Book Reviews -- American Fiction in the Cold War by Thomas Hill Schaub

Article excerpt

The literature about politics and society in the Cold War period in the United States is enormous, with many more excellent studies of many more kinds than a busy McCarthyite or Stalinist could have tossed an accusation of subversion or charge of heresy at. Thomas Hill Schaub's book is a distinguished addition to the list, not least for his careful and clear-sighted exegesis of the interrelationships among political and historical thinking, critical theory and practice, and literary production in the establishment and maintenance of a dominant cultural discourse.

American Fiction in the Cold War is a thoroughly researched, lucid, jargonistic and compellingly written account of the ideological ascendancy in post-World War II American fiction by revisionist liberalism, or "postwar 'realism'" in one of the phrases, the author notes, by which it tended to present and valorize itself. This domination was not in any way the triumph of a single credo but, instead, something that Schaub analyzes to be the result of a changing and complex relationship between politics and aesthetics in the retreat of the American intelligentsia from 1930's radicalism, which in the privileged "liberal narrative" was later rejected as a kind of innocent and utopian optimism. Under the pressure not only of domestic anti-Communism but also of what many liberals and leftists, as well as former liberals and ex-Communists, felt was the betrayal of left-of-center thinking by the international Communist movement in its Soviet embodiment, the mid-century period saw a conversion of liberalism to a disillusioned pragmatism undergirded by an a historical, pessimistic set of assumptions about human nature. This "liberalism [that] itself became conservative" believed itself to be more tough-minded and skeptical, less naive and simplistic, less ideological (even "neutral"!), and both more "vital" and also self-consciously more central, to toy with the phrase popularized by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Vital Center.

That postwar liberalism suffered an anti-Red shift, embracing pessimism, paradox and moral and epistemological ambiguity, is not a new argument, of course, and Schaub is full aware of his precedents and his debts. What the heart of his study is is his detailed presentation of this fallen liberalism, with its retrenched idealism in the face of belief in a fallen human nature seemingly verified by recent history. Schaub's extensive research and lucidly constructed arguments illuminate with a plenitude of well-chosen literary examples the breadth of the shared fundamental agreement that gave the period's oftnoted "consensus culture" its strength. …