Sociologist Elizabeth Long analyzes the loss of the promise of the American Dream in the post-World War Two era by using a "systematic examination of best sellers." Resolving to deal with them not as literary phenomena but as cultural artifacts, social documents that signal, by their wide appeal, a shared response within the American community, Long asserts that the disillusion with the American Dream has forced its redefinition into more subtle vitalities, rather than its complete loss.
To summarize this redefinition: from 1945-1955, best sellers celebrated traditional entrepreneurialship, fabulous sagas of visionaries overcoming odds and finding life promising and ever expanding. With the publication of Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, however, success began to involve moral compromises, the corporate world no longer offered reassuring order, and work lost its meaningful rewards. From 1969-1975 best sellers pictured a malignant corporate world, driven by luxury and greed, that nevertheless fostered resilient heroes who move to complex acts of self-creation to separate themselves from the transient and the venial. Long carefully points out that her forte is not thematic reinterpretation (she admits to being swept away by the storyline of the books she comes to treasure). Her argument is with her fellow sociologists, whom she indicts for their intuitive and reductive assessments of the post-World War Two America and their casual use of cultural artifacts (such as best sellers).
Although she suggests that the use of best sellers has its underpinnings in theories of reader-response, Long does not pursue such critical sophistication. The value of such a study, apart from her corrective to her fellow sociologists and apart from the nonprofessional delights of reading an erudite treatment of Harold Robbins or a sentence that moves from John Fowles to Jacqueline Susann, is the discovery of how often authors sold wholesale to the marketplace deal with the themes of the "writerly" writers: the ambiguous universe, fragmented and depersonalized; the end-of-the-world ennui, the affirmation of love as creative spontaneity despite the generic lust associated with drugstore racks of best sellers.
But Long's study leaves questions. Why the cutoff date of 1975? She never pursues her thesis into the contemporary best-sellerdom where Stephen is King. Why not work more closely with writers whose certified best sellers develop characters who deal with problematic success—Billy Pilgrim, "Rabbit" Angstrom, Eugene Henderson, and any one of several characters of Roth and O'Hara? Why insist on so many lengthy plot summaries? And why, despite her treatment of books that are hardly the stuff of the Forty Immortals, does Long never crease a smile as she lavishes her sociological expertise (and its often stodgy prose) on these "transparent narratives"? But perhaps such determined scrutiny of books generally reserved for fogbound airports or for summer recesses is itself a reminder of a most unlikely familial tie between the best-seller list and the college syllabus.
Douglas Robinson asserts that the American dream of success with its central faith in melioration draws its immense energy from a most unexpected source: the mythic superstition and compelling hope associated with the traditional Christian apocalyptic temper. Challenging those who would relegate the apocalyptic [End Page 292] voice to the lunatic fringe, Robinson uses the Greek root of apocalypse (an "unveiling" or a "revelation") to trace the visionary and finally uplifting nature of mainstream American literature, which encompasses here principally Edwards, Emerson, Poe, Melville, Faulkner, and Barth.
Robinson uses the apocalyptic vocabulary indigenous to American literature to argue that our literature is essentially antiapocalyptic, affirmative rather than destructive. The question posed by the apocalyptic temper is how to handle loss and profound desire (indeed realization of the apocalyptic dream would signal the end of history) and how to transform that deferral (the failure) of the dream into an ironic source of hope, to turn absence into presence by the imaginative act. The movement begins with Ishmael, who...