48 7.1. Postwar Literature

The postwar novel

Norman Mailer, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1948.

The period in time from the end of World War II up until, roughly, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the publication of some of the most popular works in American history such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The last few of the more realistic modernists along with the wildly Romantic beatniks largely dominated the period, while the direct respondents to America’s involvement in World War II contributed in their notable influence.

Though born in Canada, Chicago-raised Saul Bellow would become one of the most influential novelists in America in the decades directly following World War II. In works like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, Bellow painted vivid portraits of the American city and the distinctive characters that peopled it. Bellow went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

From J.D. Salinger‘s Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye to Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar, the perceived madness of the state of affairs in America was brought to the forefront of the nation’s literary expression. Immigrant authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, with Lolita, forged on with the theme, and, at almost the same time, the beatniks took a concerted step away from their Lost Generation predecessors, developing a style and tone of their own by drawing on Eastern theology and experimenting with recreational drugs.

The poetry and fiction of the “Beat Generation“, largely born of a circle of intellects formed in New York City around Columbia University and established more officially some time later in San Francisco, came of age. The term Beat referred, all at the same time, to the countercultural rhythm of the Jazz scene, to a sense of rebellion regarding the conservative stress of post-war society, and to an interest in new forms of spiritual experience through drugs, alcohol, philosophy, and religion, and specifically through Zen Buddhism.

Allen Ginsberg set the tone of the movement in his poem Howl, a Whitmanesque work that began: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” Among the most representative achievements of the Beats in the novel are Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road (1957), the chronicle of a soul-searching travel through the continent, and William S. Burroughs‘sNaked Lunch (1959), a more experimental work structured as a series of vignettes relating, among other things, the narrator’s travels and experiments with hard drugs.

Regarding the war novel specifically, there was a literary explosion in America during the post–World War II era. Some of the best known of the works produced included Norman Mailer‘s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.‘s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The Moviegoer (1962), by Southern author Walker Percy, winner of the National Book Award, was his attempt at exploring “the dislocation of man in the modern age.”

In contrast, John Updike approached American life from a more reflective but no less subversive perspective. His 1960 novel Rabbit, Run, the first of four chronicling the rising and falling fortunes of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over the course of four decades against the backdrop of the major events of the second half of the 20th century, broke new ground on its release in its characterization and detail of the American middle class and frank discussion of taboo topics such as adultery. Notable among Updike’s characteristic innovations was his use of present-tense narration, his rich, stylized language, and his attention to sensual detail. His work is also deeply imbued with Christian themes. The two final installments of the Rabbit series, Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), were both awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other notable works include the Henry Bech novels (1970–98), The Witches of Eastwick (1984),Roger’s Version (1986) and In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), which literary critic Michiko Kakutani called “arguably his finest.”

Frequently linked with Updike is the novelist Philip Roth. Roth vigorously explores Jewish identity in American society, especially in the postwar era and the early 21st century. Frequently set in Newark, New Jersey, Roth’s work is known to be highly autobiographical, and many of Roth’s main characters, most famously the Jewish novelist Nathan Zuckerman, are thought to be alter egos of Roth. With these techniques, and armed with his articulate and fast-paced style, Roth explores the distinction between reality and fiction in literature while provocatively examining American culture. His most famous work includes the Zuckerman novels, the controversial Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), and Goodbye, Columbus (1959). Among the most decorated American writers of his generation, he has won every major American literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize for his major novel American Pastoral (1997).

In the realm of African-American literature, Ralph Ellison‘s 1952 novel Invisible Man was instantly recognized as among the most powerful and important works of the immediate post-war years. The story of a black Underground Man in the urban north, the novel laid bare the often repressed racial tension that still prevailed while also succeeding as an existential character study. Richard Wright was catapulted to fame by the publication in subsequent years of his now widely studied short story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” (1939), and his controversial second novel, Native Son (1940), and his legacy was cemented by the 1945 publication of Black Boy, a work in which Wright drew on his childhood and mostly autodidactic education in the segregated South, fictionalizing and exaggerating some elements as he saw fit. Because of its polemical themes and Wright’s involvement with the Communist Party, the novel’s final part, “American Hunger,” was not published until 1977.

Perhaps the most ambitious and challenging post-war American novelist was William Gaddis, whose uncompromising, satiric, and gargantuan novels, such as The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975) are presented largely in terms of unattributed dialog that requires almost unexampled reader participation. Gaddis’s primary themes include forgery, capitalism, religious zealotry, and the legal system, constituting a sustained polyphonic critique of the chaos and chicanery of modern American life. Gaddis’s work, though largely ignored for years, anticipated and influenced the development of such ambitious “postmodern” fiction writers as Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, and Don DeLillo. Another neglected and challenging postwar American novelist, albeit one who wrote much shorter works, was John Hawkes, whose often surreal, visionary fiction addresses themes of violence and eroticism and experiments audaciously with narrative voice and style. Among his most important works is the short nightmarish novel The Lime Twig (1961).

Short fiction and poetry

In the postwar period, the art of the short story again flourished. Among its most respected practitioners was Flannery O’Connor (b. March 25, 1925 in Georgia – d. August 3, 1964 in Georgia), who renewed the fascination of such giants as Faulkner and Twain with the American south, developing a distinctive Southern gothic esthetic wherein characters acted at one level as people and at another as symbols. A devout Catholic, O’Connor often imbued her stories, among them the widely studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge“, and two novels, Wise Blood (1952); The Violent Bear It Away (1960), with deeply religious themes, focusing particularly on the search for truth and religious skepticism against the backdrop of the nuclear age. Other important practitioners of the form include Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and the more experimental Donald Barthelme.

Among the most respected of the postwar American poets are John Ashbery, the key figure of the surrealistic New York School of poetry, and his celebrated Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1976);Elizabeth Bishop and her North & South (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1956) and “Geography III” (National Book Award, 1970); Richard Wilbur and his Things of This World, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Poetry in 1957; John Berryman and his The Dream Songs, (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1964, National Book Award, 1968); A.R. Ammons, whose Collected Poems 1951-1971 won a National Book Award in 1973 and whose long poem Garbage earned him another in 1993; Theodore Roethke and his The Waking (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1954); James Merrill and his epic poem of communication with the dead, The Changing Light at Sandover (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1977); Louise Glück for her The Wild Iris (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1993); W.S. Merwin for his The Carrier of Ladders (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1971) and The Shadow of Sirius (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 2009); Mark Strand for Blizzard of One (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1999); Robert Hass for his Time and Materials, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Poetry in 2008 and 2007 respectively; and Rita Dove for her Thomas and Beulah (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1987).

In addition, in this same period the confessional, whose origin is often traced to the publication in 1959 of Robert Lowell‘s Life Studies, and beat schools of poetry enjoyed popular and academic success, producing such widely anthologized voices as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, among many others.

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