The Book Club

Chronicle of a Death?

Dear Chris,

It hadn’t occurred to me that Dickstein is retelling that old story of the death of the novel—for one thing, he’s much too patient and commonsensical a critic to succumb to such a melodramatic formulation. But you’re quite right: This story of “the transformation of American fiction” is also the story of how American fiction began lose its cultural centrality. And yet, at the same time, Dickstein’s alert, sometimes counterintuitive readings advance a powerful, if implicit, argument that the American novel in the ‘50s and ‘60s provides unmatched insight into the state of American society—or, if you want, of the American soul—in those decades. This book confirmed my long-held suspicion that fiction is really all the social science we need.

It’s possible that the postwar novel fulfilled this function especially well because, paradoxically enough, it was committed, perhaps as never before, to being art. “Compared to writers of the thirties,” Dickstein writes, “whose work could be too spare and topical, too journalistic, and to many post-sixties writers, who were often seduced by cultural fashion, Bellow, O’Connor, Ellison, Malamud, Cheever, Updike, Baldwin, Mailer and Roth were faithful to their aesthetic conscience … even when the results showed up their own faults of craft of character. They remained loyal to the novel even as its boundaries blurred and its hold on readers diminished. Art may not have made them immortal, but it has given their show a long and uncommonly interesting run.” 

One thing that struck me again and again in re-reading the novels of the 1950s over Dickstein’s shoulder (and he notes it more than once) is how little they have dated. His idea of “the essential continuity of the postwar decades” seems to me to extend into the present. You remarked on Tuesday that 1946 was in many ways closer to 1964 than to 1942; I’d suggest 2002 is also closer to 1952 than 1952 is to 1942—that the deep parameters of individual and communal experience have changed less than we might think. As evidence for this I’d cite the continued hold that novelists like Salinger, Updike, Bellow, and Ellison have over the imaginations of readers and writers who came after, and also the tenacity of certain characteristic themes and motifs in fiction, from the rise of the suburb to the crisis of modern marriage to the predicament of racial identity.

So if Leopards in the Temple is the chronicle of a death, it’s a pretty spectacular demise, and also a very long one. If only every art form could be so vital at the moment of its passing—not that I really believe the novel is dead or dying. The moral that I took from Dickstein was a version of Faulkner’s dictum that the past is not dead, it’s not even past. Rabbit lives! Holden lives! Invisible Man lives! Lolita (light of my life, fire of my loins) lives!

They live, of course, through their readers. It’s been a great pleasure to revisit them in Morris Dickstein’s wise company. And—more than that, and as always—in yours.

All the best,