In America the 1950s were remarkable years—years of aggressive complacency and self-assured paranoia; years that deployed ubiquitous televisions, carboncopy tract houses, and huge automobiles. Long after they ceased to create active issues, Joseph McCarthy and the Rosenbergs left a political atmosphere so obsessively discreet that by 1960 it became virtually impossible to distinguish Kennedy's politics from Nixon's. Because one implicitly understood that conforming to the narrow center of American life brought prosperity, to replicate and to imitate were virtues, whereas the term "nonconformist" was a dangerous pejorative. At the periphery of our metropolis on the hill, however, lay the same dark woods and Black Man who waited to lure the Puritan fathers from their prosperous conformity. Now called the "Beatnik," "Commie," or "Martian," this mysterious stranger waited to entice good citizens in gray flannel suits with that seductive rhetoric: "Don't be a phony! Be yourself!"
Underlying this world view is the idea that people possess "true" selves that they hide, leaving them alienated not from society but from themselves, members of what David Riesman named "The Lonely Crowd." This belief in an "essential" human being—alienated by bureaucracy and technology and therefore incapable of spiritual wholeness or artistic originality—is quintessentially modernist. It informs The Waste Land, a work that more than any other is dispersed in the major novels, both serious and popular, of the Fifties, novels densely peopled with heroes and heroines whose stasis attaches to their desire to differentiate the genuine-essential-spiritual from the phony-insincere-imitative.
In this Fifties mode, we can identify the works of both J. D. Salinger and William Gaddis. Holden Caulfield and the Glass clan all inhabit a world divided between true essence and superficial conformity. They ponder the protocols of etiquette, education, success, art, and literature ("all that David Copperfield kind of crap"). They fear that in going through the motions they might become the process itself and thus trade their natural response for ones others expect or demand. As latter-day Waste Land figures, they crave spiritual renewal, only to find that the Belladona of the Rocks has become the White Rock woman on the soda bottle at a preppy mixer.
Now a book of criticism has arrived to ease our worries over the Glass family. Eberhard Alsen has constructed from Salinger's published stories the novel about the family that Salinger has yet to publish. Clearly a "fan" of Salinger, Alsen finds the Glasses so real that he talks of Buddy Glass's development as a writer (a central motif of the ur-novel) as almost interchangeable with Salinger's. His critical vocabulary equates a story's "meaning" with its "message," and he uses terms such as "normal people" as if their meanings were clear and universal. About "Zooey," for example, he concludes that "the story is an account of two God-lovers coming to understand how they should deal with normal, unspiritual people." Alsen worries about why Seymour committed suicide and whether Buddy understands why. Constructing a chronology [End Page 417] of Seymour's life, he shows "that it doesn't make much sense to blame [his] suicide on Murial." Alsen also wants us to understand Salinger's "Neo-Romantic" message: "The Glass stories tell us . . . that we can achieve the meaning and contentment in life that has eluded us if we learn to look beyond appearance." Alsen has written a book for those wanting to know these things as well as the Eastern roots of the "Glass Philosophy" and Buddy's philosophy of composition. People interested in these topcis may find Alsen's book useful; to the rest of us, he may sound more like a Salinger character than a literary critic and, indeed, more like a Gaddis character than either.
Gaddis, like Salinger, has been an elusive author. He has stayed out of the public eye and published two very large novels, The Recognitions (1955) and JR (1974). Both deal...