Cats' Novels Change America
In many respects, the post-World War II years in America can now
only evoke a yawn. Think of Eisenhower in the White House, kryptonite
and Lawrence Welk on television, and tract housing. The nation
was settling into a well-earned tranquillity.
At least in the field of fiction, however, some remarkably rambunctious
shenanigans were taking place on the banks of the sluggish American
mainstream, and these are the focus of a new volume of essays
by Distinguished Professor of English Morris Dickstein
of Queens College and the Graduate Center, Leopards in the
Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970 (Harvard).
Having set himself the goal of showing how a band of outsiders
transformed the postwar American novel, Dickstein chose his title
and his epigraph aptlyfrom a passage in Franz Kafkas
Parables and Paradoxes: Leopards break into the temple and
drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is
repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in
advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.
The subversive outsiders Dickstein examines come in at least four
species: Jews like Bellow, Mailer, and Roth; African-Americans
like Baldwin, Ellison, and Himes; exotic émigrés
like Nabokov; and shamans of the youthful counterculture like
Salinger and Kerouac. The four main chaptersWar and the
Novel: From World War II to Vietnam; The New Fiction: From the
Home Front to the 1950s; On and Off the Road: The Outsider as
Young Rebel; and Apocalypse Now: A Literature of Extremesall
previously appeared as essays in the 1995 Cambridge History of
One important aim of the book, Dickstein explains in his introduction,
is to show how strong radical undercurrents led directly
to the culture wars of the 1960s, making the book something of
a prequel to the authors 1997 study of 1960s culture, Gates
of Eden. A more cosmopolitan America was coming into being,
a good deal more open to social differences yet resistant to political
dissent and social criticism, Dickstein writes. Outsider
groups such as blacks, women, and Jews, were not about to return
to the kitchen, the ghetto, or the menial jobs to which they had
In the end, Dickstein adds, the good life became the sovereign
right of every American, at least in theoryand that theory
would cast a long shadow. In that shadow worked the writers
discussed in Leopards in the Temple.
Among war novels, Dickstein singles out James Joness From
Here to Eternity (1951) as still the best
of all the novels about the Second World War. That book
and Joness The Thin Red Line he accounts among the
most impressive works of American realism.
Dickstein emphasizes the subject of victimhood and ostracism in
his chapter on New Fiction. Gore Vidals ambition, in his
early novels, to become the Virgil of [the] homosexual underworld
is admirable, even courageous, he writes. The common
coin of the New Fiction was the allegorical fable, says
Dickstein, and this leads into a discussion of the plays and fiction
of Tennessee Williams.
The author consistently draws on a wide array of cultural media,
notably film and television, to create his narrative, and when
he goes on the road a la Charles Kuralt, he begins with allusions
to Brando in The Wild One and Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. The
centerpiece here is a discussion of On the Road, whose genius,
Dickstein writes, was to attach the new restlessness to
the classic American mythology of the road, and to use it to
challenge the suburban and corporate conservatism of the 1950s.
Perhaps with a nod to the current taste for extreme
sports, the final chapter highlights such literary pushers of
the envelope as Roth and the cartoonish outrageousness
of Portnoys Complaint, Mailers brilliantly sordid
Hollywood novel The Deer Park, and Bellows Herzog,
an apocalyptic novel that disdains apocalypse, a novel of
ideas that mocks intellectuals.
Dickstein sums up at the end of his introduction, Whatever
techniques they tried and discarded, postwar novelists gave us
a portrait of society by giving us portraits of themselves, struggling
to maintain their precarious balance when the rules of life and
art were being rewritten.