Big Cats' Novels Change America


Leopards in the TempleIn 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 aptly—from a passage in Franz Kafka’s 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 chapters—War 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 Extremes—all previously appeared as essays in the 1995 Cambridge History of American Literature.

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 author’s 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 been confined.”

In the end, Dickstein adds, “the good life became the sovereign right of every American, at least in theory—and 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 Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951) as “still the best of all the novels about the Second World War.” That book and Jones’s 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 Vidal’s 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 Portnoy’s Complaint, Mailer’s “brilliantly sordid Hollywood novel” The Deer Park, and Bellow’s 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.”

Contents October 2002

From High School Dropout to Surgeon General – Thanks to BCC

Extending the Lifespan of Learning

The Bronx: A Thriving River Runs Through It

Chancellor's Message: Celebrating CUNY Poets

Two Bills for CUNY Signed by Governor

Colleges Set Out Welcome Mats For First “CUNY Week” Outreach

New Technology: Two Conferences

Celebrating the Pleasures of Literature

The Public and Private Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

Capturing the Life of a Complex General

TV Boot Camp Gives Students Taste of “60 Minutes” Magic

Big Cats' Novels Change America

Imagining Hopper

New Stars in Faculty Firmament

John Jay Law Enforcement News Honored for Articles on 9/11

Preserving the History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora

Vigils, Bells, Art, Eloquence—and Silence: Campuses Observe September 11

Three WTC Workers from City Tech Receive Scholarships

Future Holds New Home, New Master’s for CUNY’s School of Architecture

N.J. State Human Resources Executive Comes to CUNY

Hostos Goes Electronic on the Grand Concourse

New Shuttle Service Eases Lehman Commute

Leap in Fall Enrollment

CUNY Board Adopts State Early Retirement Plan