Of Bellow's Adventures of Augie March, O'Connor's "Good Country People," and Cheever's "The Swimmer," which best deals with the complexities of 1950s middle class life?
Of the three works of fiction from the 1950s mentioned in your question, the one that deals perhaps most fully with matters of race, religion, ethnicity, and middle-class affluence is The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. Partly because Bellow’s work is a novel rather than a short story, it allows greater scope to deal with a wide variety of issues than do the other works mentioned. Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” deals with religion fairly fully, but not very fully with middle class affluence, or with ethnicity, or with race. John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” deals with middle class affluence fairly fully, but it deals much less fully with matters of race, religion, or ethnicity.
Bellow’s Augie March, however, explores a number of the issues with which you seem concerned. Examples include the following:
- Augie is born into a Jewish family (themes: religion and ethnicity) living in a poor section of Chicago.
- Augie’s brother Simon eventually becomes a successful businessman and helps Augie also to rise in the social and economic hierarchy (theme: middle class affluence).
- Augie also attracts the assistance of several other economically successful persons, such as a handicapped businessman named William Einhorn and also a prosperous couple named Mr. and Mrs. Renling, who even offer to adopt him as their son (theme: middle class affluence).
- After various other adventures, Augie goes to Mexico (theme: ethnicity) with an old acquaintance named Thea Fenchel, with whom he becomes romantically involved.
- After eventually returning to Chicago, Augie becomes an assistant to a wealthy man named Robey (theme: middle class affluence).
- Later, during World War II, Augie spends time in Italy (theme: ethnicity).
- Thus, although race is not an especially prominent theme in Augie March, ethnicity, religion, and middle-class affluence do figure largely in this book.
- One example of the way the book sometimes blends these various themes occurs at the very beginning of Chapter 13, when Augie, describing his time in Italy, recalls seeing
an old beggar with his eyes closed sitting in the shells who had written on his chest in mercurochrome: Profit by my imminent death to send a greeting to your beloved ones in Purgatory: 50 lire.
In this brief passage, Italian ethnicity is combined with Catholic religiosity, and even the desire to profit is alluded to, although the old beggar, of course, is anything but affluent or middle-class.
For a fuller discussion of Bellow’s novel, see my book titled The American Novel: Understanding Literature through Close Reading (New York: Facts on File, 2011).