- The Visionary Moment: A Postmodern Critique, and: The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s, and: This Is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris (review)
- American Literature
- Duke University Press
- Volume 75, Number 4, December 2003
- pp. 879-881
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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 879-881
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These three books give some sense of how literary criticism is shifting to consider what M. Keith Booker calls "the long fifties"—the period between the close of World War II and the official U.S. entrance into Vietnam (1946–1964)—a conjuncture curiously neglected by the great modernism-post-modernism debates of the 1980s. Paul Maltby's The Visionary Moment takes its epigraph from Nietzsche: "Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial." Maltby investigates and debunks the claims of a wide variety of writers (principally Bellow, Kerouac, and DeLillo but also Naipaul, Steinbeck, Ginsberg, Levertov, O'Neill, and Faulkner) who leverage their authority on the representation of visionary experience. The book can be divided into three parts: the first three chapters, which anatomize the literary protocols of epiphany and lay out the reasons for postmodern wariness; the second three chapters, which probe how DeLillo, Kerouac, and Bellow rely on these moments of transfiguration to move their narratives along; and a final discussion of the "ideology of the visionary moment," which quickly weighs the possibility that the visionary mode might be used for progressive ends but comes to the opposite—and by now familiar—conclusion.
Maltby definitely scores points along the way—his anatomy of the epiphanic moment is clear-eyed, and his local reading of DeLillo nicely draws out the author's fascination with the experience of awe. But the force of the book is hampered, ironically, by the fervor of its argument. Authors are drubbed for indulging in "bloated abstraction" (56), relying on "astounding non sequitur[s]" (58) or projecting ideas that are "naively utopian" (67), "untenable" (71), and "trite and nebulous" (87). Maltby is such a hanging judge that one wishes he had considered more possible objections to his argument. The Visionary Moment, for instance, argues that the appeal to transcendent knowledge [End Page 879] creates a feeble and mystifying politics while providing no historical account of the reception of the diverse works it pulls into its orbit. If one were to consider recent social movements of the Left, such as the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism, one would have to acknowledge that the experience of epiphany has inflected much of the rhetoric: Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin both spoke from the mountaintop, while countless feminist novels and Ms. magazine were devoted to dramatizing the "click" of consciousness-raising insight. The book would be significantly strengthened if it paused more to consider the particular uses of the visionary moment in the context of the narratives and eras it examines. Indeed, the most compelling parts of Maltby's book come when he considers how complicated the claim to visionary experience can be, as seen in his suggestion that Kerouac's experience of a "vision" gave him leverage against a professionalized political world that valued expertise above more local forms of knowledge.
Booker's The Post-Utopian Imagination likewise finds much to condemn in the U.S. culture of the 1950s, asserting that it was driven by a "bad utopianism" that "grabs instantly for a future, projecting itself by an act of will or imagination beyond the compromised political structures of the present" (19). For Booker, though, the canonical works of this period are marked by a "mode of defeat or, at best, paralysis and stagnation" (3). Here Booker builds on Thomas Schaub's American Fiction in the Cold War, which suggests how postwar liberalism...