The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s

By M. Keith Booker | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
“Soiled, Torn, and Dead”:
The Bleak Vision of American Literary
Fiction in the Long 1950s

In many ways, the long 1950s was not a particularly rich time for the American novel. Granted, important novels were published during the period, but the most respected novel published during the decade, Lolitα, could not even initially be published in America due to its “shocking” subject matter. And, however American the texture of its evocation of cross-country car trips through a landscape saturated with the products of a pervasive Culture Industry, Lolitα was written by a Russian émigré who fled back to Europe at the first economic opportunity, escaping what he clearly saw as the vulgarity of America. Other respected novels of the long 1950s were written by more “authentically” American writers, though many of those writers were cultural outsiders, such as the African Americans Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, the Southerner Catholics Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, and the Jewish writers J. D. Salinger, Normal Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Heller. Partly as a result of the ethnic marginality of the writers, no novels of the decade have really gained the canonical status of, say, Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby. Many readers are still uncomfortable with the subject matter of Lolita, while Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) has always been seen more as an African American classic than an American classic, and Heller's absurdist Catch-22 (1961) is often seen as representing a particular (urban Jewish) reaction to a special moment in American history.

Lolita, Invisible Man, and Catch-22, arguably the three most important American novels of the long 1950s, are very different works, though all are linked by the fact that they are written in a modernist vein, a fact that is not surprising given that the extended decade of the long 1950s was the great era of modernist canonization. From this point of view, the literary production of the long 1950s might actually be seen as extremely impressive, the period having produced, after the fact, the golden age of the American modernist novel, even though the texts involved (most

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