The Book Club

“Attentive and Original Without Being Show-Offy”

Dear Tony,

The last four of this book’s five chapters come from Volume 7 of The Cambridge History of American Literature, 1940-1990. So what we have on our hands here is something resembling the “Selected Encyclopedia Entries of Morris Dickstein.” Some repetition results. That is about the worst thing I can find to say about this sharp piece of literary (and ultimately cultural) criticism. Its readings are attentive and original without being show-offy. Dickstein is almost allergic to the literary, cultural, sociological, and historical clichés that are the hallmark of other critics’ writing about the period he’s covering.

But what period is he covering? Dickstein makes us rethink the concept of the “postwar” in two ways. First, he says that World War II was an epochal break for the United States, much as World War I was for Europe. A continuing “aspiration to European complexity,” as Robert Hughes put it, led Americans to share the idea of WWI as a watershed and miss the one they were actually living through. Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. “To many,” Dickstein writes, “the hierarchy and discipline of military life cut against the American grain.” We can go further than that and say it rendered impossible the individualistic culture that was the hallmark of American exceptionalism—and the mark of American literature up to that point. A lot of fiction Dickstein deals with is an attempt to get that sense of individuality back.

The second important “reperiodizing” (forgive me, Tony) is Dickstein’s rejection of the hackneyed distinction between a staid, unimaginative 1950s and a liberated creative period that starts in the 1960s. “Where once I had thought of the 1950s and 1960s as cultural contraries,” he writes, “it became clear that there were vital elements that bound together the whole period from 1945 to 1970.” Right on, as those of us born during the period used to say. The difference between 1950s culture and 1960s culture—although it served the purposes of self-styled rebels to accentuate it—is not a decisive one. I would argue that 1946 has more in common with 1964 than with 1942.

The subject of fiction after the war is both impossibly large and impossibly wrapped up with other things. Dickstein has made his subject manageable through a triage. “We can scarcely understand postwar fiction,” he writes, “without seeing how few writers from the pre-war years actually survived the war itself.” That’s not exactly true—it means largely ignoring Steinbeck, Algren, O’Hara, Cozzens, and others who did continue writing—but the fact that Dickstein believes it makes his book more readable. It allows him to focus on his real subject, which is the writers who inhabited the society (and the consciousness) World War II wrought.

To further avoid muddying the waters, Dickstein won’t touch middlebrow fiction with a barge pole, aside from a couple of brief feints at John Horne Burnes, Grace Metalious, and Cameron Hawley. (Pulp fiction is a different matter.) Where is Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe? Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy? Cozzens’ By Love Possessed? When he seeks to show what others were doing in the world of art, Dickstein focuses not on lesser fiction writers but on film noir, bebop, and Action Painting.

There is scarcely an idée reçue in the whole of this book. One of the most consistently entertaining things in this book is the author’s opinions. Dickstein is not a big rater-and-ranker, but as best I can tell, he considers the giant novel of the postwar years to be Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a “veritable Ulysses of the black experience,” which Dickstein later compares to Candide and Emerson). The major figures are Ellison and Bellow—with Updike and Roth granted a strong claim to the first rank. He makes a case for the centrality of James Jones, Chester Himes, John Barth, Richard Yates, and Tennessee Williams.

Other writers suffer. Dickstein admires the ingenuity of Catch-22 but finds it a “static book”; he gushes over Lolita but finds Nabokov’s literariness “oppressive” for the most part. Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and James Baldwin he considers better essayists than novelists. It is Vidal and Mailer whose stock falls most sharply. Vidal stands accused of a “basic timidity … a safe kind of daring.” His historical novels are “well-researched but thinly imagined.” His prose style is “the most readable and least original” of the four postwar gay writers Dickstein profiles. Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, meanwhile, is overrated and considerably less original than it looks, more a holdover from 1930s Popular Front fiction than a new direction in fiction. Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” “makes painful reading today.” So much of what Dickstein quotes invites us to see Mailer as a buffoon, particularly Mailer’s exaltation of his generation in Advertisements for Myself (“We had to write our way out into the unspoken territories of sex—there was so much there, it was new, and the life of our talent depended upon going into the borderland.”)

Criticism is in general a genre badly suited to book length. Inevitably, this book is stronger in some parts than in others. Dickstein’s reading of Updike (as a road novelist à l’intérieur) strikes me as particularly ingenious and original, his rating of Cheever seems insufficiently positive (it’s very positive, but I expect Chekhov/Maupassant invocations here), and his patience with John Barth is too long. I also think he takes a wrong turn in discussing what it is that made blacks and Jews so prominent among postwar writers. But anytime anyone writes a book of criticism that holds my interest—and Dickstein has done it several times now—I’m left grateful and even wowed.