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

By M. Keith Booker | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Monsters, Cowboys, and Criminals:
Jim Thompson and the Dark Turn in
American Popular Culture in the
Long 1950s

Some of the weakness of the leftist realist fiction of the 1950s can be attributed to the fact, noted by Alan Wald in much of his work, that leftist writers were driven into popular genres in the decade to escape censorship and political persecution. But, again, the numerous works in popular genres from the long 1950s that have clearly leftist orientations tend to be weak in their treatment of class — and, correspondingly, in their suggestion of Utopian alternatives to capitalism. The same can be said for the more mainstream popular fiction of the long 1950s as well, even though such fiction, almost by definition, contains strong elements of fantasy and romance that have considerable Utopian potential. Drawing upon Max Weber's account of the routinization of life under capitalism, Fredric Jameson has suggested, in a variety of places, that the persistence of forms of romance in Western culture even into the twentieth century arises from a utopian longing for the absent magic that no longer exists in the modern world. In particular, Jameson argues that romance can offer Utopian alternatives in a postmodern world in which realism, once itself potent as a social and political force has itself become reified, losing its Utopian energy. In this case, for Jameson, romance re-emerges to “offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (Political 104).

From this point of view, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the long 1950s saw a veritable explosion in the production and consumption of popular literature, though the emphasis in this literature was definitely more on demonic than Utopian transformations of reality. During this period, realism was on the decline in terms of both production and critical assessment. Meanwhile, the critical establishment of the period turned its back on realism in favor of modernism, but modernism was of little uto-

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