American Fictions, 1940-1980

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction have no place in American Fictions, 1940-1980, for Frederick R. Karl believes it is the Americanness of American literature that is most important—a position that is sure to appeal to those who have grown weary in recent years seeing distinctive national literatures turned into grist for the various mills of European formalist theories. Karl is not, however, an isolationist critic; in fact, he argues that the strength of recent American fiction derives from the American writer’s willingness and ability to adapt American materials to the ideas and techniques of European modernism, which had surprisingly little influence on American novelists (except for William Faulkner and John Dos Passos) prior to World War II. Karl deliberately labels the innovative fiction of the postwar years “American modernism,” avoiding the more common term, “postmodernism,” in order to stress (as that high modernist T. S. Eliot would have said) the continuing presence of the past in contemporary American literature, which involves not a renunciation of the modernist legacy but instead a dialectic of old and new, European and American, tradition and the individual talent. In Karl’s view, the basic test of the American modernist writer is whether he can make his language accommodate his subject matter. Those who continue to employ traditional narrative techniques, and as a result improve their chance of winning popular approval, fail to measure up to Karl’s standard. The writers who pass are those who have demonstrated the ability to move beyond the naturalistic style of their early work—Norman Mailer in Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), for example, or Joyce Carol Oates in Bellefleur (1980)—and more especially the formally innovative writers—Walter Abish, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Burroughs, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Joseph McElroy, and Thomas Pynchon. However inaccessible, even unreadable their experimental fictions may be to the general reader (with whom Karl has very little patience or sympathy), they represent the writer’s provisional triumph over his voracious, media-driven American audience and the best reflection of the paradoxes inherent in American life.

What Karl promises in this ambitious survey is a threefold project: a cultural as well as aesthetic interpretation of contemporary American fiction that will demonstrate the superiority of nontraditional fiction over traditional; a “comprehensive history” that—unlike the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979), for example—will be broad, deep, and coherent; and an analysis that will improve on such well-known critical assessments as Tony Tanner’s City of Words (1971), Raymond Olderman’s Beyond the Waste Land (1972), Alfred Kazin’s Bright Book of Life (1973), and Jerome Klinkowitz’s Literary Disruptions (1975). What Karl actually delivers, however, is considerably less, despite his extensive reading and the more than six hundred double-column pages of this book. The problem (as Karl is so fond of saying) begins with the title. Karl’s subject is not American fictions but American novels; the period under study is not 1940 to 1980 but the postwar era, including a number of novels published after 1980 and, oddly, earlier works such as Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) and Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936). The “comprehensive history” is little more than a confusingly organized survey, heavy on plot and platitude, and the “critical evaluation” is tacked on, rather than integral.

The chief way in which Karl attempts to prove the continuity of the postwar novel with the rest of American literature is by identifying the major themes and motifs that run throughout both: the pastoral impulse, “the regaining of paradise by means of spatial movement,” the individual self versus the Procrustean system, resurrection-regeneration, imaginative alternative realities, dissipation of talent (no second acts, as F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out). The noting of such continuity is commendable; the author’s presentation of these themes as his own discoveries is not. His failure to credit Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964), Richard Poirier’s A World Elsewhere (1966), Leslie Fiedler’s “No! in Thunder” and his Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), R. W. B. Lewis’ The American Adam (1955), Gerald Graff’s Literature Against Itself (1979), and a number of other influential works would have been understandable had Karl written his book as a general survey for students on the order of Malcolm Bradbury’s The Modern American Novel (1983), and had he not created the illusion of scholarly documentation in his twenty pages—forty columns—of notes (mainly identifying quotations taken from various novels). Given this failure or, more charitably, omission, it is ironic that Karl should fault George Steiner for his “derivative and stereotypical” views or William Styron for being unaware that the material he used in one of his novels “had been exhausted well before he got to it.”

Despite its great length, American Fictions, 1940-1980 is a rather thin book in terms of its argument. Derivative as many of its cultural ideas may...

(The entire section is 2195 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Christian Science Monitor. April 6, 1984, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 15, 1984, p. 4

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, January 8, 1984, p. 11.

Saturday Review. X, February, 1984, p. 54.