- The Generation of 1950
In 1989, emboldened by the recent publication of an edition of The Education of Henry Adams that had excellent notes, I attempted to teach it one last time. Maybe a fifth of the class loved it or loved working at it, but too many of the other students were baffled and put off for it to be worth five weeks of trying. Sensing my best chances lay in working with short passages, at one point I cited this one about James Milnes Gaskell: “he belonged to the generation of 1830 which could not survive the telegraph and railway, and which even Yorkshire could not produce again.” We knew little about the generation of 1830 and why it could not survive the telegraph and railway, or why even Yorkshire could hardly produce anything like it again.
So, I said, let me try this on you: “Roger Sale, an American teacher of literature of the generation of 1950, a generation that could not survive . . . .” Could we go on with that sentence? Yes, to be sure, in one sense I had survived; but, I reminded them, Milnes Gaskell had survived too: “He was a voracious reader, and an admirable critic; he had forty years of parliamentary tradition in his memory; he liked to talk and listen.” Gradually some of those not committed to Adams began to sense something about their parents or grandparents or others who belonged to an earlier generation who were given to saying the world had passed them by. Tienanmen Square and the fall of the Berlin wall had occurred in 1989, and had reverberated for their elders more than for them.
Had any of them had young English teachers whose way of proceeding was markedly different from mine? A few older ones said they had been uncomfortable with younger teachers, but they offered no details. Nor did the phrase the generation of 1950 make much sense to them, since most could only think of the fifties—Elvis Presley and Ford Thunderbirds. What could I not survive? I offered them a hearty know-nothing president, the Pacific replacing the Atlantic as the important ocean for Americans, the microchip, the arrival of literary theory, and, a little later, cultural studies.
The ensuing conversation, dominated by a man from the sixties and a woman from the seventies, the latter freed from the former’s decade, the former betrayed by the latter’s, was rich enough that I could hope quite a [End Page 318] few students had something to remember past the close of class, and I could personally feel I had nicely placed myself as a person in history that could stick. And so, when a friend who had an office across the hall from mine, who was fearful of what he could not survive, called me the Prince of Monaco in order to make a point to a graduate student, I sought only to emend that to read the Prince of Andorra.
As one generation takes the place of another, the earlier one is usually left deploring what has happened. I can do that, but that’s not my aim here. I did not feel personally displaced by the move to Andorra, I can admire much that has accompanied the change—a generation of interesting women novelists, say, and a spawning of book groups to read them.
My listing of President Reagan, the Pacific Ocean, and the microchip was not designed as camouflage; but in fact what the American teachers of literature of the generation of 1950 could not survive was the postmodern arrival of literary theory in its various phases and masters: structuralism and poststructuralism, phenomenology, logocentrism, deconstruction, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, some of which and whom did not itself survive the arrival of cultural studies and the effective fusing or at least mixing of branches of study that had hitherto been separate parts of the humanities and the social sciences.
Recently I took part in a memorial for a close friend and colleague, William Dunlop, at the faculty club on the University of Washington campus. William was a great lover of literature and music, a great performer and writer of poetry; and...