The Book Club

Who Do We Mean by “We”?

Dear Chris,

The case Dickstein makes for “the essential continuity of the postwar decades”—and therefore against the lazy stereotyping of the ‘50s and ‘60s as a slough of gray conformism followed by an explosion of paisley rebellion—strikes me as unarguable, so much so that I found myself getting a little impatient at how strenuously he sometimes argued it. “From our dim memories of the early years of television, the dying days of the Hollywood studio system, and the popular songs of the Hit Parade,” he writes, “we still think of the 1950s as a time of sunny, even mindless optimism, only slightly dimmed by preparations for World War III.” This depends a little on who we mean by “we,” doesn’t it, since if you remember Ernie Kovacs, film noir, and early rock ’n’ roll (not that I do, exactly), you might think of the ‘50s somewhat differently. In fact, I think that the simplistic view of the decade, though it was to some extent contemporaneous (“these are the tranquilized Fifties/ and I’m forty” Robert Lowell groused in “Memories of West Street and Lepke”), is largely a product of post-’60s retrospect. In any case it seems to me that anyone with some acquaintance with the novelists Dickstein writes about—and also with the sociologists, movie stars, and musicians he mentions in passing—will immediately acknowledge that the immediate postwar years were anything but sunny and staid.

But here Dickstein encounters a paradox that I wish he’d gone a little further in analyzing. That is, if you examine his postwar canon—Bellow and Salinger, Ellison and Updike, Mailer and Roth, and so on—you come away with a picture of a society riven by disquiet, sexual turmoil, social alienation, and existential anxiety. Or rather, you come away with a series of portraits of individuals (of men, more precisely, but we’ll get to that) who, for reasons of race, region, experience, sexual appetite, temperament, or happenstance, feel themselves to be outsiders, at odds with a society that takes itself to be staid, conformist, optimistic, and so forth, and who together constitute an incipient counterculture. The problem, I think, is that Dickstein falls back too easily on a dichotomy between this literary-artistic dissenting culture and something he sometimes calls the “official” culture. This, I think, is the only idée reçue in the book. The more I think about postwar America in this period, the less I am convinced that the clash between conformity and rebellion, understood as culturally distinct attitudes, is sufficient to explain its peculiarities.

There is a long, haranguing passage in “The White Negro” that begins “one is a rebel or one conforms,” but Mailer’s Manichaeism is (and was) misguided. The case of Rabbit Angstrom, as steadfastly loyal to whoever occupied the White House as he was incorrigibly unfaithful to poor Janice, suggests that conformity and rebellion are not necessarily antithetical at all. I’m not sure, by the way, that I follow Dickstein in seeing the Rabbit cycle as unfolding “a long history of decline.” Rabbit is not only, in Updike’s ironic version of the old Protestant doctrine of predestination, one of the Elect, but also a member of the 20th century’s triumphant revolutionary class, the American middle. If you read the posthumous coda Updike published in 2000 (Rabbit Remembered), you discover a surprisingly happy ending.

But I digress. And I want to make clear that these arguments are mostly an index of how stimulating I found this book to be and how, like the best criticism, it suggests tangents of thought that take the reader well beyond Dickstein’s immediate concerns. The richness of the book comes in part from his juxtapositions of authors who might not seem, at first glance, to belong together and his discovery of latent affinities between them. Thus, in the book’s best chapter, he travels from J.D. Salinger to Richard Yates (who I believe is at last poised for his long-overdue revival with the recent publication of his collected stories). That sounds like a pretty short trip—from middle-class urban adolescence to middle-class suburban adulthood—except that the path leads through Kerouac, Updike, Cheever, Nabokov, and Barth. Rather than squeeze these guys into a narrowly tailored idea, Dickstein muses over the ways they each engage the venerable American theme of flight—the idiosyncratic ways they set about, in effect, rewriting Huckleberry Finn.

Dickstein’s judgment strikes me, for the most part, as reasonable and sound: I was especially grateful for his appreciation of Paul Bowles (whose exoticism is sometimes too easily dismissed) and of Tennessee Williams as a short-story writer. Unlike you, I thought he was pretty kind to old Norman Mailer (whose reputation has suffered quite a bit of late)—not only paying tribute to Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song (which are, by consensus, Mailer’s masterpieces), but defending the widely ridiculed Deer Park and An American Dream, which I believe to be the worst American novel of the postwar era and therefore an absolutely indispensable work of contemporary American literature.

As you point out there are, inevitably, repetitions and also, equally inevitably, omissions, as well as glancing asides that cry out for expansion. William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, for instance, is called “the most secretly influential novel” of the period. Wow. Really? Why? How? Nothing more is said. And Flannery O’Connor finds her way into many catalogs of worthy writers without getting the full interpretative treatment she deserves.

I’d like to press you a little on the blacks and Jews—where is it that you think Dickstein goes astray?—and ask what you think of his classification of Bowles, Williams, Capote, and Vidal as “homosexual” writers, a label they would surely have resisted at the time. I also wonder what you think about the absence of women—less out of a concern for balance and diversity than as a matter of literary history. Dickstein notes that, in the period under study “few major women writers emerged,” but I wonder if his own preoccupations—with subjectivity over social concern, with rebellion over observation—don’t color his idea of what is major. The name Mary McCarthy turns up now and again, but her contribution to postwar letters, which has always been, in my view, egregiously underestimated, is scarcely reckoned. This is partly, I suspect, because the kind of realism she practiced was looked down on by the critics and other novelists of the time (Mailer notoriously among them), and I think Dickstein shares some of their prejudices, preferring the romance of masculine self-pity in its various forms to the unsentimental observations of social behavior that McCarthy (like Dawn Powell, another ‘30s holdover nowhere mentioned in this book) was so good at. So the absence of The Group (except obliquely in connection to Goodbye Columbus) strikes me (and perhaps only me) as pretty glaring.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a book that Dickstein does include that strikes me as undeserving.

All the best,