I now understand why people go ga-ga for Kerouac: general American fiction of the 1950s was rotten…When seen against the backdrop of such insipid, feeble prose as Jarrell’s, where flashes of wit last no longer than a firefly’s flickering (and provide, if I may say so, rather less illumination), Kerouac’s writing, for all that it is petulant, adolescent, and puerile, at least has some spark.
(Jarrell was not the only poet to try his hand at a campus novel. Weldon Kees’s Fall Quarter is quite dull and loses its way early on, torn between social criticism and an unwillingness to indict as viciously as Kees did in his essays.)
Speaking as an avowed detractor from the beats, seeing them as an anti-intellectual offshoot of more self-conscious European surrealist/dadaist movements, I always saw the 50’s as a time of post-war retrenchment. Popular genres (mystery, sf) had been established and were being elaborated on and toughened. William S. Burroughs, not quite a beat, was still writing sordid books like Junky and Queer (not published until later, but still…) that derived from Nelson Algren’s work of the 1940’s. Authors like Hubert Selby and John Rechy would follow this arc in the 60’s, but it is not typical in any way of the 50’s. Likewise with John Barth’s first two novels, which would not have stood out had he not drastically shifted tacks afterwards.
On the more socially conscious front, Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis’s complaints did not yet seem appropriate again (and their writing was far too clunky to stand on its own aesthetically), and Faulkner’s Southern chronicles became rote and nearly pastoral. Faulkner still won the Pulitzer–twice–seemingly by default, once for the failed stretch of A Fable, which reads like an intentional shifting of weight to “larger” (not really) issues.
But there are several 50’s authors that had and continue to have a huge impact on writing style and people’s expectations of the demarcated beast that is “American fiction.” J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Richard Yates all got their start in the 50’s, and none ever really made an impact beyond what they accomplished in that decade. Even Bellow, who held some of himself back for later, spawned upstarts Philip Roth and Joseph Heller before he could wrangle back any significant influence, and settled for becoming an elder statesman who would write books about Allan Bloom. All of them outlined areas that became de facto concerns in what could get published.
Cheever and Yates both specialized in malaise. Cheever’s version had darker, more perverse undercurrents to it (submerged homosexuality quite large among them), while Yates stuck to the surface of things and painted anomie devoid of content. Cheever may have had the richer vision, but Yates was more precise, he knew exactly what wall he was hitting, time and time again, while Cheever wandered.
Bellow was dabbling in a self-mythology based around the already-forming detritus of Jewish intellectual circles of past decades, which were fast being reduced to the parochialism of The New York Review of Books (as well as Irving Kristol’s neoconservative movement, but that’s not literary). But hardly less than Cheever and Yates, he was working on a blank slate of American culture based around a middle-class that hadn’t dominated when Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis had been writing. The context of all of their writing was post-Freudian psychology, the self-defeating self-reflection that produces neurosis. With much less of the weight of history than corresponding European novels of the same time, they drew from the sociology of the moment, and constructed a view of middle-class intellectual and non-intellectual life that produced its own problems. It revolves around the psychology of the little gesture, the meager possession, the sentimental attachment, and the bland statement. These took on specific associations, so that every fictional character looking at a gray building or working in a garden or cooking dinner or walking down a sidewalk came to signify certain things about American life.
Many, many American fiction writers have been dealing with this landscape since, from John Updike to Raymond Carver to Grace Paley. Salinger introduced an element of religious or quasi-religious purity in his work, which was later developed by Walker Percy, among others, but as I get older I see Salinger more as a peculiar variation on the other three, glorifying a narcissistic but extremely personal and effective view of family as a non-historical response to Yates and Cheever’s monotonic views. It is a less robust response than Bellow’s, which has made it harder to imitate. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, though.
These are far from the only movements, but in terms of disproportionate impact, I think the figures above stand out. Many literary magazines today print stories that almost exclusively conform to the boundaries set out: ahistoric, neurotic, drawing from quotidian symbols. And I don’t believe there has been a group since that has had anywhere near as much impact. (For a while, I thought Don DeLillo was doing pretty well in reorienting the field towards a more reductionistic, impersonal psychology, but scions like Steve Erickson and Stephen Wright seem to have faded fast.)
In comparison, there are the roads not taken, those of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and even Nabokov, whose Pnin is a less claustrophobic statement on the social life of the academy. There is Flannery O’Connor, whose pacing and plotting were appropriated, but not her modern gothic sensibility. And there’s William Gaddis, whose The Recognitions I never finished, but who was clearly working towards a more epic, contextual tableau, even if he seemed to get mired in the details.
In sum, then, the 50’s still seem a flagship decade for one of the most dominant breeds of American fiction, as well as its height. There is little that Christopher Tilghman writes about that could not be gleaned (albeit indirectly) from Richard Yates, thirty years earlier. Lorrie Moore adds a touch of Bellow’s eloquent mythologizing to very similar material. Which is to say, there are clearly identifiable “American writers of the 50’s,” in a way that there aren’t of subsequent decades. It’s as though time has stood still.