Dan Wakefield Essay - Critical Essays

Wakefield, Dan

Wakefield, Dan 1932–

Wakefield is an American novelist and short story writer, and the author of highly regarded nonfiction works on vital current issues. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

I know Dan Wakefield slightly. He is a modest, shy, softspoken young man who has been gifted with the greatest endowment a journalist can have—curiosity. He has his full share, too, of the next most important talents—a love of people unstained by sentimentality, and a disciplined capacity for indignation.

Wakefield's first book … Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem … is a report, highly personal in tone, of the life led by thousands of New Yorkers who, for multiple reasons, are as cut off from the blessings of American affluence as the fellahin of Egypt. The report is personal in tone because before Dan Wakefield wrote the story he went to live in Harlem….

Until something better comes along, Wakefield's report must stand as the last word on Spanish Harlem….

Dan Wakefield does not preach or suggest a program of action. He does what a good reporter should do—he reports.

John Cogley, "Cut Off from the Main," in Commonweal (copyright © 1959 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 6, 1959, p. 599.

As one of our very best journalists in the past decade, Dan Wakefield has been conspicuous for two virtues: a novelist's instinct for the right detail, the gesture or glance which can tell more than a thousand words of interpretation; and then something even rarer, an intimate, yet never merely egocentric, scale of observation. He has always tried to maintain the tone of a personal deposition, and like his hero, Thoreau, "speak as a man in his waking moments to other men in their waking moments." At the same time, unlike the similarly ambitious Norman Mailer, he has avoided rhetorical boom and self-idolatry. He is closer to another of his heroes, Murray Kempton, and at least two of his reportorial collections, "Between the Lines" and "Supernation at Peace and War," are handbooks no young man or woman dreaming of a career in journalism should be without.

In his first novel, "Going All the Way," he remains a sure observer. Again and again, there are tableaux of root Americana that are as certain and exact as so many Goya etchings: middle-aged salesmen carousing in a bar, a Moral Rearmament pep-talk, Sanforized newlyweds displaying the heir to their prefabricated ranch house, a countryclub poolside. Around them flows a passionate and tormented novel about the summer of 1954 as it transpired in the lives of two young Korean War veterans returning to their Indianapolis homes. To say that it is a very American story is true enough, but it would be more relevant to say that it is going to become even more so. Its central subject—the baffled despair of young men trying to reckon with middle class, material values in a world where they no longer suffice—is only beginning to emerge in our Gross National Consciousness. Next year, and the year after that, "Going All the Way" will seem even more pertinent than it does now.

Meantime, it is possible that the current publishing season will produce no book more urgently felt. The story-telling itself is trim and efficient, but there is a vulnerable, even homely "expense of spirit" on every page. Dan Wakefield has read Salinger, and the influence is sometimes very strong, but the feelings are stronger still, and altogether his own. (p. 7)

Robert Phelps, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 9, 1970.

Dan Wakefield has a way of choosing the middle-class metaphor for an era. In "Going All the Way" it was 1950s bewilderment. Two guys came home to Indianapolis from the army and wondered what to do with themselves. In "Starting Over" it's divorce, splitting up, coping. What could be more appropriate for the schizoid 1970s?…

"Going All the Way" was a period piece, nearly a historical novel in its circumscribed view of the 1950s. It was written in a rather beguiling tone of mild irony; it was full of detail perfectly observed and felt. In fact it was all so exquisitely 1950s that you almost didn't mind that the book had no real highs and lows, was merely a series of set pieces, many of them recurring….

The trouble is that Wakefield now seems to have carried a great deal of the 1950s baggage into the 1970s. The reportorial eye for detail, and the ability to catch nuances of feeling—they've made the transition without difficulty. But the tone of milk irony is also back, and it hasn't fared so well. The tone was an important part of the atmosphere of "Going All the Way"; it also gave an added dimension to Sonny's and Gunner's naivete. In "Starting Over" it makes Potter seem much younger and more innocent than he's supposed to be. It also makes you increasingly aware of the absence of highs and lows, and the tendency to slip into one set piece after another. Here goes, you begin to say. Wakefield's doing a number of communes, on weekends in Vermont, on group therapy, on Harvard dinner parties, on homosexual seduction, on suburban New Year's Eve parties….

Still, all these objections are basically technical. What's really insidious about this novel is its attempt to perpetuate 1950s attitudes and values.

Steven Kroll, "A Deposed Count from the 50's," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by. The Village Voice, Inc., 1973), September 13, 1973, p. 25.

Readers who know Dan Wakefield as the insightful journalist of the late 1950's and 1960's, who gave us penetrating looks at the civil rights struggle and Puerto Ricans in New York ("Revolt in the South," "Island in the City"), and two wry novels ("Going All the Way," "Starting Over") are in for a surprise. "All Her Children" is Dan Wakefield's moral holiday: a volume of celebration for the long-running daytime drama "All My Children." It contains not a single harsh word or grim judgment. Quite simply, Wakefield fell in love with the saga of the Martins and the Tylers of Pine Valley and decided to move as close as he could to this world. (pp. 5-6)

Fortunately, Dan Wakefield is simply too good a writer, too perceptive an observer to produce a mash note. And so, without ever abandoning his total fondness for everyone who is a part of "All My Children," he gives us much more: an absorbing account [and] a credible, respectful explanation for the enduring popularity of the form.

Further, Wakefield pulls off perhaps the most difficult challenge imaginable by making us feel the magnetism of the soap opera world…. [Through] Wakefield's own obsession, I understand, for the first time, the way in which the familiar characters and the slowly evolving story lines grab hold of a viewer and will not let go. (p. 6)

Jeff Greenfield, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 29, 1976.

There is a good deal to enjoy in Dan Wakefield's autobiographical "discovery" of the world of soap opera…. [All Her Children] had its inspiration, apparently, in a sense of surprise that a person of sophistication and intelligence—indeed, a literary man—should discover in himself the same capacity to devour the lowly soap opera as a housewife or a post-adolescent has. One is surprised that Mr. Wakefield should be surprised, and that it should come as news to him that long-lasting and popular entertainments have their reasons for being just that. Indeed, it is one of the problems with Mr. Wakefield's stance in this book that he is frequently disingenuous in the interests of creating an argument. It is furthermore close to irritating in so otherwise charming a writer that he should not cease to mention that the cause he espouses is sure to be an unpopular one, particularly among intellectuals and similarly prejudiced types; one would suppose, reading this, that the American intellectual establishment spent all its time plotting ways and means to do soap opera in. These objections aside, Mr. Wakefield's travels behind the scenes of America's most popular soap opera, and his portraits of its characters, are both instructive and entertaining, and very often, one would have to add, more intelligent than the program they celebrate. (pp. 30-1)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 3, 1976.