How male was the “American Century”?

Writing for The Guardian, in preparation for a new BBC radio series on U.S. literature called “Capturing America” (soon to debut, I guess), Mark Lawson ponders the influence of the generation of American novelists who reached adulthood during World War II, who ascended to fame in the 1950s and ’60s, and who held their star-posts until recently, until old age and death caught up: Mailer, Heller, Bellow, Roth, Updike, Salinger, and others.  Lawson provides a pretty good overview–and I stress “overview” (it is after all a newspaper article)–of the last half-century of American letters, and his understanding of the current core debate among critics and scholars (How accurate is it to frame a cadre of mostly male, mostly white writers as the leaders of national literary culture?) is nuanced.  Viz.,

This triumphalist but nostalgic position holds that these writers took advantage of their nation’s geopolitical power – and a media culture and bookstore customer-base which regarded serious writers ­seriously – to create a superpower of the pen to match the financial and military clout of the US during what became known as the American century.

The counter-argument is that this army of old soldiers was very male and masculine and white in its concerns – tempered only by a grudging, late admission to the halls of fame of writers such as Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates – and that the standard narrative of 20th-century American literature is partial and distorted. This case is made persuasively in Elaine Showalter’s recent book: A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.

Literary history is impossibly messy and almost always contentious (celebrating some people means not celebrating others, or at least not celebrating them as much), and so this debate is unwinnable, really.  But even if you don’t believe that Bellow, et al. constitute the “greatest generation” of American writers (and personally I don’t even think there is such a thing as any “greatest generation,” not ever), it is hard to write off the achievement of books like Herzog and The Catcher in the Rye, and you will probably find Lawson’s apercu fair and sophisticated, which is impressive, given the short format he’s working in.

He also works in the usual worries about The Death of Serious Literature–

Updike, in [his] last interview, reflected on having twice been pictured on the cover of Time magazine, part of the nation’s honours system, to mark the publication of Couples in 1968 and Rabbit Is Rich in 1982. Now, the novelist who takes that prize is Dan Brown. And so the changing of the guard in American fiction is arguably not just generational but cultural: the large, interested readership who lined their shelves with Updike’s Rabbit Quartet, Bellow’s Herzog, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and other bestsellers of serious literary merit had perhaps migrated to the quick-read thriller and the confessional memoir.

–without sounding like a hysterical pessimist.  Literature will keep getting written, and, as long as our educational system doesn’t totally collapse (50/50 odds?) people, at least some people, will keep reading it:

. . . intelligent literary culture will adapt to the new conditions of the marketplace and may be revived, as the country always has been, by immigration. The Jewish-American, Irish-American, ­African-American and European-­American writers of the great postwar generations may be followed by authors who are, say, Indian-American (Jhumpa Lahiri, left, with Unaccustomed Earth), Dominican-American (Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) or Korean-American (Chang-rae Lee, whose novel The Surrendered, published this spring, extends the nation’s rich war literature by treating the ­Korean war from an Asian perspective). With these books and others, a new phase is beginning.

Kinda pat, but true.  And by the way, if you haven’t done so yet, you really, really need to read Oscar Wao.  Diaz is the troof.  Happy reading,



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