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Spotting Leopards In Postwar America

ISSUE:  Winter 2003
Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945—1970. By Morris Dickstein. Harvard University Press. $15.95.

The 1950’s are the Midwest of American cultural history, the flyover flatlands slighted by critics in quest of more spectacular terrain. Dwight Eisenhower, Pat Boone, and Donna Reed have seemed, in retrospect, to be tutelary spirits to a timorous age of conformity, consumerism, and complacency. It was the habitat of organization men, lonely crowds, and men in gray flannel suits, except that the coiners of those terms, William H. Whyte, David Reisman, and Sloan Wilson, respectively, were also contemporary with the numbing blandness that they indicted. What kept the postwar years from being the worst of times was the vigor of the chorus proclaiming that it was the worst of times. “Never did so triumphant a period produce such a mass of angry criticism,” notes Morris Dickstein, surveying a postwar culture he finds clamorous with adversarial voices. The enduring literary legacy of the coercive decade that produced hula hoops, TV dinners, and Joseph McCarthy includes such major works of transgressive fiction as Invisible Man, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, The Magic Barrel, Seize the Day, Lolita, and The End of the Road.

In his best-known book, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1977), Dickstein insisted on tracing the antecedents of the apocalyptic Age of Aquarius to the antinomian energies of the Age of Anxiety, a decade dominated by the novel threat of nuclear annihilation. In Leopards in the Temple, Dickstein contends that the entire 25 years following the end of World War II constitute a single continuum, and he proceeds to examine together the novels and short stories created in the United States throughout that quarter-century. Yet he now dismisses much of what the final years of the period produced: “The cultural turbulence of the 1960s inspired little first-rate fiction but much attitudinizing.” Though he offers cogent readings of Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) and The Armies of the Night (1968) and mere mention of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Dickstein is most inspired by the dissidents, rebels, and neurotics who dared disturb the placid surface of the earlier decade, in which Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living sat high on the best-seller lists. He is teased into thought by ambivalence, by how: “The fifties were at once a period of complacency, of getting and spending, and an age of anxiety, a time for doubt and self-questioning, as shown by works like David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.” As urban riots and Vietnam revealed an America riven by violent racial and generational conflict, it also became less equivocal and less interesting to Dickstein.

The title Leopards in the Temple (adopted also for a study of technology and culture by Steven Carter that was published three months earlier) emphasizes the volume’s focus on transgressive texts. An epigraph quotes Franz Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.” Elsewhere, Dickstein identifies Kafka’s leopard with “the force of the irrational.” The implication is that the authors he is most intent on reading—James Baldwin, John Barth, Saul Bellow, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Chester B. Himes, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Bernard Malamud, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams—violated the contemporary consensus about what constituted reason. The corollary is that the power of their art has made these outsiders part of the ceremony, part of the culture upon which they trespassed.

Leopards in the Temple originated as an essay for the new Cambridge History of American Literature, an exercise in literary historiography that, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, prizes interpretation over mere iteration. Dickstein’s survey is not exhaustive; his discussion of postwar fiction either omits or minimizes Nelson Algren, George Garrett, William Goyen, John Hawkes, Wright Morris, John O’Hara, J. F. Powers, Wallace Stegner, and William Styron. Though Dickstein recovers Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road from unjust oblivion and makes a strong case for Tennessee Williams’ prose fiction (though not Arthur Miller’s), a passing reference to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions as “one of the secretly influential texts of postwar fiction” fails to let a reader in on the secret. Contending that few major women writers emerged during the period, Dickstein excludes or slights Jane Bowles, Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Hardwick, Shirley Jackson, Harper Lee, Mary McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Stafford, and Eudora Welty in his account of the men who transformed American fiction. Nor are popular authors such as Allen Drury, Edna Ferber, Robert Heinlein, Grace Metalious, James Michener, Ayn Rand, Herman Wouk, and Frank Yerby accorded a position in the discussion.

Dickstein has, however, mastered a vast library of fiction and criticism. Much of his book reads like a sequel to Alfred Kazin’s formidable On Native Grounds, called on its cover “A Study of American Prose Literature from 1890 to the Present,” when the present was 1942. The first novel that Dickstein examines at length is Jones’s From Here to Eternity, “still the best of all the novels about the Second World War,” which is set in 1941. On Native Grounds was a young autodidact’s impassioned response to the body of modern American literature in which he had immersed himself, and, though Dickstein is a respected, middle-aged academic, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, Leopards in the Temple also derives its strength from the author’s personal engagement with his subject. Published by an eminent university press and equipped with a formidable bibliography of secondary—but not primary—works, it lacks both footnotes and obfuscating jargon. It is written in lucid, potent prose.

Chronology guides but does not dictate Dickstein’s discussions. Though he begins with the World War II novelists, including Jones, Mailer, and Vidal, he continues on to depictions of Vietnam by Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien before returning to the 40’s with Himes and Bellow. Dickstein’s taxonomy is tentative. Though he suggests a distinction between “lyric” and “ironic” novels, reminiscent of earlier attempts to separate American literature into Dionysian and Apollonian—Redskin and Paleface—camps, he concedes that the era found its most enduring expression in works that embody tensions between the two. He discovers the venerable ghost of Henry James even in the postwar period’s most recalcitrant figures, characterizing, for example, James Baldwin—angry, expatriate, gay, and black—as “a Jamesian who at bottom was aesthetically and morally conservative.”

Contemporary accounts tended to locate postwar cultural energies in three sources: Jews, blacks, and Southerners. Dickstein is informed and eloquent about the ways in which Jews and blacks transformed American literature, but he is noticeably reticent about how, a century after Appomattox, the postbellum South conquered the national imagination. He convincingly links developments in prose fiction to Beat poetry, abstract expressionist painting, film noir, and bebop jazz, but he has nothing to say about the infancy of television or the boom in professional sports. Yet, explaining the history of the postwar novel as a shift from Marx to Freud, as an introverted turn away from the 30’s concern with social justice, Dickstein nevertheless knows how politics and economics colored the stories that Americans told. The fact that the ghastly, costly Korean War figures nowhere in Leopards in the Temple probably reflects American revulsion from foreign entanglements more than a blind spot in Dickstein’s vision. Nevertheless, despite a nod to Camus and Sartre, his attempt to understand the transformation of American fiction from 1945 to 1970 without some reference to what the British, German, Russians, and Latin Americans were writing reflects and perpetuates the period’s provincialism.

The image on the cover of Leopards in the Temple is a 1957 photograph of David Amram playing French horn at The Five Spot, the smoky New York club that Kerouac frequented. Like an extended jazz performance, much of the book is organized in riffs, improvisational chains of association rather than systematic disquisition. On occasion, transitions are strained, as when, jumping from The Floating Opera to Revolutionary Road, Dickstein forces the absence of connection to serve as his connection: “There could hardly be a writer more different from Barth than Richard Yates.” Sentences stand out as brilliant observations, rather than components of a rigorous argument.

The quip, for example, that: “Like dozens of later novels from On the Road and Slaughterhouse-Five to Portnoy’s Complaint and Bright Lights, Big City, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is not a growing-up novel but a not-growing-up novel, focusing on a young man’s refusal to assume the social responsibilities the world is too eager to impose on him” seems exactly right. So, too, do the telling epithets he devises to identify his authors; Cheever is “the superlative celebrant of the joys of the quotidian,” Barth “the most cerebral of novelists,” and Malamud “the doleful, ironic writer who retrieved some dark humor out of two thousand years of Jewish persecution.” Dickstein calls Mailer “the Orson Welles of American literature,” and, apt as the description is, the fact that no one would think to reverse the formula, to call Welles the Norman Mailer of American film, reflects another major transformation during the 25 years following Hiroshima.

Books of fiction moved to the margins of American culture. An elegiac note suffuses Dickstein’s astute and ardent rereading of works he has loved, as though he recognizes that he is observing the final flowering of American fiction before it is consigned to a hothouse off the beaten path. In the years since 1970, the leopard has indeed lain down with the kid, but neither now has much standing in the temple.


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