It is sad to sum up a lifetime of reading contemporary American fiction, as if that came anywhere near to summing up a life or the meaning that was found in it, but here goes.
Philip Roth, who died just the other day, made a big splash when his first book, the collection of short stories, "Goodbye Columbus", appeared when I was an undergraduate. All the young literary people I knew were much taken with him and not just because he was so clearly a Jewish writer. We also had Malamud and Bellow and the still then insufficiently appreciated I. B. Singer, who was the best of the lot. But we stayed with Roth because he delivered the goods-- at least his goods: his preoccupation with the lives of Jews, sex, the nature of irony, all of which seemed very repetitious until now, just this past year, when the tumescence of males has to be defended rather than, as in Roth’s day, merely recognized to be thought shocking. The themes of his late novels as in "The Human Stain" and "Everyman", become so much more universal. Often overlooked as a piece of serious literature is Roth’s “The Plot to Undermine America”, which is treated by critics as a polemic alternative history of the sort Sinclair Lewis fashioned in “It Could happen Here”, but is in fact a work which shows how welcoming America is to its Jewish residents, the Irish Newark Police Chief comforting Roth’s mother during the worst of an anti-Jewish riot by telling her that he would protect her by giving her special police protection. It is she who turns away at the door during that riot her own sister who had sided with Lindbergh as President and whose husband had set up CCC like camps for Jewish youth so as to assimilate them into American society. But Roth’s mother sees all this as malign intent against the Jews, while Roth the author sees it as non-threatening, and the demented Philip, the narrator, reflects his mother’s view, his breakdown not healed until 1963 when the alternative history becomes united with actual history on the date of JFK’s assassination. As if who is in the right is not made clear by Roth’s mother turning away her own sister at the time of the rioting. So much for blood being thicker than ideology. Would a German Jew have turned away on Kristallnacht a sister who had gone all secular? So the book is an exploration of how fantasies can turn malignant, and yet that still does not leave it as a major achievement, which is to invest the reader in a fantasy, malignant or not, from which it is not easy to awake, as is the case in Kafka and Mann and Faulkner.
Perhaps Roth is not a writer for the ages but one, I am just realizing, maybe along with John Updike, who captures the not quite high literary art of the second half of the twentieth century, just as Joyce and Faulkner and Mann had invented the very high art of the first half of the century. And, of course, that half century is our half century, to do with as we had thought fit, and it now, in retrospect, seems surprisingly mundane and unproductive in comparison with other literary ages. Even Roth’s much vaunted and much practiced sense of irony, as he demonstrates in “The Counterfeit Life”, has too much of the middle brow about it: a set of literary tricks that show an artist flexing his muscles rather than setting out a vision which is at once strange and true. John Updike, for all of his ability to attend to what he calls “country matters”, by which he means the ways sexual couplings are accomplished in untoward circumstances, falls into the middlebrow in his hot from the headlines “Terrorist”, and even in the last section of what I think is his greatest achievement, “In the Beauty of the Lilies”, where he takes on cultish religion as the final act of a family saga which started, at the turn into the Twentieth Century, with a Protestant minister who lapses into atheism (the failure of faith an old Updike theme) and then proceeds to his son, who is a postman afraid to face life, perhaps because of what had happened to his father, and then to a granddaughter of the minister, who becomes a movie star, a follower of the religion of sex, only to end with the movie star’s son who, because of mommie problems, falls into a cult out of despair over life. These are legitimate and universal themes that don’t have to be sacrificed to out of the headlines treatment.
Roth, who much admired Updike, and was similarly kept from a Nobel Prize because he was too American in that he did not provide as much social texture as is true in European writers, settling for the mythic and romantic instead, did not meet the European standard even in “American Pastoral”, which many critics take to be Roth’s best work in that it is most like a traditional novel, but only if you redefine that not to mean a set of intersecting stories each of which are filled with incident and choices and dialogue in the service of telling the secret history of a family, but rather see the novel as having evolved (or narrowed) to the point where, while still about the secret life of families, is just a set of monologues and character sketches held together by the juxtaposition of the different characters and the same eloquence shared by most of them. Even the set piece description of a high school reunion is saved from being a set of cliches only by using the novelist’s trick of attributing to the character making the description the character of the description, while an essayist would have to deliver the goods, which means some fresh insight, into the nature of such gatherings. It is to be remembered that Saul Bellow provided a short essay on Romanticism in "Herzog" and a short essay on Chicago politics in "The Dean's December", both of which could stand on their own, whatever use they were in moving on the novels in which they appeared, whether to show that the protagonist was a true intellectual or to provide a precis of what the overall novel was about.
Which American novelists in the second half of the Twentieth Century are likely to meet the critic’s cut off point for someone who might be read a hundred years from now? That is, even if there will then be reading lists for the period, which may not be the case because there may not be English departments and because the whole idea of a canon of great books has fallen into disfavor. My guess is that I. B. Singer and Nabokov would survive because their imaginations are so strong and individual and because they so well penetrate into the sense of their times, Singer writing about the Holocaust from the perspective of America after the war (“Enemies, a Love Story”), Nabokov writing about what Russian emigres could make of American customs (“Pnin” and, of course, “Lolita”). But it to be remembered that both of these authors had their styles and perspectives set by the time they reached these shores and that they were creatures of pre-war European influences. Nabokov is a child of Chekov and Singer a child of the Kabbalistic tradition. As Singer once put it--I paraphrase--even America is filled with ghosts and goblins.
European and American writing in the first half of the Twentieth Century was an attempt, largely successful, whereby an elite of writers imposed their strange visions on a bourgeoise population. You cannot think of the life of a clerk as mundane after it has been through Kafka’s wringer. You cannot think of the American South as benign, living out any kind of ordinary life, after you have read Faulkner. And meanwhile the Nobel Committee chose to honor as well those Americans, like Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck, who were full of fealty towards a conventional America. American writers in the second half of the century cultivated a bourgeois audience, tried to make its issues meaningful even as they added some note of astringency.
And that is true as well of the less leading lights of the period. John O’Hara overdid cynicism; Norman Mailer could find nothing to which to apply his stylistic gifts except his own ego, as that intersected with politics, and so his best work was a nonfiction account of his dealing with the 1968 Democratic Convention, flashy as were bits of his novel about Egypt and his novel about the CIA. James Baldwin finds his place as an essayist whose fictions, like those of Gore Vidal and John Cheever and Truman Capote, the last also known for his reportage rather than his fiction, are best remembered as part of the beginning of gay literature rather than their rather mordant wit about the times they lived in. Though to give them their due, all of these novelists conveyed in their fiction the hopelessness of people trying to cope with their environments, the great accomplishment of Gore Vidal’s protagonist in “Washington, D. C.” being that he did not rat on his wife to her father and thereby had shown himself, even unbeknownst to himself, to be a good person. Of such very minor triumphs is a Postmodernist life made. It is the stuff of pathos rather than of tragedy, of introspective victories rather than of grand panoramas, and so, I suppose, worthy of respect for that if for not much else. But the truth of the matter is that there is no call on the gods to listen to a song of war or love, the story that important, while the Modernist authors, from Joyce and Shaw on, and all the way back to Fielding’s “Tom Jones”, regularly invoked their Classical betters, jousting with them for acclaim. Yes, the authors of second half American fiction were preoccupied with politics and the overlap of fiction and non-fiction, but what they found in politics, and what Vidal found in both Washington and Ancient Rome, was, in my view, only cheap ironies about how politicians were both more and less than they seemed to be, however much it may have seemed to me that Vidal, in “Julian”, was speaking a brave truth when he portrayed Christianity, all in all, as a disaster that had befallen mankind. Their real and more sinister purpose was not, as was said of Cheever and Updike, to portray life in the suburbs and, in the case of Roth, to portray a Newark boy trying to make it out to the suburbs, but to portray the isolation of people from one another, wherever they lived, this existentialist theme making all of them followers of Edward Hopper, who cast his lonely people in suburban motels as well as urban coffee shops a, rather than followers of David Hockney or Alex Katz, where people are well and truly placed in their setting, happy with it, just as writers who evoke identity politics, such as Erica Jong or Toni Morrison, whether of women or ethnic groups, allow their protagonists to find peace as well as conflict with being whom they are.
There are other explanations then the relation of artists to their audiences or the narrower range of themes and emotions which ring true for a period that account for the poor quality of second half Twentieth Century American fiction. It could be just that the talent pool was thinner, or that the novel had played itself out as an imaginative enterprise, just as some musicologists expressed the fear that the tonal scale had been largely exhausted by the first decades of the Twentieth Century. These are matters of speculation. What can be said, however, is that there has not been a period of English language literature as poor as that of the second half of the Twentieth Century since the Age of Pope, which, after all, did see the start of the novel in Defoe and Richardson. Sometimes artistic evaluation, which means taking the measure of the aesthetic worth of a novel as a whole, attending to its richness of plot or setting or characters, rather than the circumstances, both cultural and social, for the creation of art, is the limit of what the critical imagination can do for a work, pointing out what it accomplishes rather than what made it.