Narrative since WW II resists easy generalization because it is extremely various. On the one hand, it has been vitalized by international currents (French existentialism, ‘nouveau roman’, Latin-American magical realism) and by the media and popular culture, and on the other it has become more self-conscious and reflexive, that’s to say, it has developed a post-modern sensibility. In fact, the term ‘Post-Modernism’ is frequently used to talk about the whole post-war period, although here we will use it only to talk about a particular kind of novels. Another obvious problem when talking about recent literature is the lack of perspective. This means that many times all the attempts at classification are somewhat artificial (some writers should appear in more than one place, depending on which of their books we are talking about) and in most cases they become just lists of writers and books without a clear defining line.
The end of the Second World War brought about an ‘age of anxiety’ during the 40s and 50s in American society and literature: the cold war (fear of the Bomb), the McCarthy witch hunt (fear of Communism), and a general feeling of loneliness and alienation in spite of the material well-being were very widespread. The response to this anxiety was varied: first of all, there were some very interesting novels about the war, like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Irvin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948) or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Then, after the war some writers decided to go back to their cultural and racial roots looking for the reasons for this alienated spirit (Jewish-American novelists, African Americans, Writers from the South), others tried to portray in a realistic manner the absurdity of life (Realists), while others tried to experiment with words and write about the role of literature in this new society, questioning and playing with common assumptions about reading and literature (Post-Modern Novel).
4.5.1. JEWISH-AMERICAN FICTION
In the 40s and 50s the Jewish-American novel grew in importance. These novels looked at the spiritual and psychological problems of mid twentieth-century life in a new way. They brought to American literature a new interest in the old problems of morality and a new kind of self-critical humor, as well as a different vision of cultural conflict and linguistic identity.
ISAAC B. SINGER (1904-1991). Born in Poland, he migrated to the USA in 1935. Most of his work was written in Yiddish, the mixture of German and Hebrew which had been the common language of East European Jews for centuries. Singer’s stories brought to America the world of Jewish superstitions and folk tales, with a sad kind of humor that introduced the wisdom of the pre-war Polish-Jewish village to the non-Jewish world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.
SAUL BELLOW (1915-2005). With a Russian-Jewish background, Bellow is highly influenced by anthropology and sociology. His early novels Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) are existentialist novels about the war and urban life respectively. Novels from the 50s like The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Henderson the Rain King (1959) are more humorous while Herzog (1964) portrays a far more serious and intellectual hero. He is probably the Jewish American writer who has achieved most worldwide recognition. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
BERNARD MALAMUD (1914-1986). His first novel, The Natural (1952) is the story of a great baseball player who is a moral failure. But most of his novels and stories deal humorously with the Jewish-American tradition, conveying a sense of the Jewish present and past, the real and the surreal, fact and legend. His main novels are The Assistant (1957) and The Fixer (1966).
PHILIP ROTH (1933- ) is younger than the other three and his humor shows a much more critical attitude towards the American Jewish community. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is a very funny book about sex and also an extremely self-critical novel. In the 1980s and 1990s he became a much more ambitious writer, and in works like American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) or The Human Stain (2000) he has attempted a trilogy of American life of tolstoian proportions.
There are other Jewish writers who are also worth mentioning, like HENRY ROTH (1906-1995), the ‘father’ of Jewish American fiction. His novel Call it Sleep (1934) is a modernistic story of a ghetto child. Others have not made such an intensive use of the Jewish American background in their works: JOSEPH HELLER (Catch-22 ,1961), E. L DOCTOROW (Ragtime, 1975) and J. D. SALINGER (1919) whose The Catcher in the Rye (1951) became an emblematic work of the post-war period. Holden Caulfield’s narrative voice, his personal sense of humor and his teen-age anxieties have turned the book into a cult-phenomenon.
► See Book Presentation Guide 5.6 “The Catcher in the Rye”, p. 140.
4.5.2 AFRICAN-AMERICAN LITERATURE AND OTHER MINORITIES
Literature written by African-Americans has always had a distinct identity in the context of American literature. Present since slavery times, its emergence and power walks parallel to a slow and difficult process of fighting for freedom, self-awareness and cultural consciousness.
The first books written by Blacks were the slave narratives from colonial times like OLAUDAH EQUIANO (1745-1797) and his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). In the 19th century, FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1817-1895), born a slave and escaped to the North, became a very famous antislavery leader and orator. He published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845). BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (1856-1915) wrote Up from Slavery (1901), an autobiographical work in which he tried to improve the lives of Blacks, although he accepted segregation. W. E. B. DU BOIS (1868-1963) wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in response to Washington and in it he described the special culture of American Blacks and called public attention to the ‘Negro problem’. However, it was not until the HARLEM RENAISSANCE that works of true literary value were first produced. This was a movement of African American writers connected with the Harlem jazz clubs of the 20s and 30s. Their works were a vindication of their own literary identity. LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967), JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967) and COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-1946) are the three most important poets of the movement.
From the Depression to the 1960s three major figures stand out: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. In Native Son (1940), RICHARD WRIGHT (1908-1960) used naturalistic techniques to describe the social and psychological pressures on his black hero. RALPH ELLISON (1914-1994) used in Invisible Man (1952) the metaphor of invisibility to talk about black people as seen by white society. JAMES BALDWIN (1924-1987) wrote moving fiction and essays about the black problem and also about homosexuality: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Another Country (1962). Wright and Ellison are examples of opposite stands in a debate that is always present when talking about African-American literature: to what extent must art be a political weapon used to improve the status of African-Americans or mere art, just considered from an aesthetic point of view. Following this dichotomy, one could distinguish two lines in African American literature: one that is more political and combative, which uses art as a political weapon (and where one could find Wright, Baraka, Morrison or movie-makers like Spike Lee), and another one which stresses aesthetics and which, although usually thematically centered on problems of race, considers art from an aesthetic point of view (Ellison, Cullen).
► See Classroom Activity # 22 “African American Literature”, p. 182.
In the 1960s IMAMU AMIRI BARAKA (Leroi Jones, 1934- ) led the Black Arts Movement with powerful poetry and drama. Black awareness, political use of art, the search for Black English (called ‘Ebonics’) and a challenge to white tradition and forms are some of the features of a movement that also includes other writers like ED BULLINS (1935- ) and ADRIENNE KENNEDY (1931- ). LORRAINE HANSBERRY (1930-1965) wrote A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the first play by a black woman produced on Broadway.
From the 1970s to the present, African-American writing has known its best moments with female writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. TONI MORRISON (1931- ) has written novels which, although with clear political meaning, are consummate works of art. She wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970, and later other longer novels like Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), in which she employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism. In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. ALICE WALKER (1944- ) has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. She uses a kind of lyrical realism to center on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. The Color Purple is her most famous work, an epistolary dialect novel which tells the story of the love between two poor black sisters. Some interesting contemporary African-American poets are RITA DOVE (1952- ), MAYA ANGELOU (1928- ), and ISHMAEL REED (1938-).
► See Book Presentation Guide 5.7 “The Bluest Eye”, p. 143,
The last decades have witnessed a vindication of the literatures of different minorities, who write about their own cultural difference and about the difficulties in reconciling their conflicting origins and traditions with American society:
• Native Americans:
o WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON (1939- ), travel writer, author of Blue Highways (1982), a cult road story in prairie territory.
o SIMON ORTIZ (1941- ), poet.
o LESLIE MARMON SILKO (1948- ), poet and short story writer.
o CATHY SONG (1955- ) and LI-YOUNG-LEE (1957- ) are poets who write about the contradictions of life in the US for Asian-Americans.
o AMY TAN (1952- ): The Joy Luck Club (1989), a novel about two generations of Chinese-American women.
o DAVID HENRY HWANG (1957): M. Butterfly (1988), a play inspired by the opera which was then turned into a film.
• Latino writers are particularly interesting for Spanish-speaking readers, because of the interactions between the languages (including ‘Spanglish’ and ‘Caló’, a mixture of languages typical of Chicano culture) that we can be lucky enough to appreciate.
o JOSE ANTONIO BURCIAGA (1940- ), RODOLFO ‘CORKY’ GONZALES (1928- ) and ABELARDO ‘LALO’ DELGADO (1931-) are three examples of militant Chicano poets from the 60s and 70s.
o OSCAR HIJUELOS (1951- ), of Cuban origin. The first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989).
o SANDRA CISNEROS (1954-), short story writer (The House on Mango Street, 1983) and author of the novel Caramelo (2002).
o Other Mexican-American writers worth mentioning are RUDOLFO ANAYA (1927- ) and ROLANDO HINOJOSA-SMITH (1929- ), prose writers; and LORA DEE CERVANTES (1954- ) and ALBERTO RÍOS (1952- ), poets.
► See Classroom Activity # 23 “Chicano Poems”, p. 183.
4.5.3. WRITERS FROM THE SOUTH
The South has always had a distinct social and literary identity in American society. From the earliest history of American Literature, Southern writers have exhibited a peculiar way of portraying life in their works. Most Southern writers, like Poe, Kate Chopin, Faulkner or Tennessee Williams display some typically Southern features: an obsession with the past as the source of the moral sickness of the present, Gothic settings and atmosphere, and a poetic kind of language.
Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Ann Porter continued producing interesting works of fiction after the war and had an important influence on writers like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, three female writers who have also been described as ‘new naturalists’ because of the description of suffocating settings and oppressive destinies which destroy the dreams of their characters.
• EUDORA WELTY (1909- ) writes about Mississippi and shows an interest in myth, the comic and the grotesque, and in the individual rather than in sociology. Her most important novel is Delta Wedding (1946).
• FLANNERY O’CONNOR (1925-1964) shares the use of subnormal, eccentric or exceptional characters with Eudora Welty. She belongs to the so-called ‘Southern Gothic’ school of writing: her grotesque characters are violent often because of superstition, religion or racial prejudice. Sometimes the events and characters are part of a religious allegory (she is a Catholic and her writing is frequently described as such). O’Connor handles terribly violent events with a touch of black humor, and she is the author of Wise Blood (1952) and short stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) and “The Life You Save May be your Own”.
• CARSON MCULLERS (1917-1967) also belongs to the ‘Southern Gothic’ tradition. In works like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) or the short story “The Ballad of the Sad Café” (1941) she also uses strange characters to show the horrors and sadness of modern life in Southern towns. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, for example, is the story of the (in)communication between and other lonely individuals who think (wrongly) that he is the only person who understands their problems.
TRUMAN CAPOTE (1924-1984) started writing in the ‘Southern Gothic’ tradition, with works like Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951), which are beautifully written, painful stories about young boys growing up in the South. Most of the scenes take place at night, in a dreamlike reality where the characters discover their true identity. But Capote changed and so did his work: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) changed locale, content and style: it is a comedy of manners set in New York. In Cold Blood (1960) is a ‘non-fiction’ novel, part of the ‘New Journalism’ movement, as well as a fascinating account of a real murder and the fate of the murderers.
► See Book Presentation Guide 5.8 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, p. 145.
► See Classroom Activity # 17 “20th Century Short Stories”, p. 176.
Other interesting Southern writers are WILLIAM STYRON (Sophie’s Choice, 1982) and WALKER PERCY (The Moviegoer, 1961).
4.5.4. POST-MODERN NOVEL
The term ‘post-modern’ can be used in two ways: first, to designate in a general manner post-war art and the contemporary cultural condition after modernism, and secondly, to talk about a specific set of characteristics exhibited by certain writers and their works. These are some of the features of post-modernism in this second sense:
• A change in the relationship between reality and art. Post-modern works or art are not mimetic, do not try to show reality. They continue the experimentation started by modernism, but instead of searching for a hidden meaning in the world through different tools (like modernists), post-modernists imply that there is no reality, no meaning and that all our attempts to find it are just fictions. This is what some of these writers say: “Reality is a word that means nothing without quotation marks” (Nabokov) “What the hell, reality is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there, and literature never did, very long” (John Barth), “Language is arranged and rearranged in such a manner as to give pleasure to artists and readers, excluding any referent to an available exterior world” (Joyce Carol Oates). Therefore, artists talk about ‘the death of the novel’, in the sense that the word novel had in the 19th century.
• Self-consciousness. The novel looks at itself. The novelist writes in order to show the impossibility of writing, and makes comments about the processes of writing and reading, and about the artificiality of this enterprise, so that the novel becomes a fiction about fiction, frequently called metafiction. The writers don’t expose, attack or explain American reality; they just play, laugh at or destroy all the devices used till now to explain reality. This is a British example from The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles: after twelve chapters of a conventionally told love story, chapter 13 begins with these questions: “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?” and the answers are
I do not know. The story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind.... Have I disgracefully broken the illusion? No, my characters still exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real than the one I have just broken ... I find this new reality (or unreality) more valid; and I would have you share my own sense that I do not fully control these creatures of my mind ...
• This implies a playful attitude (also called ‘ludism’) where reading becomes a kind of game played between the writer and the reader. Some writers (Pynchon, Barth) use ‘Black Humor’ in novels which combine humor with horror and violence. Laughter is a means to make the reader realize that all the values that rule reality and fiction are completely artificial and gratuitous, that their work is as empty as the world it represents.
• Fragmentation and discontinuity: In order to show the artificiality of the fictional processes, all these processes are ‘deconstructed’ and novels become incomplete, the plot sometimes disappears and novels may have no beginnings or ends. Richard Brautigan, for example, proposes 5 different endings for A Confederate General from Big Sur, but “then, there are more endings: the sixth, the 53rd, the 131st, the 9,435th ending, endings going faster and faster until this book is having 186,000 endings per second”. Post-modern writers also draw attention to the fact that life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and expose these frames in their works. Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance seems to be an autobiographical story by one of the characters, but there is a foreword which implies another fictitious author. Auster’s Oracle Night is a novel about a writer who is writing a story about another writer who is, in turn, writing another story about another writer who …
• Intertextuality: the game of reading and writing involves other stories and genres, and therefore, the novels play with generic conventions, become parodies of other texts and dislocate readers’ expectations. Auster’s The New York Trilogy and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, have been called anti-detective stories because of the way they use detective story conventions to actually achieve opposite results.
• For some writers, words and stories become the only way to make sense out of life. Douglas Coupland says “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them”. And Paul Auster: “Stories are the soul’s basic food … It’s through stories that we struggle to find a meaning in the world”.
Although strictly speaking postmodernism could be a movement restricted only to the experimental works of the 60s and 70s, in a broader sense of the word there are quite a lot of writers that can be called post-modern. ‘Post-modern writers’ in this sense have been considered as “probably the best and most daring generation since the Lost Generation”:
• VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1889-1997). Born in Russia, he went to the USA in 1940, and some years later started to write in English. A mediator between the Russian and American worlds, he helped to introduce expressionist European currents into the more realistic American tradition. Lolita (1958), Pale Fire (1962).
• JOHN BARTH (1930- ). His works have been called ‘Existentialist comedies’. More interested in how the story is told than in the story itself, he sees realism as the enemy. The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Lost in the Funhouse (1968).
• THOMAS PYNCHON (1937- ). A ‘cult’ writer, as mysterious as Salinger. Plots around mysteries that the characters have to solve. Difficult, complex and solid novels. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), V (1963). A good place to start is The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), a short novel about conspiracies with lots of possible meanings.
• RICHARD BRAUTIGAN (1935-1984). A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), Trout Fishing in America (1967). Metafictional games.
• WILLIAM H. GASS (1934- ). In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968).
• KURT VONNEGUT (1922- ). A master of ‘black humor’. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
• JOHN IRVING (1942- ). Uses humor and the act of writing as a way of making sense out of life. Mixture of tragedy and comedy, emotion and reflection. A great story-teller, very popular lately. Long, ‘undownputtable’ novels. The World According to Garp (1978), A Widow for a Year (1998). Oscar for the script of The Cider House Rules (based on his own novel Princes of Maine, Kings of New England).
• DON DE LILLO (1936- ), a visionary, one of the sharpest chroniclers of end-of-the-century American society: Americana (1971), White Noise (1985), Underworld (1997).
• PAUL AUSTER (1947- ). Auster’s New York Trilogy (1987) plays with generic expectations and the conventions of the detective genre although later novels are more traditionally narrated (Moon Palace, 1989, The Brooklyn Follies, 2005). Oracle Night (2002) goes back to the metafictional games of the New York Trilogy. Also a scriptwriter (Smoke, 1995) and film director (Blue in the Face, 1995, Lulu on the Bridge, 1999), he is a great story-teller whose narrative always offers excellent food for thought.
• DOUGLAS COUPLAND (1961- ). Canadian-born, his Generation X is not just a description of a dissatisfied generation, but also a reflection on how telling stories helps us to make sense out of life.
• TIM O’BRIEN (1946- ). Maybe the best writer to describe the Vietnam experience. The Things They Carried (1990) is a series of interconnected short stories about the Vietnam war, told in a very metafictional manner (the same stories told from different points of view, contrasts between a ‘true’ war story and a false one…)
• WILLIAM BURROUGHS (1914- ). A member of the ‘beat generation’, his works are post-modern but not in the same sense as the other writers: his novels are set in a complete dream world and filled with terrible nightmares. The Naked Lunch (1959) is a gallery of atrocities that has influenced authors like HUBERT SELBY (1928-2004) or BRET EASTON ELLIS (1964- American Psycho), in a movement that has been described as ‘New Naturalism’ and which is centered on the description of evil.
► See Classroom Activity # 24 “Subtotals”, p. 184.
► See Book Presentation Guide 5.9. “Moon Palace”, p. 148.
4.5.5. NEW REALISTS
There are a number of writers who do not share the post-modernist spirit of experimentation but instead try to tell stories which reflect the changes in contemporary world in a less experimental manner. Of course, the label ‘realists’ is just a tool which includes many writers who have completely different approaches towards literature, although all of them (including the ones we have classified under the labels ‘Writers from the South’ and ‘Jewish-Americans’) share the same belief in the power of the word to represent the world we live in.
In the 1960s there was a movement called New Journalism which tried to combine journalism and novelistic techniques to describe the contemporary world in what were called ‘non-fiction novels’. TOM WOLFE (1931- ) wrote The Electric Kool-Acid Test (1968), TRUMAN CAPOTE (1924-1984) wrote In Cold Blood (1968) and NORMAN MAILER (1923- ) The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1978). Mailer has been a prolific writer who has been able to change his style throughout the last decades. Before his non-fiction novels, he wrote an excellent post-war novel (The Naked and the Dead, 1948), and lately he has come back to fiction with works like Ancient Evenings (1983) or Tough Guys don’t Dance (1984).
Mailer is also representative of a group of writers who seem to be following Hemingway’s lead and who try to make of themselves men of action, the heroes people need to wake them and stir their consciences. JACK KEROUAK (1922-1969) is a member of the ‘Beat Generation’ who narrated his rebellion against conventionalism in On the Road (1957). KEN KESEY (1935- ) was also a part of the counterculture, and his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) is a funny and mordant satire on the dehumanization of western society. Also from the 60s, although not too realistic, TERRY SOUTHERN (1924-1995) is an underground writer who wrote novels like Candy (1968) or The Magic Christian (1959), together with the scripts for Easy Rider or Dr. Strangelove.
JOHN CHEEVER (1912-1982) and JOHN UPDIKE (1932- ) have frequently been called ‘novelists of manners’ in the sense that they both write stories that reflect and criticize a certain kind of society that they know well. Cheever is known for his elegant, suggestive short stories which scrutinize the New York middle-class suburban world. Updike set his novels in the East and is famous for his four ‘Rabbit’ novels in which he follows a man through four decades of American history: from Rabbit, Run (1960) to Rabbit at Rest (1990). RAYMOND CARVER (1938-1988) specialized in short stories set in the Pacific Northwest (“Cathedral”, Short Cuts) and started a trend which became very popular in the 80s. This style is sometimes called minimal fiction or ‘dirty realism’, because the stories are not strictly realistic). Other examples of ‘dirty realism’ (although they all dislike the label) are DAVID LEAVITT (1961- ), a gay writer who became pretty famous with The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), RICHARD RUSSO (1949- , Empire Falls, 2001) and RICHARD FORD (1944- , Independence Day, 1995).
Other writers, not very easy to classify but still worth mentioning, are:
• ANNE TYLER (1941- ), the author of The Accidental Tourist (1985).
• JOYCE CAROL OATES (1938- The Wheel of Love, 1970) who has become a popular success lately with Blonde (1998) or We Were the Mulvaneys (1996).
• CORMAC MC CARTHY (1933- ) who has played with the settings and conventions of the western to talk about the end of ranch life in his ‘Border Trilogy’ (All the Pretty Horses, 1992, The Crossing, 1994 and Cities of the Plain, 1998) and Blood Meridian (1985). McCarthy’s characters try to relive the myth of the Old West but find a cruel reality instead.
• GORE VIDAL (1925- ) has published satirical novels (Myra Breckingridge, 1968), historical novels (The City and the Pillar, 1948, Burr, 1973) as well as political essays, where he criticizes fiercely American expansionism and Republican administrations.
Finally, some recent writers (called the New Generation by The New Yorker):
• JONATHAN FRANZEN (1959- ). The Corrections (2001).
• DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (1962- ). Infinite Jest (1996), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)
• MICHAEL CHABON (1963- ). The Extraordinary Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
• CHUCK PALAHNIUK (1962- ). The Fight Club (1996).
• RICK MOODY (1961- ). The Ice Storm (1994).