Tuesday, September 26, 2006

1950s Literature: The Lost World

It wasn't a golden-age, except for lovers of American-made cars, Abstract Expressionism, film noir, and rock and roll. It was marked by hipocrisy on a grand scale in the matters of race, sex, gender and personal freedom. It witnessed the genesis of two of our worst American ills: (chilling music here) the suburbs; and what has now become an ecologically unsustainable addiction to highway-connected sprawl. It was also the last decade in which a certain venerable art form often called "the novel" was actually held in the same kind of high regard as other popular, powerful arts.

Given the fact that movies, music and design from the era is woven tightly into our culture today, it is peculiar that literature of the 1950s, except for certain Beat Generation classics, is largely forgotten. I don't mean disdained or denigrated. I mean unstudied, undiscussed, ignored. I'd like to see it resurrected for the purposes of literary study. I think we'd learn much about where we've come from by doing so.

Culturally, what is conveniently known as The Fifties actually began in about 1947 (when Russia got the bomb) and ended in Dallas in the early afternoon on November 22, 1963. My main thesis here is that in the literature of this period we find a singular phenomenon, almost a cultural fossil, not likely to be found in any other literary strata available to us.

I would describe the fossilized artifact as follows:

If we accept the assumption (and I do) that with the advent of civil rights, youthful radicalism, feminism and post-Dylan pop music the cultural landscape changed entirely and irrevocably (though that is lately challenged in the Bush era), then we'd have to submit the following as corollary: that the 1950s represents the very last rear guard of that two-thousand year-old, pre-liberated Western culture--in which racism, sexism, suppression, open hipocrisy and religious piety were all taken as bedrock facts immutable and more or less unquestioned.

For that fact alone--that we can examine these cultural artifacts in their final, most advanced and also most corrupt state--I think the literature of the period is worth studying. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is in the literature of the period--as opposed to film and in the plastic arts--where we find these notions most thoroughly explored; where we can find them manifested in characters we might recognize from the inside. I would say it were true even if allowing that some of the authors would not have been aware of their contribution to this particular lode.

We find this rear guard populated by writers of various talents and tendencies. By reciting the following list I make no assertions about quality or self-awareness; only their fitness for study as literary fossils. I am talkiing about authors like James Jones, John O'Hara, Robert Penn Warren, James Gould Cozzens and Joyce Cary. We can place early Mailer there before he smoked pot and deconstructed himself and ran for mayor. Saul Bellow's early works fit: his Augie March without a doubt, in any case. And does anyone remember that John P. Marquand was often on the best seller lists then? We might even put some of Hemingway's later works there for they qualify temporally and culturally. And John Knowles' middle-school classic "A Separate Peace" is copyrighted 1959. There are many others too numerous to mention.

The cut begins after Faulkner and ends before Kesey. It disincludes Kerouac, Burroughs, Algren, Barth and Pynchon for what I think are the fairly obvious tendencies of these writers to have utterly rejected what was then convention. They staked out new, ironic territories on the left bank of the river. It disincludes James Baldwin too because his work is essentially part of what I would call liberation literature, and presages much that would come later. Nor does it include so-called pulp fiction because pulp ficition authors rarely found consideration as "serious novelists."

No doubt the list will include largely (if not entirely) white males. Its possible this fact may deterr some from being intrigued. So would the acknowledged suspicion that the literary family mentioned above found extinction with remarkable (and perhaps justifed) speed once the Beatles showed up. History had to make room for moptops making wisecracks by day and by night, summoning Dionysian screams from their audiences. By 1964, the last rear guard of traditional Western culture had been heaved over the side--and as the New York Times noted on the day the Beatles hit the tarmac at a newly-renamed Kennedy Airport: "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

But the signature works of the 1950s represent a paradigm worth review. I would say that, turned to the light in a certain way, the works of this period, of this group of men, in their proud, often unwitting, occasionally plodding doggedness, reveal glimpses we had not expected to see; facets of ourselves today often enough in ways we had perhaps hoped to avoid; examples of what was left behind and why; cautions; and often enough to make it interesting, some pretty good writing too.


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