A strong case can be made that the period from 1945 to the late 1970’s was the golden age of American fiction. More novels likely to be read and studied by future generations were published during this time than any other era. Unlike earlier periods, in which most American writers followed the same schools—Romanticism, realism, naturalism, modernism—the post-World War II era saw a much greater diversity in approaches to the novel and short story. In Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970, Morris Dickstein examines a sizable segment of the writers who created this golden age, focusing primarily on James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, and John Updike.
Dickstein shows how this fiction was heavily influenced by social changes and psychoanalysis and how the jazz, films, and avant-garde painting of the time grew out of similar influences. He is interested in the ways the arts and culture interact and argues that the radicalism associated with the 1960’s had firm roots in the 1950’s. Disagreeing with most American studies scholars who feel that almost every postwar cultural development was a reflex of Cold War politics, Dickstein sees the baby boom, a consistently healthy economy, increased educational opportunities, the growing youth culture, and the shifting roles of women, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities as being the major influences.
This changing society was more open to social differences yet still resistant to political dissent and social criticism, creating the necessary tension for literary achievement. Dickstein sees the most significant fiction writers of the time as those who offered commentary about a changing world, especially those who were in some sense outsiders and questioned official values. Such writers can be considered “canaries in the mine, an early warning system whose messages can be understood only in retrospect.”
These outsiders included women, African Americans, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, those with working-class backgrounds, and those who identified with the new youth culture. Dickstein is a bit inconsistent in applying this thesis throughout Leopards in the Temple. Flannery O’Connor, for example, is the only woman writer who truly interests him, and he does not discuss any of her works in any detail. Some writers under consideration, such as John Barth, John Cheever, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Richard Yates, do not fit into any of Dickstein’s outsider categories. This inconsistency does not, however, negate the value of his analyses of the writers included.
Dickstein’s title comes from Franz Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes (1958): “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.” He sees characters created by many mid-twentieth century American writers as being like these leopards: “implosions of the irrational, children of the Freudian century, sharp-clawed primitives who would somehow be integrated into the once-decorous rites of American literature, who would becomeAmerican literature.” Such writers capture the unease of the middle class during the era in which it seemingly triumphed. They also strove to bring sex out into the open for the first time. Dickstein observes that left-wing critics, seeking change in a conventional political form, were blind to the ongoing cultural revolution.
Writers such as Bellow and Roth turned inward, grappling with the problems of ego, identity, anxiety, and alienation, reflecting societal concerns as the white middle class retreated into the protective shell of the suburbs. Mailer is a representative writer because of his evolution from the relatively conventional, realistic approach of The Naked and the Dead (1948) to a deeper concern with the self, accompanied by a more surreal technique, in The Deer Park (1955) and An American Dream (1965). “By cultivating the self,” writes Dickstein, “not entirely without a certain narcissism, these writers found new ways of writing the history of their times, an age of prosperity and therapy when the exigent, imperial self became the obsessive concern of many Americans.” As fiction was increasingly challenged in the 1960’s by journalism and film, it became even more self- conscious.
While writers of the 1930’s embraced Marxism, the postwar novelists turned to Freud,...
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