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  • Introduction to Focus:The ’60s at 50: New Traditions
  • Charles B. Harris (bio)

Although unable to contribute to this two-part focus, John Barth sent me the following anecdote about the “tumultuous Sixties”:

During yet another student sit-in at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I was teaching at the time, a student protest-leader with a megaphone declaring to the crowd, ‘What we need on this campus are all new traditions!’ And a cynical colleague muttering to me, ‘The voice of the Oxymoron.’

What Barth calls the American High-Sixties is best seen as a cultural rather than a chronological decade, running roughly from the assassination of JFK in November 1963 through the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974. A watershed, the ’60s produced revolutionary changes in a range of areas, from literature and the other arts to science and technology to politics to popular culture to our general social mores. The ground shook. Much changed. And, from the perspective of half-a-century, those changes, oxymoronic as it may seem, look very much like the beginnings of new traditions.

Yet, paradoxically (if not oxymoronically), most of those new traditions were themselves rooted in earlier traditions, which they extended, revised, and partially fulfilled. Take postmodern fiction, for example, the main, though not exclusive, focus of this focus. Among many readers and reviewers, its become fashionable to regard realistic fiction—itself an innovation in the mid-19th century—as normative, with all departures from that putative norm dismissed as “nontraditional” or “experimental.” Indeed, it is often thought—and taught—that the novel was born in the 18th century and that it quickly formed what critic F. R. Leavis termed “The Great Tradition,” from which all deviations, however interesting, are “unconventional” and ephemeral perforce.

But the novel, broadly defined, as Steven Moore demonstrates in The Novel: An Alternative History (2010), has been around at least since the 4th century BCE. More to the point, its primary—one may say, its defining—trait has always been its elasticity. Postmodern fiction, Moore concludes, doesn’t “so much make radical departures from the genre…as recover features that were dropped centuries ago in favor of more mainstream narratives.” Or, to use Brain McHale’s formulation in his seminal study Postmodernist Fiction (1987), features that are “dominant” in modernist fiction (epistemological concerns) and realistic fiction (mimesis) become “backgrounded” in postmodern fiction, as ontological concerns (Oedipa Maas’s question, “Shall I project a world?”) become foregrounded. Such displacements, despite the consternation they cause among some contemporary critics and readers, draw on traditions as venerable as the ones they displace.

In this sense, the ’60s generation—Acker, Barth, Barthelme, Coover, DeLillo, Elkin, Federman, Gaddis, Gass, Hawkes, Heller, McElroy, Pynchon, Reed, Sorrentino, Sukenick, Vonnegut, et al.—gave us something simultaneously new and traditional, preserving and extending the anarchistic strain in what ABR founder Ron Sukenick called The Rival Tradition. Indeed, Barth, whom many regard as the face of ’60s postmodernism, lists among his key influences Homer (8th century BCE), 1,001 Nights (8th century), the kathasaritsagara (1070), Decameron (1352), and Don Quixote (1605), as well as the more “recent” Tristram Shandy (1759–67) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Thus, Curtis White’s proclamation in his focus essay that postmodernism commenced in 1795 and McHale’s playfully serious contention in his Part II focus essay that ’60s postmodern fiction may (or may not) have begun in 1966 and Robert Coover’s observation in his essay that, since serious art continually carves the mainstream’s new directions, the ’60s are always happening now, are neither contradictory nor oxymoronic but, given the novel’s persistent novelty (its name, Moore reminds us, derives from the Latin novus, “new” or “extraordinary”), are equally plausible.

Of course, talk of postmodernists in generational terms can be misleading, since it seems to relegate ’60s innovations—and innovators—to the past. Frequent reports in the mainstream review media about the death of ’60s postmodernism are greatly exaggerated, however. While many ’60s postmodernists are no longer with us, those who are remain remarkably productive. In the last year, we’ve seen new books from William Gass, Coover, James McElroy, Thomas Pynchon, and...


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