- American Fiction in the Cold War, and: Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors and Their Generation
One of Woody Allen's funniest lines is his piece of gossip that "Commentary and Dissent are planning to merge and issue a new magazine, called Dysentery." While Thomas Hill Schaub's metaphor is less visceral, that "In the late forties the voices of the formalists—speaking largely from the academy—and the New York intellectuals alike exerted a paralyzing effect upon American fiction," his explanation of how attempts to adapt liberalism to the conservative realities of cold war America influenced an entire generation's fiction is no less insightful. Paired with Philip D. Beidler's Re-Writing America, Schaub's American Fiction in the Cold War reaches far beyond the subject matter of its title to explain (and in part answer) problems both in the crafting and critiquing of contemporary narrative art that date from the 1930s into our own new decade.
Stalin, of course, was the intellectuals' original culprit, scandalizing the Left with purges and trials, then a pact with Hitler, a campaign of conquest rather than of liberation, and ultimately a cold war against everything once thought best in the liberal ideal. In response, liberalism had to be "toughened," made "more realistic," and for fiction this meant interpreting historical events "within ahistorical and moral categories." Enforcing such awareness on literary artists became the task of both the New Critics and the New York intellectuals, who despite obvious differences in means agreed on key common ends described by Schaub as "conservative ideas of subject and form" in support of a "prescriptive orthodoxy which young writers after World War II had to contend." As a result, emphases on Jamesian style and craft excluded Jack Kerouac, while "the unacceptability of alienation itself" alienated novelists from the pro-Americanism generated by a surplus oriented economy. Schaub is especially effective in treating the inhibiting influence of Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, and Irving Howe, whose "political experience of the Old Left froze their capacity to greet the new works after World War II."
With political and intellectual history thus framed, Schaub examines four key texts that have been presumed to open the way to a genuinely new literary culture but which are in fact severely restricted in their attempts to move beyond an academically imposed modernism. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man not only grows from African-American disillusionment with the left but "shares a great deal with the anti-Stalinist discourse of the new liberalism," as economics and class consciousness are replaced by "psychological terms of social analysis," a "pervasive complication and displacement of Marx by Freud" that only succeeds partially in its attempt to replace the stridency of ideology with the ambiguities of the written word. Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find, although a naturally [End Page 480] conservative work, embraces cold war liberalism's new toughness by locking her own ambiguity, assumptions of evil and imperfection, and recognitions of human limitations within the grotesque mysteries of "sardonic realism." Even the token document that dissented from the cold war era's "vital center" of a pluralistic premise beyond ideology, Norman Mailer's The White Negro, is "subverted by the prevailing discourses of the liberal culture he wished to repudiate," for here was simply one more romantic strategy of transposing racial struggle into a conflict more properly the domain of "imagination and ego repression." This redefinition of alienation into the terms of consensus liberalism thus "comes to represent not the integration of actual people in actual neughborhoods and classrooms but the psychological wholeness and bellicose virtues of the hipsters," one more reminder of "the reactionary aspects of consensus thought." The climax of this development, one that continues to impede a healthier postmodern fiction that seeks to succeed such cold war frustrations, is John Barth's The End of the Road, where protagonist Jake...