From the 2014 Special Issue issue

The Alone Generation

A comment on the fiction of the ’fifties

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Perhaps more than any other first-rate American critic, Alfred Kazin has given close and understanding attention to the novels and stories published since World War II. In this powerful but sympathetic indictment, he sums up his impressions of the “host of brilliantly talented writers” who dominate American fiction today—from John O’Hara to J. D. Salinger. 

The other day a prominent American publisher advertised a book of stories by a Continental writer who died some time ago: “These stories, never before published in English, could only have been written by a great writer who nourished before World War II. They are stamped by that unobtrusive assurance, perfect sympathy with their subjects, and resonant tone which have become, it would seem, lost secrets in almost all the fiction of the immediate present.” Not very encouraging, what? Yet I must admit that while I see a host of brilliantly talented writers all around me, I don’t often get a very profound satisfaction out of the novels they write.

I am tired of reading for compassion instead of pleasure. In novel after novel, I am presented with people who are so soft, so wheedling, so importunate, that the actions in which they are involved are too indecisive to be interesting or to develop those implications which are the lifeblood of narrative. The age of “psychological man,” of the herd of aloners, has finally proved the truth of Tocqueville’s observation that in modern times the average man is absorbed in a very puny object, himself, to the point of satiety. The whole interest of the reader seems to be summoned toward “understanding” and tolerance of the leading characters. We get an imaginative universe limited to the self and its detractors. The old-fashioned novel of sensitive souls, say Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage or even Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, showed a vulnerable hero or heroine battling it out (a) for principles which he identified with himself and (b) against social enemies who were honestly opposed to the protagonist’s demand of unlimited freedom. Now we get novels in which society is merely a backdrop to the aloneness of the hero. People are not shown in actions that would at least get us to see the conditions of their personal struggle. Carson McCullers’s beautiful first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, characterized a stagnant society in the silent relationship between two mutes; in her third novel, The Member of the Wedding, the adolescent loneliness of Frankie fills up the scene, becomes the undramatic interest of the book, to the point where the reader feels not that he is witnessing a drama but that he is being asked to respond to a situation. 

American society is remarkable for the degree of loneliness (not solitude) in which the individual can find himself. In our mass age, the individual’s lack of privacy, his unlimited demand for self-satisfaction, his primary concern with his own health and well-being have actually thrown him back on himself more than before. Our culture is stupefyingly without support from tradition, and has become both secular and progressive in its articulation of every discontent and ambition; the individual now questions himself constantly because his own progress measured in terms of the social norms—is his fundamental interest. The kind of person who in the nineteenth-century novel was a “character” now regards himself in twentieth-century novels as a problem; the novel becomes not a series of actions which he initiates because of who he is, but a series of disclosures, as at a psychoanalyst’s, designed to afford him the knowledge that may heal him. It is astonishing how many novels concerned with homosexuality, on the order of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, are apologies for abnormality, designed to make us sympathize with the twig as it is bent the wrong way.

I would suspect that it is the intention of extracting “understanding” that accounts for the extraordinary number of children and adolescents in American fiction; at least in the imaginative society of fiction they can always be objects of concern. Even in a good writer like Capote, to say nothing of a bad writer like Gore Vidal, the movement of the book comes to a standstill in the grinding machinery of sensibility. As in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, sympathetic justice is always accorded homosexuals. No Vautrin as in Balzac, no Charlus as in Proust, no honest homosexual villains! The immediate result is the immobilization of narrative, the fashionable mistiness of prose; first the hero is cherished to the point of suffocation, then the style. Other Voices, Other Rooms is a brilliant effort of will, but it is unmoving rather than slow, retrospective rather than searching. In the past, the movement of fiction was more energetic than life; now fiction becomes vaguer, dimmer, an “exercise” in “craft.”

This demand on our compassion is not limited to the quivering novels of sensibility by over-conscious stylists; it is the very essence of the deliberately churned-up novels of the Beat Generation. I mention Jack Kerouac here only because his novels, in which he has increasingly developed the trick of impersonating spontaneity by bombarding the reader with a mass of deliberately confused impressions, depend on a naked and unashamed plea for “love,” understanding, fellowship, and are read and enjoyed only because this pleading so answers to our psychological interest in fiction that we indulge Kerouac without knowing why we do. Nothing human is now alien to us; after all, the fellow’s problem could be our problem! It is ridiculous that novels can now be sent off as quickly as they are written and published immediately afterwards in order to satisfy the hopped-up taste of people who, when they open a novel, want to feel that they are not missing a thing. The sluttishness of a society whose mass ideal seems to be unlimited consumption of all possible goods and services is the reason for the “success” of writers whose literary strategy is to paint America as an unlimited supply of sex, travel, liquor—and lonely yearners. The individual who is concerned entirely with his aloneness will inevitably try to invade society, “the other” in his universe, by writing stormily, angrily, lashing the reader with a froth of words. But we are at fault in allowing the addict quality of such books to stand for “intensity” in fiction. More and more we judge novels by their emotional authenticity, not their creative achievement; we read them as the individual testifying for himself in a confused and troubling time. But the testimony is so self-concerned that we equate this glibness of feeling with recklessness of style. And here I come to another complaint, the increasing slovenliness, carelessness, and plain cowardice of style in fiction today. 

We were wrong when we thought that the ghost of Henry James had put his too, too careful hand on our young ’uns, It is true that some of the new professor-novelists, Benjamin DeMott in The Body’s Cage or Monroe Engel in The Visions of Nicholas Solon, like Capote himself in his first book and his stories, can remind us of the rage of style in the fiction of the ’forties. So talented a writer as Jean Stafford has of late years often seemed to bury herself in fine phrases. It is a rare professor-novelist, Robie Macauley in The Disguises of Love, who can escape the ostentatious carefulness, the jogging of the reader: Please don’t lose sight of my arm as I put together this beautiful edifice of words. But actually, the increasing fussiness of our social ideals and the plain boredom of a period in which writers so often feel incapable of imagining decisive roles for their characters have led to the opposite quality. John Wain recently wrote 

“At the moment, the literary mind of the ‘Vest seems to be swamped in one of its periodic waves of what George Orwell once called ‘sluttish antinomianism,’ which he defined as ‘lying in bed drinking Pernod’.” 

What we get now is not the style of pretended fineness—the New Yorker ladies with every tuck in place—but the imitation of anger, the leer of the desperado. You can’t fool us with your genteel learning, we’re young American men who have been around and who have a punch! So I read in an article on fiction, by Herbert Gold, that something-or-other is like kissing a girl with spinach on her teeth. Wow, bang, and slam. Kerouac and whoever it is who follows him are “wild” in the hope of getting out of themselves, in finding some person, thing, or cause to latch onto. Gold is slovenly in the hope of sounding “cool”; he is understandably alarmed by the softness that threatens young novelists in so self-pitying an age as this. In England the young men are angry because still made to feel inferior; in America, young novelists get angry because they hope to sound belligerent and positive, alive, against the doldrums of the Eisenhower age.

One root of their difficulty is the irresistible example of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Anyone who has read his first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, knows that Bellow began with an almost excessive nobility of style, that the open and comically pretentious style in which Augie talks is a tour de force. Bellow has always been fascinated by characters who, in the deep Existentialist sense, are conscious of being de trop, excessive of themselves and their society, insatiable in their demands on life. All his representative men, in the phrase of Henderson the rain king, cry, “I want! I want!” This excess of human possibility over social goals, of the problem, man, over his intended satisfactions, led to a prose in Augie which is rapturously, not whiningly, faithful to all the signs and opportunities of experience. “If you’ve seen a winter London open thundering mouth in its awful last minutes of river light or have come with cold clanks from the Alps into Torino in December white steam then you’ve known like greatness of place.” In Augie, Bellow attained a rosy deliverance from the grip of his past, he discovered himself equal to the excitement of the American experience, he shook himself all over and let himself go. “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way. …”

But just as no poet should attempt free verse who has not performed in traditional forms and meters, so no novelist should identify toughness with “free-style”:

He brought his hand with the horny nail of his index finger in a wide circle, swinging an invisible lassoo, looping their belly-eyed gaze and taking it at his eye. They were caught first at the spongy wart on his nose and then in his eyes, working it for themselves now like the flies caught wriggling in sticky-paper. That wart made a stiff flop when he tossed his head in beckon and hitch toward the pungent foot-darkened sawdust at the door of Grack’s Zoo, a gobble of cajolery up from his throat and the swollen Adam’s apple. 

This is from Gold’s most admired book, The Man Who Was Not With It, and makes me think of what was once scrawled on a student paper at Harvard by ancient Dean Briggs: “falsely robust.” I think I understand where such worked-up militancy of phrase comes from: from the novelist’s honest need, in the spirit of Henry James, to have language do the work of characterization. There is so much for a novelist to put together before he can invite people into the world of his imagination; there are so many things to say about human beings who, in the absence of public beliefs, appear arbitrary to themselves and to everyone else. The novelist feels he has to work ten times harder than he used to, falls into despair, and tries to ram it all home. Things aren’t as clear as they used to be, and there’s no kidding ourselves that they are. The true novelist wants only to set the stage, to get people going, to tell his story, but as Augie March says, “You do all you can to humanize and familiarize the world, and suddenly it becomes stranger than ever.” The sense of that strangeness is vivid despite the murky powers of contemporary novelists; no wonder, having to make language work all the time for them, that they often escape into an assumed violence and negligence of tone.

Sometimes the language of violence fits. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a series of episodes, but the screaming crescendo on which the book opens—the hero in his Harlem cellar, all the stolen lights ablaze, collaring the reader and forcing him to notice and to hear—is an unforgettably powerful expression, at the extreme of racial experience, of the absurdity, the feeling of millions that the world is always just out of their reach. I don’t care for novelists who ignore what H. G. Wells himself called the “queerness” that has come into contemporary life since the bomb. The ways of escape from this queerness are legion, but let me name some who don’t try to escape it. Paul Bowles doesn’t, although his values are so skittery that he sometimes seems to escape from horror into a Fitzpatrick travelogue. The American writer is so likely to see more of the world, and to experience it more openly, that, like Hemingway at the end of Death in the Afternoon, he always wants to get in after the bell all the sensuous travel notes he hadn’t been able to fit into his book. Bowles tends to fall into this sophisticated romanticism; sometimes he reports North Africa and Asia instead of setting his imagination in them. On the other hand, the landscape in The Sheltering Sky itself represents the inhumanity of people who can no longer communicate with one another, the coldness of a world that now seems to put man off. What minimizes the symbolic values in The Sheltering Sky and deprives us of the “resonance” we used to get in fiction is the aloneness of people who are concerned entirely with the search for their own sexual satisfaction. The slightly depressing atmosphere of anxiety that hangs over Bowles’s novel is characteristic of the effort to find an identity for oneself in sexual relationships. Norman Mailer, a writer with so much more native power than Bowles, with so much more ability to confront American life directly than he seems to acknowledge, has created in The Deer Park the same essential atmosphere of paralysis, of the numbness that results when people feel themselves to be lost in the pursuit of compulsions.

Mailer’s novels, at least for me, personify the dilemma of novelists who are deeply concerned with history but dangerously oversimplify it; if they seem consumed by their interest in sex it is because they are always seeking some solution for “the times.” In many ways Mailer seems to me the most forceful and oddly objective novelist of his age, objective in the sense that he is most capable of imagining objects to which a reader can give himself. You see this, despite the obvious debts to older writers, in The Naked and the Dead and in the satire behind the wonderful’ exchanges between the producer and his son-in-law in The Deer Park. Yet Mailer’s interest in the external world has dwindled to the point where the theme of sexual power and delight—which Mailer feels to be a lost secret in contemporary life—has become a labyrinthine world in itself. Mailer now seems bent on becoming the American Marquis de Sade, where once he seemed to be another Dos Passos. Yet the energy, the often unconscious yet meticulous wit, above all the eery and totally unexpected power of concrete visualization are curious because Mailer is able to make more of a world out of his obsessions than other writers are able to make out of the given materials of our common social world.

Here I come to the heart of my complaint. I complain of the dimness, the shadowiness, the flatness, the paltriness, in so many reputable novelists. I confess that I have never been able to get very much from Wright Morris, though he is admired by influential judges. In reading Morris’s The Field of Vision, I thought of George Santayana’s complaint that contemporary poets often give the reader the mere suggestion of a poem and expect him to finish the poem for them. Morris’s many symbols, his showy intentions, his pointed and hinted significances, seem to me a distinct example of the literary novel which professors like to teach and would like to write: solemnly meaningful in every intention, but without the breath or extension of life.

There are many writers, like J. D. Salinger, who lack strength, but who are competent and interesting. He identifies himself too fussily with the spiritual aches and pains of his characters; in some of his recent stories, notably “Zooey” and “Seymour: An Introduction,” he has overextended his line, thinned it out, in an effort to get the fullest possible significance out of his material. Salinger’s work is a perfect example of the lean reserves of the American writer who is reduced to “personality,” even to the “mystery of personality,” instead of the drama of our social existence. It is the waveriness, the effort at control, that trouble me in Salinger; the professional hand is there, the ability to create an imaginative world, plus almost too much awareness of what he can and can’t do. Only, it is thin, and peculiarly heartbreaking at times; Salinger identifies the effort he puts out with the vaguely spiritual “quest” on which his characters are engaged, which reminds me of Kierkegaard’s saying that we have become “pitiful,” like the lace-makers whose work is so flimsy. The delicate balances in Salinger’s work, the anxious striving, inevitably result in beautiful work that is rather too obviously touching, and put together on a frame presented to it by the New Yorker

But I must admit that the great majority of stories I read in magazines seem only stitchings and joinings and colorings of some original model. No wonder that in so much contemporary fiction we are excited by the intention and tolerate the achievement. We are so hungry for something new in fiction that the intention, marked early in the handling of a story, will often please us as if it were the dramatic emotion accomplished by the story; the intuition of hidden significance that usually waits for us at the end of a Salinger story is both a reward to the reader and the self-cherished significance of the story to the writer himself.

 Salinger’s characters are incomparably larger and more human than those of John Cheever, but Cheever has a gift for being more detached and at the same time more open to what is—to the ever-present danger and the half-felt queerness of contemporary existence. It is a pity in a way—I am thinking here of Cheever’s stories, not his novel—that contemporary American fiction must derive so much of its strength from the perishable value of social information. James Jones wrote a really extraordinary documentary novel in From Here to Eternity, and ever since, like so many Americans who wrote extraordinary first novels directly out of experience, he has had the look of someone trying to invent things that once were conferred on him. So Cheever, in the New Yorker style, sometimes takes such easy refuge in the details of gardens, baby-sitters, parks, dinners, apartment houses, clothes that he goes to the opposite extreme of the Beat writers (who present the sheer emptiness of life when human beings are not attached to a particular environment): he falls into mechanical habits of documentation, becomes a slyer John O’Hara. It is as if he were trying to get back to the social reportage and satire that worked in our fiction so long as the people writing these stories, like Sinclair Lewis or Scott Fitzgerald, knew what values they could oppose to the “rich.” As one can see from O’Hara’s novels, which get more pointless as they get bigger and sexier, it is impossible to remain an old-fashioned “realist” unless you can portray a class or an individual opposed to the dominant majority. (James Gould Cozzens was able to do exactly this in Guard of Honor but not in By Love Possessed, which is more of an aggrieved complaint against the destruction of values.) O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra was an exciting book because it involved the real conflict of classes in America; From the Terrace suggests that the transformation of our society has proceeded beyond the power or a commonplace mind to describe it deeply. For depth of description demands that the writer identify himself with a social force to which he can give symbolic significance, that he can discern a pattern in history, that he can not only plot his way through it but recognize himself to be a figure in it.

This social intelligence is now lacking to our novelists—except to those brilliant Southern writers, like ‘William Styron and Flannery O’Connor, who can find the present meaningful because they find the past so. But other Southern writers run the risk of being as confused as anyone else once they get off that safe subject, the betrayal of the past, which has been Faulkner’s great theme. The bigger, richer, and more anxious the country becomes, the more writers in the traditional mode, like O’Hara, or writers who are now formidably “hip,” like Mailer, find themselves trying to find in sex as individual appetite the drama of society in which they can see themselves as partisans and judges. This lack of breadth and extent and dimension I have been complaining of: what is it but the uncertainty of these writers about their connection with that part of reality which other novelists include in their work simply because they are always aware of it—not because they have strained to know it? What many writers feel today is that reality is not much more than what they say it is. This is a happy discovery only for genius. For most writers today, the moral order is created, step by step, only through the clarifications achieved by art and, step by step, they refuse to trust beyond the compass of the created work. There has probably never been a time when the social nature of the novel was so much at odds with the felt lack of order in the world about us. In the absence of what used to be given, the novelist must create a wholly imaginary world—or else he must have the courage, in an age when personal willfulness rules in every sphere, to say that we are not alone, that the individual does not have to invent human values but only to rediscover them. The novel as a form will always demand a common-sense respect for life and interest in society. 

Whatever my complaints, I never despair of the novel. As someone said, it is more than a form, it is a literature. I hope never to overlook the positive heroism of those writers who believe in the novel and in the open representation of experience that is its passion and delight-who refuse to believe that there can be an alternative to it [or an age like ours. And it does seem to me that the tangibility, the felt reverberations of life that one finds in a writer like Bernard Malamud, spring from his belief that any imaginative “world,” no matter how local or strange, is the world, and that for the imaginative writer values must be considered truths, not subjective fancies. It is really a kind of faith that accounts for Malamud’s “perfect sympathy” with his characters in The Assistant and The Magic Barrel. Though it is difficult for the alone to sympathize with each other, it is a fact that fiction can elicit and prove the world we share, that it can display the unforeseen possibilities of the human—even when everything seems dead set against it. 

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