When I went to college at the end of the 1950s, I frequently heard not only my teachers but reputedly up-to-date literary critics declare that there was no longer an avant-garde in American literature. Some of them suggested that by 1960 everything possible had already been done — that the possibilities of literature had simply been exhausted, thanks to all the innovations of early modernism. Another, different argument for the death of the avant-garde noticed that, since the suburban public apparently laps up all new art, there cannot be an avant-garde anymore. However, on further thought, both these arguments turned out to be false.
By now we can see that, in America at least, there was a boom period at the end of World War II, and within the years immediately after the war a whole new culture emerged, not only a new generation of novelists, many of whose works were quite different from the predominant styles of fiction between the wars, but a similarly new set of people and styles in both poetry and playwrighting; a new painting called "abstract expressionism"; a new sculpture epitomized by David Smith; the choreography of Martha Graham; and a comparably new music. The remainder of the 1950s — certainly the last half of that decade — represented a creative lull that was broken only by the emergence of the poets called "beat," who were less an artistic avant-garde, as the forms of their poetry were scarcely innovative, than a cultural avant-garde. What I then learned in college was very much a piety of the time.
In 1965, I edited a book called The New American Arts, in which several younger critics identified the new developments in painting, poetry, music, film, and modern dance. I wrote the chapters on theater and fiction, as well as the introduction, in which I suggested, in passing, that 1959-60 appeared to