The Book Club

Meaning: In Short Supply in Postwar America

Dear Tony,

Agreed, agreed. The problem with the conformist-rebel dialectic is not only that it’s too simple-minded but also that it’s the wrong dialectic. The real problem is that the institutions and habits of mind that came out of the war robbed American (perhaps especially ethnic American) life of much of its humanity. The red-hot burning core of postwar malaise is the relative lack of social meaning available to ordinary people—the social de-oxygenation. You can blame the regimentation of American life that resulted when military men moved into the leadership vacuum opened up by, first, the discrediting of business elites in the Depression, and, second, the death of FDR. (It was this that brought the erosion of women’s role in American society, with such catastrophic consequences.) Or you can blame it on technology, mobility, consumerism, and the almost-total failure of elites to put them at the service of people. The real dialectic is not conformist/rebel, it’s regimentation/humanity.

“Conformity” shouldn’t be a dirty word—it’s just “belonging,” which we all want to do, recast as an imprecation. These writers are not—with the exception of the worthless Mailer and the equally worthless late Baldwin—rebels. They’re people who want to belong. Roth and Cheever are forward-looking belongers; their characteristic mood is neurotic, ambitious, insecure. Kerouac (especially in Dickstein’s groundbreaking reading of him as a Catholic reactionary) and Malamud are backward-looking belongers; their characteristic mood is nostalgic, despairing.

That’s where I think Dickstein’s ethnic views are too deterministic and risk blurring important distinctions. When Dickstein calls Jewish writers “specialists in alienation, virtuosos of moral anguish,” he puts us on a straight track to those slight novels of ethnic fetishism—the Louise Erdrich school, aspiring not so much to art as to ethnographic fieldwork—that were all the rage in the 1990s. Dickstein is occasionally guilty of reasoning backwards, from the ethnic identity of his writers to the problems they’re supposed to be “virtuosos” in. Obviously the Holocaust was looming over the minds of all sentient people in the 1950s, and it’s important to note the ways Saul Bellow’s anguish isthe same as Hannah Arendt’s. But it’s considerably more important to note the ways J.D. Salinger’s anguish is not Paul Celan’s. Dickstein is at his most reductive when he says, “The nightmares of the black and Jewish writers seem more historical, less purely personal, for they were grounded in real traumas, the cultural legacies of their people.” Here, “purely personal”—to the extent that the phrase has any meaning at all—seems meant as a slight. But races don’t write novels, “purely personal” persons do. And the apposition at the end of the sentence implies that cultural legacies present the only “real traumas.” Are the traumas of Cheever or Frederick Exley (a conspicuous omission from the book, by the way) not “real”?

This period looks very different if we take “belonging” and not “conforming” as the imperative. “Alienation,” such a hip word among critics of the 1950s and 1960s, is one that Dickstein uses less than he might—but it remains immensely useful in this context. The irreducibility of Jewishness or blackness may not only not exacerbate alienation but may even serve as a refuge from it. If postwar Americans wanted to read about blacks and Jews, it was as much to be consoled as to be provoked.

Dickstein seems to see this clearly in his reverent reading of Ellison. At his best, Dickstein also sees that such belonging is not the monopoly of ethnic minorities. That’s why his reading of Updike—in which he focuses on Rabbit Angstrom’s hypothetical traditionalism, his mild reactionary Protestantism—strikes me as a high point of the book. Rabbit can’t live his faith, but he knows it’s there, and he suspects that those who hold themselves superior to it are scoundrels. Such a scoundrel is the hip clergyman Eccles, who tries to put Rabbit’s marriage back together even as his own falls apart. Dickstein writes:

He is Updike’s mordant comment on this new authority figure of postwar culture, the doctor, minister, psychiatrist, or social worker who began offering post-theological solutions to the sense of alienation. … Eccles is a vehicle for Updike’s larger ambition: to make Rabbit, Run more than a documentary take on the miseries of married life, to turn it into a novel of ideas. Eccles stands for a therapeutic liberalism that blatantly intrudes into other people’s lives; his religious skepticism deifies social and personal bonds over any higher powers. To Updike, Eccles represents the vaunted religious revival of the fifties, humanistic instead of dogmatic, this-worldly rather than otherworldly, altogether enlightened and reasonable but spiritually null. Eccles’s technique for saving souls is manipulative, not authoritarian. His own soul is in a questionable state; perhaps it has been replaced by his social conscience, which Updike sees as a subtle will to power.

More ingenious still, Dickstein shows how Updike’s desire “to seek God in the suburbs” lays the groundwork for a certain strain of the 1960s counterculture. Updike’s doomed husbands, like Kerouac’s wanderers and the juvenile delinquents of film, are on “an inchoate quest for meaning”—meaning being the commodity of which postwar America is in the shortest supply. If he’s right, what a desperately necessary revolution the counterculture set rolling.


P.S.: No, it doesn’t bother me that Dickstein lumps Vidal, Williams, Capote, and Bowles together as “gay writers”—at least not any more than it does to see Baldwin and Ellison lumped together as “black writers.” First, because Dickstein is careful to leave wide open the non-gay side of their work: Vidal on American history, Bowles on drugs, Capote on crime, etc. Second, because he’s punctilious about distinguishing among them on literary grounds, as when he notes that “Bowles is astringently precise and detached where Capote remains watery, vague, and self-pitying.”