American Culture in the 1950s

By Martin Halliwell | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Fiction and Poetry

The early 1950s was a transitional period for American literature. A clear sign of this was the award of the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature to William Faulkner. His middle phase as a novelist from The Sound and the Fury (1929) to Go Down, Moses (1942) was his most experimental, with stylistic innovation and psychologically troubled characters Faulkner's modernist trademarks. The award of the Nobel Prize can be seen as formal recognition of Faulkner's 'powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel' (in the words of the Nobel Committee), but he had actually shifted away from experimental fiction and had re-emerged in the 1940s as a more conventional realist. The Snopes trilogy {The Hamlet, 1940; The Town, 1957; The Mansion, 1959) continued his project of working through the historical implications of Southern identity, but the trilogy was not as complex as his earlier fiction and less searching in its exploration of race and genealogy. Rather than acclaiming Faulkner as an experimentalist, then, the Nobel Prize was recognition of his longterm service to literature, as he joined T. S. Eliot (Nobel Prize 1948) and later Ernest Hemingway (Nobel Prize 1954) as grand old men of American letters.

Faulkner did not like formal speeches, but in accepting the Prize in Stockholm on 10 December 1950 he made telling remarks about his own artistic priorities and about wider cold war concerns. He described his writing as 'a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit' and identified himself as an example to young writers struggling with their literary craft. But he worried that younger writers had forgotten that 'the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself are essential for artistic creation. Instead, he thought they were preoccupied with the pressing question of 'when will I be blown up?'1 Revealing a conservative streak that grew steadily through his career,

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American Culture in the 1950s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Figures vi
  • Case Studies vii
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Chronology of 1950s American Culture xi
  • Introduction - The Intellectual Context 1
  • Chapter 1 - Fiction and Poetry 51
  • Chapter 2 - Drama and Performance 85
  • Chapter 3 - Music and Radio 119
  • Chapter 4 - Film and Television 147
  • Chapter 5 - The Visual Arts Beyond Modernism 189
  • Conclusion - Rethinking the 1950s 225
  • Notes 245
  • Bibliography 285
  • Index 303
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