Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"A Hostile Decade": The 60s and Self-Criticism in William Kennedy's Early Prose

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"A Hostile Decade": The 60s and Self-Criticism in William Kennedy's Early Prose

Article excerpt

Of all the contemporary American fiction writers who have made hay out of the subject and sensibility of the 1930s (E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, and Darryl Pinckney among them), no writer has revisited America of the 1930s more consistently and fruitfully than William Kennedy. Kennedy's connection with the decade is so thorough that Morris Dickstein has recently described Edward Dahlberg's classic 1930s novel Bottom Dogs as having "Ironweed-style characters" ("Depression Culture" 71) and not the reverse. As Dickstein implies, Kennedy's novels Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and especially Ironweed have done a great deal to renew scholarly and popular interest in the "radical" 30s. While some literary critics have rightly demanded that their peers recognize the cultural centrality of the 30s, Kennedy has already been working on this important project for 20 years.

What has not been recognized, however, is that Kennedy's treatment of the 30s has to a large degree been influenced by the highly theatrical political movements and the fantastical, self-conscious novels of the 1960s. Kennedy's 30s novels are impressive because they dramatize the continuing relevance of the widespread homelessness during the Great Depression. They demand that we honor the highly politicized personal lives of the people who lived in and despite such conditions, not just the large-scale political movements for which the 30s are famous. Through Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and Ironweed, Kennedy suggests that we return to the 30s in order to, in the words of like-minded literary critic Harvey Teres, "individualize socialism" (7). But we should also realize that Kennedy returned to the 30s in his fiction because of the failure of the New Left and its own highly visible mass movements. In doing so, Kennedy uses the political/literary climate of the 60s to cast into relief the lessons of the 30s. The American left has long viewed the radicals of the Old and New Left as intrinsically and permanently antagonistic. In an early essay and in his first novel, The Ink Truck, Kennedy does more than just recognize this antagonism: by locating it in the New Left's willful ahistoricism and the Old Left's tender ego, he suggests that only self-criticism will successfully bridge the schism. It is true that the 30s would eventually become the subject, the passion, of Kennedy's most powerful fiction; but Kennedy first had to go through the 60s in order to reach that decade. In making this trip, Kennedy does what many contemporary intellectuals have not: he recognizes that the conflict between the Old and New Left was not a matter of age or even ideology, but a matter of not adequately interrogating the particulars of their shared history. Kennedy's early work cannot be dismissed as an apprenticeship, but should be recognized as a part of a career-long engagement with our highly diverse political history. By bridging the sensibilities of the 60s and 30s, Kennedy's early work also provides an important lesson in how we read and write literary history itself. Left-wing literary historian Alan Wald has argued that "we must refuse to cut short the 1930s at 1939" (Writing 105). This essay not only means to address our tendency to dissect literary history into clearly defined eras, but also to suggest that Kennedy's work is important because it demands that we address this tendency.

Kennedy's first vehicle for this difficult process was his only lengthy discussion of any of the so-called New York Intellectuals of the 30s.(1) One year before his first novel was published, Kennedy wrote an essay for the Albany Times-Union that pointed to his multigenerational political influences. The article - "Radicalism and Dwight MacDonald [sic]: Not What They Used to Be"(2) - documents a 1968 teach-in at Albany State University. As the title indicates, Dwight Macdonald, one of the early editors of the radical modernist journal Partisan Review, was one of the featured speakers, as were poet Kenneth Pitchford, economist David Mermelstein, and chemist George Hein. …

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