In the past, elite culture influenced popular culture through its status and example; the reverse seems true in the United States today. Serious novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Alice Walker, and E.L. Doctorow have borrowed from and commented on comics, movies, fashions, songs, and oral history.
To say this is not to trivialize recent literature: Writers in the United States are asking serious questions, many of them of a metaphysical nature. Writers have become highly innovative and self-aware, or "reflexive." Often they find traditional modes ineffective and seek vitality in more widely popular material. To put it another way: American writers, in recent decades, have developed a post-modern sensibility. Modernist restructurings of point of view no longer suffice for them: Rather, the context of vision must be made new.
A s in the first half of the 20th century, fiction in the second half reflects the character of each decade. The late 1940s saw the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
World War II offered prime material: Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, 1948) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity, 1951) were two writers who used it best. Both of them employed realism verging on grim naturalism; both took pains not to glorify combat. The same was true for Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948). Herman Wouk, in The Caine Mutiny (1951), also showed that human foibles were as evident in wartime as in civilian life. Later, Joseph Heller cast World War II in satirical and absurdist terms (Catch-22, 1961), arguing that war is laced with insanity. Thomas Pynchon presented an involuted, brilliant case parodying and displacing different versions of reality (Gravity's Rainbow, 1973); and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., became one of the shining lights of the counterculture during the early 1970s following publication of Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade (1969), his antiwar novel about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces during World War II (which he witnessed on the ground as a prisoner of war).
The 1940s saw the flourishing of a new contingent of writers, including poet-novelist-essayist Robert Penn Warren, dramatists Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and short story writers Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. All but Miller were from the South. All explored the fate of the individual within the family or community and focused on the balance between personal growth and responsibility to the group.
Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
Robert Penn Warren, one of the southern Fugitives, enjoyed a fruitful career running through most of the 20th century. He showed a lifelong concern with democratic values as they appeared within historical context. The most enduring of his novels is All the King's Men (1946), focusing on the darker implications of the American dream -- as revealed in this thinly veiled account of the career of a flamboyant and sinister southern senator, Huey Long.
Arthur Miller (1915- )
New York-born dramatist-novelist-essayist-biographer Arthur Miller reached his personal pinnacle in 1949 with Death of a Salesman, a study of man's search for merit and worth in his life and the realization that failure invariably looms. Set within the Loman family, it hinges on the uneven relationships of father and sons, husband and wife. It is a mirror of the literary attitudes of the 1940s -- with its rich combination of realism tinged with naturalism; carefully drawn, rounded characters; and insistence on the value of the individual, despite failure and error. Death of a Salesman is a moving paean to the common man -- to whom, as Willy Loman's widow eulogizes, "attention must be paid." Poignant and somber, it is also a story of dreams. As one character notes ironically, "a salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."
Death of a Salesman, a landmark work, still is only one of a number of dramas Miller wrote over several decades, including All My Sons (1947) and The Crucible (1953). Both are political -- one contemporary, and the other set in colonial times. The first deals with a manufacturer who knowingly allows defective parts to be shipped to airplane firms during World War II, resulting in the death of his son and others. The Crucible depicts the Salem (Massachusetts) witchcraft trials of the 17th century in which Puritan settlers were wrongfully executed as supposed witches. Its message, though -- that "witch hunts" directed at innocent people are anathema in a democracy -- was relevant to the era in which the play was staged, the early 1950s, when an anti- Communist crusade led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others ruined innocent people s lives.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Tennessee Williams, a native of Mississippi, was one of the more complex individuals on the American literary scene of the mid- 20th century. His work focused on disturbed emotions and unresolved sexuality within families -- most of them southern. He was known for incantatory repetitions, a poetic southern diction, weird Gothic settings, and Freudian exploration of sexual desire. One of the first American writers to live openly as a homosexual, Williams explained that the sexuality of his tormented characters expressed their loneliness. His characters live and suffer intensely.
Williams wrote more than 20 full-length dramas, many of them autobiographical. He reached his peak relatively early in his career -- in the 1940s -- with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). None of the works that followed over the next two decades and more reached the level of success and richness of those two pieces.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Katherine Anne Porter's long life and career encompassed several eras. Her first success, the story "Flowering Judas" (1929), was set in Mexico during the revolution. The beautifully crafted short stories that gained her renown subtly unveil personal lives. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," for example, conveys large emotions with precision. Often she reveals women's inner experiences and their dependence on men.
Porter's nuances owe much to the stories of the New Zealand- born story writer Katherine Mansfield. Porter's story collections include Flowering Judas (1930), Noon Wine (1937), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), The Leaning Tower (1944), and Collected Stories (1965). In the early 1960s, she produced a long, allegorical novel with a timeless theme -- the responsibility of humans for each other. Titled Ship of Fools (1962), it was set in the late 1930s aboard a passenger liner carrying members of the German upper class and German refugees alike from the Nazi nation.
Not a prolific writer, Porter nonetheless has influenced generations of authors, among them her southern colleagues Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor.
Eudora Welty (1909- )
Born in Mississippi to a well-to-do family of transplanted northerners, Eudora Welty was guided by Warren and Porter. Porter, in fact, wrote an introduction to Welty's first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green (1941). Welty modeled her nuanced work on Porter, but the younger woman is more interested in the comic and grotesque. Like the late Flannery O'Connor, she often takes subnormal, eccentric, or exceptional characters for subjects.
Despite violence in her work, Welty's wit is essentially humane and affirmative, as, for example, in her frequently anthologized story "Why I Work at the P.O.," in which a stubborn and independent daughter moves out of her house to live in a tiny post office. Her collections of stories include The Wide Net (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955), and Moon Lake (1980). Welty has also written novels such as Delta Wedding (1946), which is focused on a plantation family in modern times, and The Optimist's Daughter (1972).
T he 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday life, left over from the 1920s -- before the Great Depression. World War II brought the United States out of the Depression, and the 1950s provided most Americans with time to enjoy long-awaited material prosperity. Business, especially in the corporate world, seemed to offer the good life (usually in the suburbs), with its real and symbolic marks of success -- house, car, television, and home appliances.
Yet loneliness at the top was a dominant theme; the faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype in Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Generalized American alienation came under the scrutiny of sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950). Other popular, more or less scientific studies followed, ranging from Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers (1959) to William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) and C. Wright Mills's more intellectual formulations -- White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956). Economist and academician John Kenneth Galbraith contributed The Affluent Society (1958). Most of these works supported the 1950s' assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. The studies spoke in general terms, criticizing citizens for losing frontier individualism and becoming too conformist (for example, Riesman and Mills), or advising people to become members of the "New Class" that technology and leisure time created (as seen in Galbraith's works).
The 1950s actually was a decade of subtle and pervasive stress. Novels by John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggle to succeed, as in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's novella Seize the Day (1956). Some writers went further by following those who dropped out, as did J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952), and Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957). And in the waning days of the decade, Philip Roth arrived with a series of short stories reflecting his own alienation from his Jewish heritage (Goodbye, Columbus, 1959). His psychological ruminations have provided fodder for fiction, and later autobiography, into the 1990s.
The fiction of American Jewish writers Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Isaac Bashevis Singer -- among others prominent in the 1950s and the years following -- are also worthy, compelling additions to the compendium of American literature. The output of these three authors is most noted for its humor, ethical concern, and portraits of Jewish communities in the Old and New Worlds.
John O'Hara (1905-1970)
Trained as a journalist, John O'Hara was a prolific writer of plays, stories, and novels. He was a master of careful, telling detail and is best remembered for several realistic novels, mostly written in the 1950s, about outwardly successful people whose inner faults and dissatisfaction leave them vulnerable. These titles include Appointment in Samarra (1934), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1958).
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison mirror the African-American experience of the 1950s. Their characters suffer from a lack of identity, rather than from over-ambition. Baldwin, the oldest of nine children born to a Harlem, New York, family, was the foster son of a minister. As a youth, Baldwin occasionally preached in the church. This experience helped shape the compelling, oral quality of Baldwin's prose, most clearly seen in his excellent essays, such as "Letter from a Region Of My Mind," from the collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In this, he argued movingly for an end to separation between the races.
Baldwin's first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), is probably his best known. It is the story of a 14-year-old youth who seeks self-knowledge and religious faith as he wrestles with issues of Christian conversion in a storefront church. Other important Baldwin works include Another Country (1962), a novel about racial issues and homosexuality, and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), a collection of passionate personal essays about racism, the role of the artist, and literature.
Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994)
Ralph Ellison was a midwesterner, born in Oklahoma, who studied at Tuskegee Institute in the southern United States. He had one of the strangest careers in American letters -- consisting of one highly acclaimed book, and nothing more. The novel is Invisible Man (1952), the story of a black man who lives a subterranean existence in a hole brightly illuminated by electricity stolen from a utility company. The book recounts his grotesque, disenchanting experiences. When he wins a scholarship to a black college, he is humiliated by whites; when he gets to the college, he witnesses the black president spurning black American concerns. Life is corrupt outside college, too. For example, even religion is no consolation: A preacher turns out to be a criminal. The novel indicts society for failing to provide its citizens -- black and white -- with viable ideals and institutions for realizing them. It embodies a powerful racial theme because the "invisible man" is invisible not in himself but because others, blinded by prejudice, cannot see him for who he is.
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
Flannery O'Connor, a native of Georgia, lived a life cut short by lupus, a deadly blood disease. Still, she refused sentimentality, as evident in her extremely humorous yet bleak and uncompromising stories. Unlike Porter, Welty, and Hurston, O'Connor most often held her characters at arm's length, revealing their inadequacy and silliness. The uneducated southern characters who people her novels often create violence through superstition or religion, as we see in her novel Wise Blood (1952), about a religious fanatic who establishes his own church.
Sometimes violence arises out of prejudice, as in "The Displaced Person," about an immigrant killed by ignorant country people who are threatened by his hard work and strange ways. Often, cruel events simply happen to the characters, as in "Good Country People," the story of a girl seduced by a man who steals her artificial leg.
The black humor of O'Connor links her with Nathanael West and Joseph Heller. Her works include short story collections (A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965); the novel The Violent Bear It Away (1960); and a volume of letters, The Habit of Being (1979). Her Complete Stories came out in 1971.
Saul Bellow (1915- )
Born in Canada and raised in Chicago, Saul Bellow is of Russian-Jewish background. In college, he studied anthropology and sociology, which greatly influence his writing even today. He has expressed a profound debt to Theodore Dreiser for his openness to a wide range of experience and his emotional engagement with it. Highly respected, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Bellow's early, somewhat grim existentialist novels include Dangling Man (1944), a Kafkaesque study of a man waiting to be drafted into the Army, and The Victim (1947), about relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the 1950s, his vision became more comic: He used a series of energetic and adventurous first-person narrators in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) -- the study of a Huck Finn-like urban entrepreneur who becomes a black marketeer in Europe -- and in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a brilliant and exuberant serio-comic novel about a middle-aged millionaire whose unsatisfied ambitions drive him to Africa. Bellow's later works include Herzog (1964), about the troubled life of a neurotic English professor who specializes in the idea of the Romantic self; Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975); and the autobiographical The Dean's December (1982).
Bellow's Seize the Day (1956) is a brilliant novella often used as part of the high school or college curriculum because of its excellence and brevity. It centers on a failed businessman, Tommy Wilhelm, who tries to hide his feelings of inadequacy by presenting a good front. The novella begins ironically: "When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought...." This expenditure of energy ironically helps lead to his downfall. Wilhelm is so consumed by feelings of inadequacy that he becomes totally inadequate -- a failure with women, jobs, machines, and the commodities market, where he loses all his money. He is an example of the schlemiel of Jewish folklore -- one to whom unlucky things inevitably happen. Seize the Day sums up the fear of failure that plagues many Americans.
Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)
Bernard Malamud was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. In his second novel, The Assistant (1957), Malamud found his characteristic themes -- man's struggle to survive against all odds, and the ethical underpinnings of recent Jewish immigrants.
Malamud's first published work was The Natural (1952), a combination of realism and fantasy set in the mythic world of professional baseball. Other novels include A New Life (1961), The Fixer (1966), Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and The Tenants (1971). He also was a prolific master of short fiction. Through his stories, in collections such as The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), and Rembrandt's Hat (1973), he conveyed -- more than any other American-born writer -- a sense of the Jewish present and past, the real and the surreal, fact and legend.
Malamud's monumental work -- for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award -- is The Fixer. Set in Russia around the turn of the 20th century, it is a thinly veiled glimpse at an actual case of blood libel -- the infamous 1913 trial of Mendel Beiliss, a dark, anti-Semitic blotch on modern history. As in many of his writings, Malamud underscores the suffering of his hero, Yakov Bok, and the struggle against all odds to endure.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991)
Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story master Isaac Bashevis Singer -- a native of Poland who immigrated to the United States in 1935 -- was the son of the prominent head of a rabbinical court in Warsaw. Writing in Yiddish (the amalgam of German and Hebrew that was the common language of European Jewry over the past several centuries) all his life, he dealt in mythic and realistic terms with two specific groups of Jews -- the denizens of the Old World shtetls (small villages) and the ocean- tossed 20th-century emigrés of the pre-World War II and postwar eras.
Singer's writings served as bookends for the Holocaust -- the destruction of much of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. On the one hand, he described -- in novels such as The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), set in 19th-century Russia, and The Family Moskat (1950), focused on a Polish-Jewish family between the world wars -- the world of European Jewry that no longer exists. Complementing that were his writings set after the war, such as Enemies, A Love Story (1972), whose protagonists were survivors of the Holocaust seeking to create new lives for themselves.
Vladimir Nabokov (1889-1977)
Like Singer, Vladimir Nabokov was an Eastern European immigrant. Born into an affluent family in Czarist Russia, he came to the United States in 1940 and gained U.S. citizenship five years later. From 1948 to 1959 he taught literature at Cornell University in upstate New York; in 1960 he moved permanently to Switzerland. He is best known for his novels, which include the autobiographical Pnin (1957), about an ineffectual Russian emigre professor, and Lolita (U.S. edition 1958), about an educated, middle-aged European who becomes infatuated with an ignorant 12-year-old American girl. Nabokov's pastiche novel, Pale Fire (1962), another successful venture, focuses on a long poem by an imaginary dead poet and the commentaries on it by a critic whose writings overwhelm the poem and take on unexpected lives of their own.
Nabokov is an important writer for his stylistic subtlety, deft satire, and ingenious innovations in form, which have inspired such novelists as John Barth. Nabokov was aware of his role as a mediator between the Russian and American literary worlds; he wrote a book on Gogol and translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. His daring, somewhat expressionist subjects, like the odd love in Lolita, helped introduce expressionist 20th-century European currents into the essentially realist American fictional tradition. His tone, partly satirical and partly nostalgic, also suggested a new serio-comic emotional register made use of by writers such as Pynchon, who combines the opposing notes of wit and fear.
John Cheever (1912-1982)
John Cheever often has been called a "novelist of manners." He is known for his elegant, suggestive short stories, which scrutinize the New York business world through its effects on the businessmen, their wives, children, and friends. A wry, melancholy and never quite quenched but seemingly hopeless desire for passion or metaphysical certainty lurks in the shadows of Cheever's finely drawn, Chekhovian tales, collected in The Way Some People Live (1943), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). His titles reveal his characteristic nonchalance, playfulness, and irreverence and hint at his subject matter. Cheever also published several novels -- The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977) -- the last of which was largely autobiographical.
John Updike (1932- )
John Updike, like Cheever, is also regarded as a writer of manners with his suburban settings, domestic themes, reflections of ennui and wistfulness, and, particularly, his fictional locales on the eastern seaboard, in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Updike is best known for his four Rabbit books, depictions of the life of a man -- Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom -- through the ebbs and flows of his existence across four decades of American social and political history. Rabbit, Run (1960) is a mirror of the 1950s, with Angstrom an aimless, disaffected young husband. Rabbit Redux (1971) -- spotlighting the counterculture of the 1960s -- finds Angstrom still without a clear goal or purpose or viable escape route from mundaneness. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Harry has become prosperous through an inheritance against the landscape of the wealthy self-centeredness of the 1970s, as the Vietnam era wanes. The final volume, Rabbit at Rest (1990), glimpses Angstrom's reconciliation with life, and inadvertent death, against the backdrop of the 1980s.
Among Updike's other novels are The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), and Bech: A Book (1970). He possesses the most brilliant style of any writer today, and his short stories offer scintillating examples of its range and inventiveness. Collections include The Same Door (1959), The Music School (1966), Museums and Women (1972), Too Far To Go (1979), and Problems (1979). He has also written several volumes of poetry and essays.
J.D. Salinger (1919- )
A harbinger of things to come in the 1960s, J.D. Salinger has portrayed attempts to drop out of society. Born in New York City, he achieved huge literary success with the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), centered on a sensitive 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who flees his elite boarding school for the outside world of adulthood, only to become disillusioned by its materialism and phoniness.
When asked what he would like to be, Caulfield answers "the catcher in the rye," misquoting a poem by Robert Burns. In his vision, he is a modern version of a white knight, the sole preserver of innocence. He imagines a big field of rye so tall that a group of young children cannot see where they are running as they play their games. He is the only big person there. "I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff." The fall over the cliff is equated with the loss of childhood and (especially sexual) innocence -- a persistent theme of the era. Other works by this reclusive, spare writer include Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters (1963), a collection of stories from The New Yorker. Since the appearance of one story in 1965, Salinger -- who lives in New Hampshire -- has been absent from the American literary scene.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
The son of an impoverished French-Canadian family, Jack Kerouac also questioned the values of middle-class life. He met members of the "Beat" literary underground as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City. His fiction was much influenced by the loosely autobiographical work of southern novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Kerouac's best-known novel, On the Road (1957), describes "beatniks" wandering through America seeking an idealistic dream of communal life and beauty. The Dharma Bums (1958) also focuses on peripatetic counterculture intellectuals and their infatuation with Zen Buddhism. Kerouac also penned a book of poetry, Mexico City Blues (1959), and volumes about his life with such beatniks as experimental novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg.
T he alienation and stress underlying the 1950s found outward expression in the 1960s in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture whose effects are still being worked through American society. Notable political and social works of the era include the speeches of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the early writings of feminist leader Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963), and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), about a 1967 antiwar march.
The 1960s was marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage, that has carried through the present day. Novelist Truman Capote -- who had dazzled readers as an enfant terrible of the late 1940s and 1950s in such works as Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) -- stunned audiences with In Cold Blood (1966), a riveting analysis of a brutal mass murder in the American heartland that read like a work of detective fiction. At the same time, the "New Journalism" emerged -- volumes of nonfiction that combined journalism with techniques of fiction, or that frequently played with the facts, reshaping them to add to the drama and immediacy of the story being reported. Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) celebrated the antics of novelist Ken Kesey's counterculture wanderlust, and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) ridiculed many aspects of left-wing activism. Wolfe later wrote an exuberant and insightful history of the initial phase of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff (1979), and a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a panoramic portrayal of American society in the 1980s.
As the 1960s evolved, literature flowed with the turbulence of the era. An ironic, comic vision also came into view, reflected in the fabulism of several writers. Examples include Ken Kesey's darkly comic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a novel about life in a mental hospital in which the wardens are more disturbed than the inmates, and Richard Brautigan's whimsical, fantastic Trout Fishing in America (1967). The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical, in Thomas Pynchon's paranoid, brilliant V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966), and the grotesque short stories of Donald Barthelme, whose first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published in 1964.
In a different direction, in drama, Edward Albee produced a series of nontraditional psychological works -- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966), and Seascape (1975) -- that reflected the author s own soul-searching and his paradoxical approach.
At the same time, the decade saw the belated arrival of a literary talent in his forties -- Walker Percy -- a physician by training and an exemplar of southern gentility. In a series of novels, Percy used his native region as a tapestry on which to play out intriguing psychological dramas. The Moviegoer (1962) and The Last Gentleman (1966) were among his highly-praised books.
Thomas Pynchon (1937- )
Thomas Pynchon, a mysterious, publicity-shunning author, was born in New York and graduated from Cornell University in 1958, where he may have come under the influence of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, his innovative fantasies use themes of translating clues, games, and codes that could derive from Nabokov. Pynchon's flexible tone can modulate paranoia into poetry.
All of Pynchon's fiction is similarly structured. A vast plot is unknown to at least one of the main characters, whose task it then becomes to render order out of chaos and decipher the world. This project, exactly the job of the traditional artist, devolves also upon the reader, who must follow along and watch for clues and meanings. This paranoid vision is extended across continents and time itself, for Pynchon employs the metaphor of entropy, the gradual running down of the universe. The masterful use of popular culture -- particularly science fiction and detective fiction -- is evident in his works.
Pynchon's work V is loosely structured around Benny Profane -- a failure who engages in pointless wanderings and various weird enterprises -- and his opposite, the educated Herbert Stencil, who seeks a mysterious female spy, V (alternatively Venus, Virgin, Void). The Crying of Lot 49, a short work, deals with a secret system associated with the U.S. Postal Service. Gravity's Rainbow (1973) takes place during World War II in London, when rockets were falling on the city, and concerns a farcical yet symbolic search for Nazis and other disguised figures. The violence, comedy, and flair for innovation in his work inexorably link Pynchon with the 1960s.
John Barth (1930- )
John Barth, a native of Maryland, is more interested in how a story is told than in the story itself, but where Pynchon deludes the reader by false trails and possible clues out of detective novels, Barth entices his audience into a carnival fun- house full of distorting mirrors that exaggerate some features while minimizing others. Realism is the enemy for Barth, the author of Lost in the Funhouse (1968), 14 stories that constantly refer to the processes of writing and reading. Barth's intent is to alert the reader to the artificial nature of reading and writing, and to prevent him or her from being drawn into the story as if it were real. To explode the illusion of realism, Barth uses a panoply of reflexive devices to remind his audience that they are reading.
Barth's earlier works, like Saul Bellow's, were questioning and existential, and took up the 1950s themes of escape and wandering. In The Floating Opera (1956), a man considers suicide. The End of the Road (1958) concerns a complex love affair. Works of the 1960s became more comical and less realistic. The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) parodies an 18th-century picaresque style, while Giles Goat-Boy (1966) is a parody of the world seen as a university. Chimera (1972) retells tales from Greek mythology, and Letters (1979) uses Barth as a character, as Norman Mailer does in The Armies of the Night. In Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), Barth uses the popular fiction motif of the spy; this is the story of a woman college professor and her husband, a retired secret agent turned novelist.
Norman Mailer (1923- )
Norman Mailer is generally considered the representative author of recent decades, able to change his style and subject many times. In his appetite for experience, vigorous style, and dramatic public persona, he follows in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway. His ideas are bold and innovative. He is the reverse of a writer like Barth, for whom the subject is not as important as the way it is handled. Unlike the invisible Pynchon, Mailer constantly courts and demands attention. A novelist, essayist, sometime politician, literary activist, and occasional actor, he is always on the scene. From such "New Journalism" exercises as Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), an analysis of the 1968 U.S. presidential conventions, and his compelling study about the execution of a condemned murderer, The Executioner's Song (1979), he has turned to writing such ambitious, heavyweight novels as Ancient Evenings (1983), set in the Egypt of antiquity, and Harlot's Ghost (1992), revolving around the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
B y the mid-1970s, an era of consolidation began. The Vietnam conflict was over, followed soon afterward by U.S. recognition of the People's Republic of China and America's Bicentennial celebration. Soon the 1980s -- the "Me Decade" -- ensued, in which individuals tended to focus more on more personal concerns than on larger social issues.
In literature, old currents remained, but the force behind pure experimentation dwindled. New novelists like John Gardner, John Irving (The World According to Garp, 1978), Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, 1982), William Kennedy (Ironweed, 1983), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982) surfaced with stylistically brilliant novels to portray moving human dramas. Concern with setting, character, and themes associated with realism returned. Realism, abandoned by experimental writers in the 1960s, also crept back, often mingled with bold original elements a daring structure like a novel within a novel, as in John Gardner's October Light (1976) or black American dialect as in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Minority literature began to flourish. Drama shifted from realism to more cinematic, kinetic techniques. At the same time, however, the "Me Decade" was reflected in such brash new talents as Jay McInerny (Bright Lights, Big City, 1984), Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, 1985), and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, 1986).
John Gardner (1933-1982)
John Gardner, from a farming background in New York State, was the most important spokesperson for ethical values in literature until his death in a motorcycle accident. He was a professor of English specializing in the medieval period; his most popular novel, Grendel (1971), retells the Old English epic Beowulf from the monster's existentialist point of view. The short, vivid, and often comic novel is a subtle argument against the existentialism that fills its protagonist with self- destructive despair and cynicism.
A prolific and popular novelist, Gardner used a realistic approach but employed innovative techniques -- such as flashbacks, stories within stories, retellings of myths, and contrasting stories -- to bring out the truth of a human situation. His strengths are characterization (particularly his sympathetic portraits of ordinary people) and colorful style. Major works include The Resurrection (1966), The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), October Light (1976), and Mickelson's Ghosts (1982).
Gardner's fictional patterns suggest the curative powers of fellowship, duty, and family obligations, and in this sense Gardner was a profoundly traditional and conservative author. He endeavored to demonstrate that certain values and acts lead to fulfilling lives. His book On Moral Fiction (1978) calls for novels that embody ethical values rather than dazzle with empty technical innovation. The book created a furor, largely because Gardner bluntly criticized important living authors for failing to reflect ethical concerns.
Toni Morrison (1931- )
African-American novelist Toni Morrison was born in Ohio to a spiritually oriented family. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a senior editor in a major Washington publishing house and as a distinguished professor at various universities.
Morrison's richly woven fiction has gained her international acclaim. In compelling, large-spirited novels, she treats the complex identities of black people in a universal manner. In her early work The Bluest Eye (1970), a strong-willed young black girl tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, who survives an abusive father. Pecola believes that her dark eyes have magically become blue, and that they will make her lovable. Morrison has said that she was creating her own sense of identity as a writer through this novel: "I was Pecola, Claudia, everybody."
Sula (1973) describes the strong friendship of two women. Morrison paints African-American women as unique, fully individual characters rather than as stereotypes. Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977) has won several awards. It follows a black man, Milkman Dead, and his complex relations with his family and community. In Tar Baby (1981) Morrison deals with black and white relations. Beloved (1987) is the wrenching story of a woman who murders her children rather than allow them to live as slaves. It employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism in depicting a mysterious figure, Beloved, who returns to live with the mother who has slit her throat.
Morrison has suggested that though her novels are consummate works of art, they contain political meanings: "I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my imagination...yes, the work must be political." In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Alice Walker (1944- )
Alice Walker, an African-American and the child of a sharecropper family in rural Georgia, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where one of her teachers was the politically committed female poet Muriel Rukeyser. Other influences on her work have been Flannery O'Connor and Zora Neale Hurston.
A "womanist" writer, as Walker calls herself, she has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. Like Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Cade Bambara, and other accomplished contemporary black novelists, Walker uses heightened, lyrical realism to center on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. Her work underscores the quest for dignity in human life. A fine stylist, particularly in her epistolary dialect novel The Color Purple, her work seeks to educate. In this she resembles the black American novelist Ishmael Reed, whose satires expose social problems and racial issues.
Walker's The Color Purple is the story of the love between two poor black sisters that survives a separation over years, interwoven with the story of how, during that same period, the shy, ugly, and uneducated sister discovers her inner strength through the support of a female friend. The theme of the support women give each other recalls Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which celebrates the mother-daughter connection, and the work of white feminists such as Adrienne Rich. The Color Purple portrays men as basically unaware of the needs and reality of women.
The close of the 1980s and the beginnings of the 1990s saw minority writing become a major fixture on the American literary landscape. This is true in drama as well as in prose. August Wilson who is continuing to write and see staged his cycle of plays about the 20th-century black experience (including Pulitzer Prize-winners Fences, 1986, and The Piano Lesson, 1989) -- stands alongside novelists Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, and Toni Morrison.
Asian-Americans are also taking their place on the scene. Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior, 1976) carved out a place for her fellow Asian-Americans, among them Amy Tan, whose luminous novels of Chinese life transposed to post-World War II America (The Joy Luck Club, 1989, and The Kitchen God's Wife, 1991) have captivated readers. David Henry Hwang, a California- born son of Chinese immigrants, has made his mark in drama, with plays such as F.O.B. (1981) and M. Butterfly (1986).
A relatively new group on the literary horizon are the Hispanic-American writers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-born author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989); short story writer Sandra Cisneros (Women Hollering Creek and Other Stories, 1991); and Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima (1972), which sold 300,000 copies, mostly in the western United States.
T here is nothing new about a regional tradition in American literature. It is as old as the Native American legends, as evocative as the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte, as resonant as the novels of William Faulkner and the plays of Tennessee Williams. For a time, though, during the post-World War II era, tradition seemed to disappear into the shadows -- unless one considers, perhaps correctly, that urban fiction is a form of regionalism. Nonetheless, for the past decade or so, regionalism has been making a triumphant return in American literature, enabling readers to get a sense of place as well as a sense of time and humanity. And it is as prevalent in popular fiction, such as detective stories, as it is in classic literature -- novels, short stories, and drama.
There are several possible reasons for this occurrence. For one thing, all of the arts in America have been decentralized over the past generation. Theater, music, and dance are as likely to thrive in cities in the U.S. South, Southwest, and Northwest as in major cities such as New York and Chicago. Movie companies shoot films across the United States, on myriad locations. So it is with literature. Smaller publishing houses that concentrate on fiction thrive outside of New York City's "publishers row." Writers workshops and conferences are more in vogue than ever, as are literature courses on college campuses across the country. It is no wonder that budding talents can surface anywhere. All one needs is a pencil, paper, and a vision.
The most refreshing aspects of the new regionalism are its expanse and its diversity. It canvasses America, from East to West. A transcontinental literary tour begins in the Northeast, in Albany, New York, the focus of interest of its native son, one-time journalist William Kennedy. Kennedy, whose Albany novels -- among them Ironweed (1983) and Very Old Bones (1992) -- capture elegaically and often raucously the lives of the denizens of the streets and saloons of the New York State capital city.
Prolific novelist, story writer, poet, and essayist Joyce Carol Oates also hails from the northeastern United States. In her haunting works, obsessed characters' attempts to achieve fulfillment within their grotesque environments lead them into destruction. Some of her finest works are stories in collections such as The Wheel of Love (1970) and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974). Stephen King, the best-selling master of horror fiction, generally sets his suspenseful page-turners in Maine -- within the same region.
Down the coast, in the environs of Baltimore, Maryland, Anne Tyler presents, in spare, quiet language, extraordinary lives and striking characters. Novels such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), and Saint Maybe (1991) have helped boost her reputation in literary circles and among mass audiences.
A short distance from Baltimore is America's capital, Washington, which has its own literary tradition, if a shrouded one, in a city whose chief preoccupation is politics. Among the more lucid portrayers of life in and on the fringe of government and power is novelist Ward Just, a former international correspondent who assumed a second career writing about the world he knows best -- the world of journalists, politicians, diplomats, and soldiers. Just's Nicholson at Large (1975), a study of a Washington newsman during and after the John F. Kennedy presidency of the early 1960s; In the City of Fear (1982), a glimpse of Washington during the Vietnam era; and Jack Gance (1989), a sobering look at a Chicago politician and his rise to the U.S. Senate, are some of his more impressive works. Susan Richards Shreve's Children of Power (1979) assesses the private lives of a group of sons and daughters of government officials, while popular novelist Tom Clancy, a Maryland resident, has used the Washington politico-military landscape as the launching pad for his series of epic suspense tales.
Moving southward, Reynolds Price and Jill McCorkle come into view. Price, Tyler's mentor, was once described during the 1970s by a critic as being in the obsolescent post of "southern-writer- in-residence." He first came to attention with his novel A Long and Happy Life (1962), dealing with the people and the land of eastern North Carolina, and specifically with a young woman named Rosacoke Mustian. He continued writing tales of this heroine over the ensuing years, then shifted his locus to other themes before focusing again on a woman in his acclaimed work, Kate Vaiden (1986), his only novel written in the first person. Price's latest novel, Blue Calhoun (1992),examines the impact of a passionate but doomed love affair over the decades of family life.
McCorkle, born in 1958 and thus representing a new generation, has dev oted her novels and short stories -- set in the small towns of North Carolina -- to exploring the mystiques of teenagers (The Cheer Leader, 1984), the links between generations (Tending to Virginia, 1987), and the particular sensibilities of contemporary suthern women (Crash Diet, 1992).
In the same region is Pat Conroy, whose bracing autobiographical novels about his South Carolina upbringing and his abusive, tyrannical father (The Great Santini, 1976; The Prince of Tides, 1986) are infused with a sense of the natural beauty of the South Carolina low country. Shelby Foote, a Mississippi native who has lived in Memphis, Tennessee, for years, is an old-time chronicler of the South whose histories and fictions led to his role on camera in a successful public television series on the U.S. Civil War.
America's heartland reveals a wealth of writing talent. Among them are Jane Smiley, who teaches writing at the University of Iowa. Smiley won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for A Thousand Acres (1991), which transplanted Shakespeare's King Lear to a midwestern U.S. farm and chronicled the bitter family feud unleashed when an aging farmer decides to turn over his land to his three daughters.
Texas chronicler Larry McMurtry covers his native state in varying time periods and sensibilities, from the vanished 19th- century West (Lonesome Dove, 1985; Anything For Billy, 1988) to the vanishing small towns of the postwar era (The Last Picture Show, 1966).
Cormac McCarthy, whose explorations of the American Southwest desert limn his novels Blood Meridian (1985), All The Pretty Horses (1992), and The Crossing (1994), is a reclusive, immensely imaginative writer who is just beginning to get his due on the U.S. literary scene. Generally considered the rightful heir to the southern Gothic tradition, McCarthy is as intrigued by the wildness of the terrain as he is by human wildness and unpredictability.
Set in the striking landscape of her native New Mexico, Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko's critically esteemed novel Ceremony (1977) has gained a large general audience. Like N. Scott Momaday's poetic The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), it is a "chant novel" structured on Native American healing rituals. Silko's novel The Almanac of the Dead (1991) offers a panorama of the Southwest, from ancient tribal migrations to present-day drug runners and corrupt real estate developers reaping profits by misusing the land. Best-selling detective writer Tony Hillerman, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, covers the same southwestern U.S. territory, featuring two modest, hardworking Navajo policemen as his protagonists.
To the north, in Montana, poet James Welch details the struggles of Native Americans to wrest meaning from harsh reservation life beset by poverty and alcoholism in his slender, nearly flawless novels Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), and The Indian Lawyer (1990). Another Montanan is Thomas McGuane, whose unfailingly masculine-focused novels -- including Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) and Keep the Change (1989) -- evince a dream of roots amidst rootlessness. Louise Erdrich, who is part Chippewa Indian, has set a powerful series of novels in neighboring North Dakota. In works such as Love Medicine (1984), she captures the tangled lives of dysfunctional reservation families with a poignant blend of stoicism and humor.
Two writers have exemplified the Far West for some time. One of these is the late Wallace Stegner, who was born in the Midwest in 1909 and died in an automobile accident in 1993. Stegner spent the bulk of his life in various locales in the West and had a regional outlook even before it became the vogue. His first major work, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), chronicles a family caught up in the American dream in its western guise as the frontier disappeared. It ranges across America, from Minnesota to Washington State, and concerns, as Stegner put it, "that place of impossible loveliness that pulled the whole nation westward." His 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, is also imbued with the spirit of place in its portrait of a woman illustrator and writer of the Old West. Indeed, Stegner's strength as a writer was in characterization, as well as in evoking the ruggedness of western life.
Joan Didion -- who is as much journalist as novelist and whose mind's eye has traveled far afield in recent years -- put contemporary California on the map in her 1968 volume of nonfiction pieces, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and in her incisive, shocking novel about the aimlessness of the Hollywood scene, Play It As It Lays (1970).
The Pacific Northwest -- one of the more fertile artistic regions across the cultural landscape at the outset of the 1990s -- produced, among others, Raymond Carver, a marvelous writer of short fiction. Carver died tragically in 1988 at the age of 50, not long after coming into his own on the literary scene. In mirroring the working-class mindset of the inhabitants of his region in collections such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1974) and Where I'm Calling From (1986), he placed them against the backdrop of their scenic surroundings, still largely unspoiled.
The success of the regional theater movement -- nonprofit institutional companies that have become havens of contemporary culture in city after city across America -- since the early 1960s most notably has nurtured young dramatists who have become some of the more luminous imagists on the theatrical scene. One wonders what American theater and literature would be like today without the coruscating, fragmented society and tempestuous relationships of Sam Shepard (Buried Child, 1979; A Lie of the Mind, 1985); the amoral characters and shell-shocking staccato dialogue of Chicago's David Mamet (American Buffalo, 1976; Glengarry Glen Ross, 1982); the intrusion of traditional values into midwestern lives and concerns reflected by Lanford Wilson (5th of July, 1978; Talley's Folly, 1979); and the Southern eccentricities of Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, 1979).
American literature has traversed an extended, winding path from pre-colonial days to contemporary times. Society, history, technology all have had telling impact on it. Ultimately, though, there is a constant -- humanity, with all its radiance and its malevolence, its tradition and its promise.
Outline of American Literature: