Spotting Leopards in Postwar America

Article excerpt

By STEVEN G. KELLMAN

Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970. By Morris Dickstein. Harvard University Press. $15.95.

The 1950's are the Midwest of American cultural history, the flyover flatlands slighted by critics in quest of more spectacular terrain. Dwight Eisenhower, Pat Boone, and Donna Reed have seemed, in retrospect, to be tutelary spirits to a timorous age of conformity, consumerism, and complacency. It was the habitat of organization men, lonely crowds, and men in gray flannel suits, except that the comers of those terms, William H. Whyte, David Reisman, and Sloan Wilson, respectively, were also contemporary with the numbing blandness that they indicted. What kept the postwar years from being the worst of times was the vigor of the chorus proclaiming that it was the worst of times. "Never did so triumphant a period produce such a mass of angry criticism," notes Morris Dickstein, surveying a postwar culture he finds clamorous with adversarial voices. The enduring literary legacy of the coercive decade that produced hula hoops, TV dinners, and Joseph McCarthy includes such major works of transgressive fiction as Invisible Man, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, The Magic Barrel, Seize the Day, Lolita, and The End of the Road.

In his best-known book, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1977), Dickstein insisted on tracing the antecedents of the apocalyptic Age of Aquarius to the antinomian energies of the Age of Anxiety, a decade dominated by the novel threat of nuclear annihilation. In Leopards in the Temple, Dickstein contends that the entire 25 years following the end of World War II constitute a single continuum, and he proceeds to examine together the novels and short stories created in the United States throughout that quarter-century. Yet he now dismisses much of what the final years of the period produced: "The cultural turbulence of the 1960s inspired little first-rate fiction but much attitudinizing." Though he offers cogent readings of Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) and The Armies of the Night (1968) and mere mention of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Dickstein is most inspired by the dissidents, rebels, and neurotics who dared disturb the placid surface of the earlier decade, in which Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking and Fulton J. Sheen's Life Is Worth Living sat high on the best-seller lists. He is teased into thought by ambivalence, by how: "The fifties were at once a period of complacency, of getting and spending, and an age of anxiety, a time for doubt and self-questioning, as shown by works like David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism." As urban riots and Vietnam revealed an America riven by violent racial and generational conflict, it also became less equivocal and less interesting to Dickstein.

The title Leopards in the Temple (adopted also for a study of technology and culture by Steven Carter that was published three months earlier) emphasizes the volume's focus on transgressive texts. An epigraph quotes Franz Kafka's Parables and Paradoxes: "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." Elsewhere, Dickstein identifies Kafka's leopard with "the force of the irrational." The implication is that the authors he is most intent on reading-James Baldwin, John Barth, Saul Bellow, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Chester B. Himes, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Bernard Malamud, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams-violated the contemporary consensus about what constituted reason. The corollary is that the power of their art has made these outsiders part of the ceremony, part of the culture upon which they trespassed.

Leopards in the Temple originated as an essay for the new Cambridge History of American Literature, an exercise in literary historiography that, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, prizes interpretation over mere iteration. …