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The Postwar Fate of American Fiction

Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review and the recipient of the 2002 National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.

“Palefaces” on one side, and “redskins” on the other was how the critic Philip Rahv divided up American writers in 1938, during bygone days of political incorrectness. In the former category, Rahv located figures such as Henry James and Edith Wharton, “palefaces” partly because of their high-society subject matter and partly because of the ironic, introspective, heavily psychological way they treated it. “Redskins” such as Mark Twain and Herman Melville, on the other hand, portrayed runaways and cannibals in rough dialects and raw settings.

As Morris Dickstein intelligently illustrates, postwar American fiction married Rahv’s segregated poles. “Paleface” and “redskin” sensibilities coupled (Philip Roth, thinking of Rahv, once referred to himself as a “Redface”) and populated the period with teeming hybrids of subtlety and savagery. There were the ambitiously realistic war-novels “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer and “From Here to Eternity” by James Jones; satirical, marmoreal fiction by Gore Vidal and Truman Capote that explored gay identity; Jack Kerouac’s sunny, ebullient assaults on the status quo and Mailer’s gloomy, ebullient assaults on the status quo; postmodernist puzzles by John Barth; cool aesthetic edifices by Vladimir Nabokov.

“Leopards in the Temple” is the only lucid and enjoyably written study of postwar American fiction to have come along in years. It first appeared in “The Cambridge History of American Literature,” which means that Dickstein’s commentary will stand for a long time as the reference work that high school and college students turn to for clarity on the subject. And so it’s important to get a good take on Dickstein’s own. Dickstein wants to revise the conventional view of the 1950s as a time of social conformity and political consensus, in which both types of complacency were nourished by tremendous economic growth and a sense of almost majestic power following the victories over Germany and Japan. Underneath the seemingly passive acceptance of mainstream values, Dickstein finds the “thread of anxiety, paranoia, and inner conflict,” but he also discovers a “wild emotional vitality ... that fed paradoxically off the economic expansions and the new social mobility.”

Of course, pinning labels on all the multitudinous episodes and events that we call history is a tricky enterprise. Dickstein adduces films noir to show the darkness lurking behind the light, and the novels of Kerouac, Vidal and Mailer to show the openness waiting behind the conformity. In other words, to demonstrate the 1950s’ wild side, he presents what everyone already accepts as proof of the 1950s’ wild side. This literary scholar only becomes interesting when his conceptual framework starts to lose its moorings in the rising flood of its contradictions, when his paleface rationalizing finds itself floating downriver through the ineffable terrain of American experience.

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Dickstein later concedes that it was, in fact, economic expansion that unparadoxically afforded writers the confidence and serenity to explore the shifting inner tides of anxiety and paranoia. This leads him to identify Kerouac’s exuberant “On the Road” with American triumphalism and, with bracing originality, to associate John Updike’s Rabbit trilogy with Kerouac’s beat picaresque novel. Dickstein insightfully shows that Vidal and Capote, possessing polished styles and plumbing subterranean subjects, are smoothly assimilable, unsettlingly subversive, deeply introspective and penetratingly social. You simply cannot get a fix on these figures.

James Baldwin, the socially enraged novelist who also railed against novels of social protest, is a typical case: As many contradictions exist in a single writer during those 25 years as among writers. Thus Dickstein’s idea of fiction’s withdrawal into the self after the war falters when he takes up astronauts of identity such as Saul Bellow and Roth, who twinned their self-investigations with precise renderings of their milieus. If Mailer returned again and again to his own ego, he also showed an uncanny receptiveness to the nature of other people. “Outsiders,” such as Vidal the alienated satirist, could operate simultaneously alongside “insiders,” such as Vidal the rueful icy patrician. Ralph Ellison, who celebrated moderation and rationality in his essays, depicted a dark, absurdist world in his masterpiece, “Invisible Man.”

Ellison emerges as the hero of this book, and that is because Dickstein cherishes what he characterizes as Ellison’s “pragmatism.” Pragmatism has become a buzz word among professors alienated by the academic left’s forbidding obscurities; they like the philosophy’s amiable blend of liberal tolerance and common sense. But it’s a strange concept to apply to this novelist, whose work’s power lies in its furious irrationality.

Dickstein’s treatment of Ellison is where his attempt to explode the standard view of the closed, conformist 1950s becomes nearly as narrow and tame as that view itself. Dickstein describes Ellison as “stak[ing] the greatest claims--not for a separate black culture or literary tradition, but for an inestimably great role within American culture.” This is indeed how Ellison envisioned the black experience in his essays and speeches, but it has nothing to do with his vision of black experience in “Invisible Man,” whose hero Dickstein rightly characterizes as “breaking with received messages, socially ascribed roles, conventional restraints, and respectable ambitions.” There is nothing liberally tolerant, common-sensical or pragmatic about Ellison’s Dostoevskyan hero, who rejects social life altogether at the end of the novel and goes to live in a basement, literally “underground.”

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Rational, liberal, humane, pragmatic, Dickstein is uncomfortable with the very adversarial qualities he tries to affirm as proving his counter-vision of the ‘50s. He keenly dislikes Bellow’s satirical “rancor,” the “highly sexualized hatred” of some of Baldwin’s characters, Roth’s “apocalyptic fury.” Some readers, however, find in such honest intensities a soaring, life-affirming exuberance and the source of the artist’s power and integrity.

Dickstein’s paleface temperament produces luminous sections on Updike and John Cheever that alone are worth the price of the book, but it makes his reading of postwar fiction both standard and insubstantial. We get the usual lineup, though in an oddly censorious way, of Bellow-Mailer-Roth-Bernard Malamud et al., but no discussion of wild, offbeat Donald Barthelme, for example, or of Thomas Pynchon, whose proto-postmodernly ironic picaros have had more influence--for better and for worse--than any of the figures in Dickstein’s pantheon.

Dickstein takes the title of his book from Kafka: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial precincts, this is repeated over and over again ... and it becomes part of the ceremony.” The author wants to imply that the fiction writers of the postwar period, for all their feral energies, became nicely assimilated into mainstream culture. It is a sort of wish-fulfillment on the part of this nice, moderate critic. But art can no more be assimilated by society than history can be reduced to an equation.


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