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  • Hip to Post45
  • David J. Alworth (bio)
Michael Szalay, Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. 324pp. $24.95.

“[W]here are we now?” About five years have passed since Amy Hungerford asked this question in her assessment of the “revisionary work” that was undertaken by literary historians at the dawn of the twenty-first century.1 Juxtaposing Wendy Steiner’s contribution to The Cambridge History of American Literature (“Postmodern Fictions, 1970–1990”) with new scholarship by Rachel Adams, Mark McGurl, Deborah Nelson, and others, Hungerford aimed to demonstrate that “the period formerly known as contemporary” was being redefined and revitalized in exciting new ways by a growing number of scholars, particularly those associated with Post45 (410). Back then, Post45 named but a small “collective” of literary historians, “mainly just finishing first books or in the middle of second books” (416). Now, however, it designates something bigger and broader, a formidable institution dedicated to the study of American culture during the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. This institution comprises an ongoing sequence of academic conferences (including a large [End Page 622] gathering that took place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011), a Web-based journal of peer-reviewed scholarship and book reviews (Post45), and a monograph series published by Stanford University Press (Post•45). Its increasing influence is palpable, evident in the ordinary language of academic sociality. When people ask, “What do you work on?” they know what you mean when you say “post–’45.”

Michael Szalay’s Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party (2012) is one of five books in the Stanford series, which is edited by Florence Dore and Szalay himself. As such, it not only constitutes an exemplary case of Post45 scholarship but also provides an occasion to reiterate Hungerford’s question: Where are we now? What is the current state of scholarly work on the period formerly known as contemporary? Hip Figures showcases what Hungerford called “the solid dominance of historicism” in her 2008 survey of the field, while reminding us that, to use her words, “close reading remains at the heart of . . . critical practice” for this generation of scholars (416). Throughout his study, Szalay deploys the technique of close reading in order to demonstrate, as he puts it in the very last phrase of the book, “how and why culture mattered to political life” (281), or more specifically how the novels of Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, William Styron, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, and Joan Didion “invoked hip on behalf of the Democratic Party” (3). His readings are dense, learned, theoretically informed, and often quite surprising; in all cases, they give us a sense of how these novelists worked as “political strategists of their time” (3). But the overarching method of the book, its combination of formal analysis and historical contextualization, is very familiar. And this method has sustained a variety of high-profile attacks in recent years from scholars, such as Rita Felski and Eric Hayot, who seek what Felski calls “transhistorical methodologies.”2 By assessing Hip Figures in what follows, therefore, I mean to consider how a resolutely historicist monograph stands up against a certain exhaustion with historicism that is increasingly evident in literary studies. My ultimate goal is not [End Page 623] to deplore the “solid dominance” of this method, which in Szalay’s hands produces a compelling argument along with a series of illuminating accounts of seminal novels, but to claim that there is, perhaps somewhat ironically, a good historical justification for scholars of this period to develop alternatives. Indeed, I want to suggest that as Post45 “continue[s] to expand [its] vision of this newly vital field,” it could remain a home for “groundbreaking work on U.S. culture after the Second World War,” while also serving as a sort of laboratory for experimenting with new methods of interpretation.3

The “central contention” of Hip Figures “is that, over the last fifty or so years, a range of predominantly white fantasies about hip have animated the secret imagination of postwar liberalism and, more concretely, organized the Democratic Party’s...


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