- Repression and Realism in Post-War American Literature
Erin Mercer's Repression and Realism in Post-War American Literature offers an interesting and insightful reading of postwar American literature, and fiction in particular. In the opening chapter, Mercer argues, "The very richness of American literature produced before World War II only served to highlight the failings of novels written in its aftermath" (3). By the failing of novels Mercer means that "none of the novels engage with the recent trauma of the most defining events of the twentieth century—the mass death due to the war, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombing of Japan" (1). Viewed in this light, postwar American literature seems to create a false impression that World War II and its subsequent terror never happened. Mercer attributes the general reluctance to write about these traumas to postwar affluence on the one hand and McCarthyism on the other, both of which he credits with having caused the temporal suppression of those disturbing reality. Using Freud's "uncanny" as her critical point of departure, Mercer carefully analyzes such novels as Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, Saul Bellow's The Victim, Paul Bowles's Sheltering Sky, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. From Mercer's perspective, these novels are exemplary texts that demonstrate different forms of "literary reaction to the avoidance of the uncomfortable that occurred in America between 1945 and 1955" (34).
According to Mercer, "The bafflement over how to express the horror of the Second World War's mass destruction was further compounded by doubts as to whether such horror could, or should, be expressed" (41-42). However, in the works by Mailer, Ellison, O'Connor, Bellow, Bowles, and Kerouac, there still exist signs disclosing the repression of "such horror," which is often interwoven with issues of race, religion, politics, and anti-Semitism.
Uncanniness seems to be the trademark of The Naked and the Dead, which is populated with automatic entities: mechanized, estranged, and dehumanized American soldiers stripped of emotion, autonomy, and free will. Mercer claims that if death is central to the uncanny, then the death and destruction in this novel meted out by World War II does not result from human hands but from technology. Though there is no direct allusion to the atomic bomb, it resides precisely in "what might be thought of as the text's unconscious, in the spaces created between a reader's knowledge and what the text depicts," and makes "its terrifying return through the murderous and strangely mechanical soldiers with which Mailer fills his novel" (59). Similarly, Ellison is also quite aware of the divide between his [End Page 381] conscious and unconscious preoccupations. In Invisible Man, Ellison's engagement with the uncanny occurs at the representational level and in the changing styles. Mercer assumes that the changing styles are closely related to uncanny episodes that drive the protagonist from a familiar world into an estranged one. The novel contains three invisible figures hiding behind one another, namely the protagonist, the narrator, and the author himself. As Mercer notes, the "author haunts narrator who haunts protagonist, just as the war hovers through its pages constantly evoking the trauma not only of combat but of being black in America" (87).
Unlike The Naked and the Dead and Invisible Man, O'Connor's Wise Blood makes its uncanniness reside in its "reintegration of the destructive and impure aspects of the sacred omitted in popular postwar religion," though "it also develops from the theological concept of mystery" (111). By using the uncanny as a strategy to voice what is normally ignored, the novel strongly condemns the postwar domestication of the sacred and further regards the war as a catalyst for spiritual corruption.
Although Bellow's The Victim appears to be a realistic novel and obscures the Holocaust, its protagonist's sense of being "in a doppelganger story renders the familiar conventions of realism uncomfortably strange" (120). As a matter of fact, the novel's plot heavily depends...