, and largely uninterested in (or uninformed about) fiction written after 1960, what could one expect other than a tame, entirely lackluster grouping.
I rehearse what was essentially a publicity grab (and a very successful one, given the coverage it generated) by the marketing folks at Random House, the Modern Library Series parent company. Even the general public got into the act as major newspapers wrote their obligatory 100-best-novels story, and letters to the editor were sharply divided about which books warranted a thumbs-up and which a thumbs-down. One can safely predict that there will be more such groupings as millennialism reaches a fever pitch. No doubt some organization will come up with a list of the 100 most important American athletes. Such lists are designed to be conversation-starters, and as such it is hard to dismiss them as so much hokum when the hard fact is that all of us rather enjoy perusing a list that includes the obvious, the outlandish, and not least of all, the omitted.
In the rumination that follows I am interested in what a retrospective account of American literature at century’s end might look like. I begin with 1925 for a number of reasons—not only because it is the year Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, but also because it was a watershed moment on a number of fronts: 1925 was the year in which President Calvin Coolidge announced to the world that “The business of America is business,” and when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan used a courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee to debate the consequences of Darwinism. Among the items that made their first appearances that year were the motel, dry ice, and Wesson oil. Inflation was low ( + 1.3%), as was unemployment (3.2%); average Americans had enough ready cash to buy a Frigidaire ($195—245); a radiola with loudspeaker ($269) and of course, oceans of bootleg liquor. Fitzgerald called this giddy period “the jazz age,” and the phrase stuck, partly because the 1920’s combined a boom economy with a free-wheeling hedonism, and partly because he could never quite shake off the feeling that a “bust” was looming just around the corner.
For most, the smash-up came in 1929, when the stock market took a nose dive and ushered in the socio-political turmoil of the Great Depression. But Fitzgerald felt the tremors much earlier and worried (with good reason, as it turned out) that neither his 20-something characters nor himself would easily survive their 30th birthdays. In The Great Gatsby, everything that makes for a memorable novel comes together: the delicate balancing of Gatsby’s belief in American self-creation, romantic readiness, and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock with Nick Carraway’s deeply ambivalent narration. Small wonder, then, that The Great Gatsby richly fulfills the definition of a literary “classic”—namely, that it has pleased many and pleased them long.
At the same time, however, Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel hardly constituted the only good news on the literary front. There was also Ernest Hemingway’s extraordinary first collection, In Our Time and Willa Gather’s The Professor’s House, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer.Allain Locke’s The New Negro chronicled the how-and-why a renaissance of black art was establishing itself in Harlem; and William Carlos Williams published what many regarded as his most important collection of essays, In the American Grain.Nineteen twenty-five was, in short, an extraordinary year in American culture, one that saw the first issue of The New ‘Yorker magazine as well as the founding of The Virginia Quarterly Review.
In much the same way that 20th-century British literature may have reached its zenith in 1922, a year that began with James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with T.S.Eliot The Waste Land, one is tempted to think of our best, most important, American books as inextricably tied to 1925.This limited view would, I think, be a mistake, if only because subsequent American literature was such a vital component of what Henry Luce called “the American century.” Our best novels, poems, and plays read us—and in the process defined what Americaness means. The rub, of course, is how to get one’s mental grappling hooks around a subject that is bigger, and certainly slipperier, than gives rise to the 100-best lists. No doubt I will leave out somebody’s favorite (how could I not?), or perhaps worse, mention a work in passing that some will surely feel deserves extended space. So, let me divide the last 75 years of American literature in the same way that Caesar once apportioned Gaul— namely, into three parts: The Age of Literary Modernism; the Age of Criticism; and the Age of Theory.
Whatever terms may be attached to literary modernism, the most telling one is probably “new.” One thinks immediately of Ezra Pound’s insistence that poets “MAKE IT NEW” and more generally of a Zeitgeist that included everything from Picasso’s nonrepresentational paintings, Stravinsky’s polytonal music, or the distinctive architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. When focusing on American literature, however, is it worth reminding ourselves that the word “new” has a very long American history, not only because the New World was everything that the Old one wasn’t, but also because it made new persons possible. Here, as J.Hector John de Crevecoeur famously defined the American, “is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions.” Perhaps the central idea that such new persons shared was a sense that improvement came with the sprawling landscape and that upward mobility could be achieved through hard work. By contrast, Europe was a place crawling with the impediments of class.
Small wonder, then, that “improved” joined “new” as our defining adjectives, a way of describing the ongoing national project as well as effective way to pitch everything from mouthwash to toothpaste. Pound, of course, had more in mind than these brands of feel-good, shop-hard America. For him, “making it new” meant confronting the sharp split in consciousness between 19th-century assumptions about art and the adjustments that a new, chaotic age demanded. World War I, in short, changed everything because the old Tennyson/ Kipling platitudes no longer worked. Put a slightly different way, to live in the Edwardian world was to feel the palpable presence of sharply defined cultural anchors; by contrast, modernity replaced certainty with doubt and faith with skepticism. To give “shape” to the essentially shapeless was the first order of business for a generation of modernist giants that included the likes of T.S.Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D.H.Lawrence. In very different ways, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner were the beneficiaries.
However, what the oft-repeated formulations about literary modernism— that its defining novels tended to be formalistic, ironic, buttressed by myth, and self-consciously reflexive—manages to leave out is the impact of place. Whatever else one might say about literary modernism, it was an international movement. True enough, Faulkner may have focused on a single county in southern Mississippi just as Joyce brooded about Dublin from a vantage point of the continent, but what liberated their respective imaginations was the best being thought and said by the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and any number of others who had an uncanny sense of what the new modernism might feel like.
Other factors, however—each important in its own way—must be added to this volatile mix. One thinks, for example, of Exiles Return, Malcolm Cowley’s chronicle of Americans expatriate life during the 1920’s. His memoir/intellectual history makes a convincing case for the role that sheer economics played. After all, a fledgling writer could live in Paris on the cheap (sometimes the very cheap) and get pie-eyed on legal booze in the bargain. Small wonder then that many writers thumbed their collective noses at a straight-laced, thoroughly middle-class America, or that their fiction found richer models in the hot-house cultural atmospheres of London or Paris. Granted, Henry James had pioneered the “international novel” decades before, and even earlier writers such as Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne had used Europe as a backdrop against which the American sensibility could be explored; but in novels such as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises or Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night(1934) the sheer weight of (voluntary) exilehood was readily—and strikingly—apparent.
By contrast, some very worthy American writers were not cut out to be exiles. Faulkner was one of them—not because he thumbed his cranky nose at the modernist techniques his fellow writers were exploring (hardly the case) but, rather, because he “stayed home,” creating the mythical world of Mississippi’s Yoknpatawpha County and in the process made serious literature about the South possible. Writers as various as Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welry, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah, and Toni Morrison have responded to the long shadow that Faulkner cast with nearly equal doses of awe and resistance. Southern Gothic, whether rendered with O’Connor’s acid wit or Morrison’s ghostly presences, has Faulkner’s thumbprint in the palimpsest.
The same thing might be said of Saul Bellow with respect to urban Jewish fiction or about serious fiction about blacks after Ralph Ellison. Bellow’s nervous, no-nonsense style added a new dimension, a new voice, if you will, to modern American writing. In novels such as The Adventures of Augie March (1953) or Herzog (1964), his densely packed paragraphs yoked immigrant exuberance with dreamy meditation, the grit of city streets with the dust of libraries. In the process, Bellow expanded the possibilities of fiction about American Jews. Ellison’s Invisible Man (1957) performed the same liberating trick for black writers mired in the conventions, and severe limitations, of protest fiction. Black life in America had more grace, more style, and certainly more humanity than had been explored before he burst onto the scene—and what made Ellison’s work especially rich were the modernist elements he wove into a fable/ cautionary tale about black innocence and unsparing recognition: T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man, James Frazier’s The Golden Bough and Joseph CampbelFs The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
At this point several nagging questions announce themselves: were there exceptions to this rule—that is, modernist Jewish writers before Bellow, and modernist black writers before Ellison? Of course, and I would offer up Henry Roth’s lyrically Freudian Call It Sleep (1934) as one half of Exhibit A and Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), a masterpiece of modernist mixed forms (poetry, prose poetry, fiction, and dramatic dialogue) as the other. Interesting enough, both defined themselves first and foremost as writers, despite the parochial expectations—and litmus tests—that dogged their respective careers. Henry Roth never felt comfortable toeing the party line of proletarian fiction (the conflict resulted in a writer’s block that lasted nearly 60 years) while Toomer came to resent being pigeonholed as a “black” poet.
Literary modernism made no concessions about its difficulty. Readers unwilling (or unable) to wrestle with demanding books represented one segment of what W.B.Yeats contemptuously described as the “filthy modern tide.” Another way of saying much the same thing is to point out that, however much modernist writers may have differed in style, tone, and temperament, they all agreed that evaluating a piece of serious art had nothing to do with a democratic vote. Indeed, works that had wide middle-brow appeal were consigned to the large bin labeled “mediocre.” By contrast, literary modernism mirrored a fractured world, one that forced us to live with doubt and uncertainty. Small wonder, then, that those who yearn for easy answers—and who continue to look for them in works of literature—wind up as frustrated as they are confused.
That the complicated aesthetics of literary modernism eventually managed to “triumph” is yet another twist on the paradox about nothing quite failing like success. Influential journals of culture such as Partisan Review cobbled literary modernism with radical politics in an effort to support its vision of the avant-garde, while more strictly literary journals such as Southern Review, Sewanee Review,and The Virginia Quarterly Review subjected individual writers (e.g., Faulkner) to close critical scrutiny. The result paved the way for the champions of literary modernism to elbow their favorites into the undergraduate curriculum. One way of explaining what happened is to note, with a full measure of the ambiguity that modernist writers so dearly loved, that even the most difficult of texts could be thoroughly domesticated. Indeed, they were—not only by way of explaining unfamiliar allusions, but also in terms of giving students a methodology for interpretation.
In the years between, say, 1940 and 1965, the method of widest choice was the New Criticism as its principles were announced in such influential literary anthologies as Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and Understanding Drama.Students made their way through Eliot’s The Wasteland or joined Leopold Bloom as he meandered through the Dublin streets of 16 June 1904—armed, as it were, with plot summaries that served as roadmaps and an increasing body of criticism that meticulously explained every thematic nook and cranny. In the case of The Great Gatsby, which undergraduates did not dutifully write in his or her notebook that the “green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock was a symbol, even if the “symbol” wore a wide variety of faces—as in the green (go!) of traffic lights; the green of the “fresh green breast of a world” that constitutes the American Dream; and not least of all, the green of the American (greenback) dollar.
Those who encountered modernist novels without the benefit of exegesis were at one and the same time not so lucky, and “luckier.” Why so? Because it was possible for the first wave of modernist readers to feel the central vision of modernist work even as they were less than certain about its particulars, just as it is equally possible to write a crackerjack undergraduate essay about Faulkner and miss everything that matters in the world his imagination created. One could argue that the age of criticism was as necessary as was the age of literary modernism that preceded it, but hindsight adds some important caveats to this long-established formula: literary modernism is founded on the premise that fully rounded characters must be described from the inside out rather than by a mounting up of surface details. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most representative modernist novels tend to be psychological investigations of character and culture, and that they are rendered in a stream of consciousness technique.
For better or worse, literary modernism is now a defined period. Many scholar-critics think of Joyce’s birth and death (1882—1941) as the alpha and omega of an unprecedented, and extraordinary, burst of creativity, even if a clearly modernist writer such as Samuel Beckett upsets their applecart. As to the question of what might replace literary modernism, some insisted that the answer, in a word, was nothing—because it represented an unparalleled (and non-duplicable) level of achievement. Other writers might well learn from the modernist masters but their own work could only suffer by comparison. That younger writers would resist such sour conclusions is understandable, and not surprisingly, the best proof of their argument is their work. One thinks, for example, of the lyrical stream of consciousness passages in John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy or of Philip Roth’s mouthpiece/protagonist Nathan Zuckerman as he battles against a rough and tumble world in which his modernist assumptions about art do not fit.
Thus far I have talked about the most obviously demanding aspects of modernist technique, not only the shock of plunging into, say, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1930), with Benjy Compson’s sensory stream juxtaposed against his brother Quentin’s abstract brooding, but also the various ways in which traditional narrative structures are replaced by a fractured chronology (e.g., Faulkner’s Absalom, Absaloml ) that forces readers to duplicate a protagonist’s painful journey of learning. Thus, in fleshing out the tragic dimensions of Sutpen’s grand plan, the Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom! learns what it means to be a modern Southerner, just as Nick Carraway, the self-effacing narrator of The Great Gatsby,is finally a more interesting, more important character than the enigmatic figure who gives the novel its title, or as Ralph Ellison’s unnamed protagonist discovers his “identity” after enduring a lifetime of being defined, for good or ill, by others.
Organic construction, mythic substructures, a pervasive sense of irony, and a taste for reflexivity—these are the general attributes one associates with literary modernism. Granted, these benchmarks work more easily with some writers (e.g., James Joyce) than others (e.g., D.H.Lawrence), but they remain useful nonetheless. One sees them most conspicuously in the work of poets such as T.S.Eliot and Wallace Stevens, and in the dramaturgy of Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller. In each case, the imagination is paramount (“Things are as they are,” Stevens liked to insist, “are changed when played on a blue guitar”), whether it arrives as a dramatic rendering of what we now [reductively] call “dysfunctional families” (O’Neil) or the internal crackup of a salesman down on his luck (Miller).
Moreover, cross-fertilization plays an important role in the ways that individual modernists kept pushing the envelope of their respective genres. Frost, for example, wrote lyrics undergirded by a darkness many unsophisticated readers missed, but he also tried his hand at longer dramatic poems that were just a hair’s breath away from drama itself, and what is true for Frost is perhaps doubly so of the pre-1925 Walt Whitman. As a writer of urban short stories, Walter Whitman would surely have slipped through the memory hole; but as Walt Whitman, a self-proclaimed “kosmos,” his catalogues seek to embrace the country in its sheer size and endless variety. The point, of course, is that Whitman’s long lines, longer catalogues, and thoroughly democratic posture made a national poetry possible. The “blab of the pave,” as he called it, meant that his years as a reporter could be elbowed into high art, just as his long walks along the Long Island shoreline could produce odes of exceptional power and beauty. Most of all,” however, Whitman’s poetry was a compendium of its multiple sources: notebook jottings, manifesto essays, tall tales, historical events, operatic aria—all designed to serve in the large (lifetime) project that was Leaves of Grass.
Subsequent American poets tended to divide themselves into sons of Whitman (William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg spring to mind), or more frequently, as sons of Eliot’s modernism. I would argue that both poets are literary modernists in their fashion, with Whitman’s defiant “yawp” expressing an early stage of development and Eliot’s nervous collages of a culture in disintegration signifying a later evolution. What they share is the belief—powerfully announced by the late 19th-century poet-critic Matthew Arnold—that literature would eventually replace religion. Indeed, poetry became a religion for those late Victorians who could no longer, after Darwin, continue to regard the world as an orderly enterprise. The slaughterhouse of World War I exploded such an antiquated vision every bit as much as tanks, aerial bombing, and mustard gas forever altered the formulae of romantic warfare.
Hemingway’s starkly understated sentences were one form that the new dispensation took; Faulkner’s thickly textured accounts of doomed fliers were another. I point this out because, as George Orwell once remarked, sometimes it is useful to restate the obvious. When the world no longer matches an older set of assumptions, artists are likely to become a force for change. So it is that Hemingway put an ironic spin on the words of the Book of Common Prayer—“Let us have peace in our time”—by relying almost entirely on the truth of sensory experience as opposed to the systematic lies told through abstractions; and so it is that a novel like Faulkner’s Sartoris (1929) reaches back to the Civil War in an effort to separate what was noble from that which was merely foolhardy.
Literary modernism is difficult because the world it seeks to describe is itself increasingly complicated, and because neither the old platitudes nor the old postures any longer suffice. The same thing might be said of the new forms that modernist experimentation took. In this sense, it is helpful to think of The Waste Land as Eliot’s effort to turn a long poem into something akin to a novel (I am referring here to the social grids that impose themselves on the imaginative landscape every bit as much as does the intimations of classical mythology), and of The Great Gatsby as a novel that aspires to the organic condition of a poem.
In short, the muse of modernist writing was a demanding one, and this was equally true for those who set out to explicate its richly embroidered textures. The payoff—or at least the ostensible pay-off —was a way of navigating through what Eliot called “the fragments” of culture that shore up our ruin. Less grandly put, modernist literature worked on the premise that one could not read but only reread a modernist work; and, moreover, that serious literature read you rather than the other way around. If there is a “bottom line” in modernist writing (something that many would dispute) it is this: “Change your life!” The line is Rainer Marie Rilke’s but it is applicable to a wide range of American works, from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman.
A radical religious conversion is what happened to Saul as he made his way toward Tarsus (he became Paul, and therein lies the story of the most powerful of Jesus’s early “explainers”), and in a similar way conversions of a literary, secular sort occur when human truths are revealed within the folds of a literary work. Notice that I did not use the fashionable word “text,” nor did I pussy foot around the business of “meaning.” What modernist literature and its best critics insisted on is the way that writing at its best worked toward the creation of life-altering epiphanies. If it were true that literary modernism demanded a high level of intelligence (Eliot regarded brain power as the sole criterion that divided good critics from decidedly lesser ones. I would merely add to the mix a capacity for rigorous attention and a well-sharpened #2 pencil), it is perhaps even truer that modernist literature often stands between a passionately engaged reader and the abyss.
Very little of the last element manages to survive in college classrooms, and this is why what Randall Jarrell called The Age of Criticism is less a description than an edgy quip. He did not mean his words to be taken as a compliment, but that is exactly how many New Critics proudly understood his phrase. Granted, it was useful, especially in an age that increasingly saw literature through a political lens, to insist that the imagination occupied a realm entirely on its own, and that we apply the measuring rods of sociology at our peril.
During the 1930’s, for example, many writers looked at the deplorable conditions caused by the Great Depression and understandably concluded that Marxism was the key—not only to ameliorating economic woe but also to merging the individual writer with the masses. A revolutionary message was what mattered and not the cardboard characters who often delivered it. The recipe was a literary disaster waiting to happen and as one “proletarian writer” after another came at fiction writing armed with the Truth and often with a Communist party blueprint. There were notable exceptions—e.g., John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1937), is one example, John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, another—but most of the well-meaning efforts to spread the good news about communism ended up as being closer to propaganda than to the condition of art.
Indeed, how could it have been otherwise? To become a captive of the near-at-hand, especially when it takes a stridently political form, is to abandon the literary muse for a pragmatic one. Not surprisingly, serious writers, modernist or otherwise, eventually bristled under the party discipline of any party. In all the cant about liberation, the only “liberation” that genuine writers care about is the ability to write honestly and well about what they feel. The shape and ring of paragraphs—their syntax, if you will—matters in ways that party bosses could not countenance and that party hacks (let Howard Fast serve as the condition writ large) could never understand. In 7 Married a Communist (1998), Philip Roth’s exploration of witch-hunting hysteria and “progressive” agitprop during the 1950’s, his protagonist (the ubiquitous Nathan Zuckerman) learns a valuable lesson from his freshman English instructor at the University of Chicago:
As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself—for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized.
Nathan’s professor operates from within a modernist sensibility, one that sees literature as an end in itself, and then goes on to insist that the only end worth the tears of creation and the trouble of criticism is that which gives the individual sufferer (what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself) a full measure of humanity. If our nightmarish 20th century taught us anything it is that programs out to fulfill noble ends often find themselves mired in ignoble means. By contrast, literature lives in places of the heart where, as W.H.Auden once put it, “busy executives would never want to tamper.” Look for a bottom line and you search in vain—not only because the complicated truth that literature tells is in the details but also because an easy reductiveness is always the enemy of sophisticated pleasure.
Whatever the excesses perpetrated by an age of criticism that asked readers to check their cultural politics at the door, it was dead right about how to spread the word about serious books, especially among a generation of undergraduates attending college on the GI Bill. By learning how to close read poems, short stories, and novels, the orbit of high culture widened, even if some students were longer on note-taking than on independent analysis. Even worse, perhaps, the sheer terror that literary modernism thought of as its specialty often devolved into a set of toothless cliches about alienation, angst, and all their cousins. Still, I would argue that the 1950’s was a case of assets outweighing liabilities, and further, that the general agreements about what constituted literary excellence served both literature and criticism well.
At this point, let me add a few touches about the cultural milieu in which the age of criticism would co-exist—sometimes happily, sometimes less so. During World War II, cheap paperback reprints (Pocket Books, as they were known at the time) came into being and with them, a much wider reading audience for books of every sort; and by the 1950’s a writer such as Hemingway could be embraced by the literati as well as common readers. Part of the reason is that he took on the themes that great literature always wrestles with (love, death, war, and perhaps most of all, the codes that enable one to exhibit grace under pressure), and part is the quintessentially American rhythm of his stripped-down style. He brought the news, often bad, of what it meant to be an American during the bloodiest decades of the 20th century.
At this point, it might be helpful to explore a modestly revisionist view of the 1950’s, a decade usually written off as a time of conservative politics, economic prosperity, and above all else, social conformity. Let me begin with “conservative politics,” a phrase meant to conjure up everything from President Dwight Eisenhower’s brand of Republican politics to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s heated efforts to expose Communist infiltration. In 1952, Eisenhower was swept into office on a campaign promising peace and prosperity. As his election rhetoric proudly declared, what America needs to do is take the straight road down the middle. At nearly the same moment, however, Cold War anxieties became an increasing worry, and for Senator McCarthy, an opportunity. He claimed that enemies to our national security were everywhere—among scientists, diplomats, the military, academicians, and the entertainment industry—and, moreover, that he knew who they were. Although his wild accusations were often off-target, and McCarthy himself would later be discredited, the Red Scare he set into motion had a chilling effect on the nation’s culture. Or so the semi-official story of those times, those places, would have it.
What strikes me as more reliable are studies that document the widespread affluence that a wartime economy had created. For example, in 1949 William Levitt converted a Long Island potato field into a prefabricated suburban community called (what else?) Levittown. For $60 a month and no down payment, a person could buy a $7,990 four-room house with an attic, an outdoor barbecue, a washing machine, and a 12 1/2-inch built-in TV set. Corporate America had jobs for those men willing to don gray flannel suits, and wives were offered the rewards of glittering new homes and kitchens filled with the latest appliances (Mixmasters, electric knives, blenders, even automatic dishwashers). The 1950’s, in short, often seemed to be a decade dedicated to wholesomeness, as evidenced by such best-selling books as Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), popular songs like “Love and Marriage,” crew cuts and white bucks, Little League baseball, Tupperware parties, and TV sit-coms of the “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” sort.
But all this dutifully catalogued, there was a darker side to the 1950’s that belies the glib formula of conformity’s many faces. As a phrase from Robert Lowell’s “Memories of West Street and Lepke” suggests, these were also the nervous “tranquilized Fifties.” And while Lowell is surely confessing certain aspects of his own life and how they landed him in a mental hospital, the fact remains that the drug Miltown was the 1950’s tranquilizer of choice for an astonishing number of people. Indeed, the more one looks at the tics of rebellion just underneath the folds of gray flannel suiting or at the cultural indicators that do not quite fit with the placid face one associated with President Eisenhower, the more one realizes just how jumpy and uncertain the decade actually was.
In addition, the decade’s best literature confirms this suspicion. Consider, for example, the following list: William Faulkner’s Collected Stones (1950), J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel (1958), and Philip Roth’s Good-bye, Columbus (1959). With the exception of the 1920’s, it is hard to think of another 20th-century American decade so awash with literary richness. Explaining how and why this cultural explosion happened is probably a matter of balancing individual talent with postwar America and then leaving plenty of room for such imponderables as dumb luck and pure chance. In the final analysis, however, what matters is that the best elements of literary modernism were joined to an age of criticism that took literature seriously and that knew why some works were, in fact, better than other ones.
The age of theory has largely destabilized whatever consensus about literature once existed. Whose interests are being served, many theorists ask, when one group of writers is “privileged” over another? And in the same spirit, terms such as “excellence” or “standards” now find themselves in accusatory sentences beginning with the word whose.Resist the effort to see all literature, indeed, everything, as an expression of political interests, and you will likely find yourself hooted out of the contemporary classroom as an embodiment of the patriarchal, hegemonic conspiracy. Luckily, serious writing happens in other places—and that happy fact, rather than political grandstanding, is my principal concern.
Postmodernism is, let us say, a spongy word, one that has become increasingly so since this all-purpose description first burst onto the literary scene during the mid-1960’s. For some, postmodernism indicates the presence of pastiche, contradictory “voices,” fragmented or “open forms,” and a heightened sense of playfulness. For others, it means metafiction, which I take to be fiction-about-fiction. Still others think of postmodernism as an effort to call truth, reality, and other abstractions into deep question. The result is an up-for-grabs condition that excites some and infuriates others.
Even if the following list omits certain writers who have made a credo out of unreadability, rounding up the usual postmodern suspects may be helpful. They include: John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison, E.L.Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Maxine Hong Kingston, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone., and David Foster Wallace. At their best, these writers force us to read in new ways and to confront a world riddled with conspiracy theories and the paranoia they generate. How else, they might argue, can one write about the contemporary world if not by way of throwing the old rules—and forms—out? After all, a chronological narrative, which even in the days of modernist experimentation was regarded as one damn thing after another, cannot possibly work in the decades since Woodstock and the Vietnam War.
There is a certain rough truth in postmodernist defenses, and plenty of evidence that the fiction produced under its influence was just the shot in the arm that our increasingly timid (or possibly just befuddled) fiction needed. But I say this knowing full well that, say, Barth’s brand of metafiction, once so vibrant, now seems as stale and unprofitable as anything Hamlet complains about. Moreover, let me simply announce postmodernism’s dirty little secret—namely, that nobody wants to reread Lost in the Funhouse any more than such a person wants to revisit the pages of a Thomas Wolfe doorstopper. Like disposable razors and instant coffee, postmodernist works are not designed to last.
It is, of course, true that successive generations of young readers still cut their teeth on Brautigan or Vonnegut, just as Beatniks such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs will always have an appeal for those who dream about cutting loose, and out; but enthusiasm of this sort does not butter many parsnips for those who have invested heavily in cutting edge theory. I am surely not alone in feeling that many theory-heads like to argue about the Big Issues far more than they enjoy turning the pages of specific novels, stories, poems, and plays. In this sense, turgid speculation about “texts” not only leaves more room in the day to catch up on the latest news being announced in Diacritics, but it also allows one to feel that the real artists of our time are the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Frederick Jameson, and Julia Kristeva.
The result is that literature itself no longer brings much excitement to the academic table. An even sadder truth, however, is that the public at large thinks of “literature” as those books commanding the largest display racks at the local Barnes & Noble. Nor do the troubles stop there: young writers dream about penning episodes of “The Sopranos” or adapting somebody else’s novel for the silver screen. That’s, I am told, where the action (and money) currently is. The marvel is that a significant number of young writers (one sees their work in dozens of high quality magazines such as Granta or in anthologies published by Pushcart Press) continue to write honestly and well. In the best of the bunch, their prose is as clear as any Spanish stream Hemingway ever fished in, and even more impressive, they give life to characters we can care about. One reads their work with pleasure, and then notices how diverse a group they truly are. There is, for example, fiction by the children of survivors (e.g., Melvin Jules Bukiet and Thane Rosenbaum); riffs about contemporary black life by Trey Ellis and Paul Beatty; stories set in the West (Brady Udall) or in New York City (Jonathan Rosen); and dozens of others worth our attention not because they represent formerly “underrepresented/silenced” voices, but because they are simply good.
Millennial fever is a condition that often tempts people to sit on the ground and tell sad tales about the way it was when writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald ruled the roost. I have tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to resist that impulse, partly because the deeper truth about American literature is that it will keep exploring the endless ways that a Self can collide with Society and partly because nothing moves me more than a great story spun out by somebody with a feel for timing and an ability to put the right words in the right order. Speaking not only for himself but also for all American writers who would come after him, Walt Whitman thought of himself as waiting slightly ahead of the reader who would eventually catch up with him. In my best, which is to say, optimistic moments, I think of myself as precisely that reader, the sort who finds himself surprised and then convinced by the necessary magic and truth-telling that was always at the center of our national literature, and in ever-new combinations, still is.