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THE AFFLUENT BUT ALIENATED 1950s

T he 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday life, left over from the 1920s -- before the Great Depression. World War II brought the United States out of the Depression, and the 1950s provided most Americans with time to enjoy long-awaited material prosperity. Business, especially in the corporate world, seemed to offer the good life (usually in the suburbs), with its real and symbolic marks of success -- house, car, television, and home appliances.
Yet loneliness at the top was a dominant theme; the faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype in Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Generalized American alienation came under the scrutiny of sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950). Other popular, more or less scientific studies followed, ranging from Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers (1959) to William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) and C. Wright Mills's more intellectual formulations -- White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956). Economist and academician John Kenneth Galbraith contributed The Affluent Society (1958). Most of these works supported the 1950s' assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. The studies spoke in general terms, criticizing citizens for losing frontier individualism and becoming too conformist (for example, Riesman and Mills), or advising people to become members of the "New Class" that technology and leisure time created (as seen in Galbraith's works).
The 1950s actually was a decade of subtle and pervasive stress. Novels by John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggle to succeed, as in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's novella Seize the Day (1956). Some writers went further by following those who dropped out, as did J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952), and Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957). And in the waning days of the decade, Philip Roth arrived with a series of short stories reflecting his own alienation from his Jewish heritage (Goodbye, Columbus, 1959). His psychological ruminations have provided fodder for fiction, and later autobiography, into the 1990s.
The fiction of American Jewish writers Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Isaac Bashevis Singer -- among others prominent in the 1950s and the years following -- are also worthy, compelling additions to the compendium of American literature. The output of these three authors is most noted for its humor, ethical concern, and portraits of Jewish communities in the Old and New Worlds.
John O'Hara (1905-1970)
Trained as a journalist, John O'Hara was a prolific writer of plays, stories, and novels. He was a master of careful, telling detail and is best remembered for several realistic novels, mostly written in the 1950s, about outwardly successful people whose inner faults and dissatisfaction leave them vulnerable. These titles include Appointment in Samarra (1934), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1958).
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison mirror the African-American experience of the 1950s. Their characters suffer from a lack of identity, rather than from over-ambition. Baldwin, the oldest of nine children born to a Harlem, New York, family, was the foster son of a minister. As a youth, Baldwin occasionally preached in the church. This experience helped shape the compelling, oral quality of Baldwin's prose, most clearly seen in his excellent essays, such as "Letter from a Region Of My Mind," from the collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In this, he argued movingly for an end to separation between the races.
Baldwin's first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), is probably his best known. It is the story of a 14-year-old youth who seeks self-knowledge and religious faith as he wrestles with issues of Christian conversion in a storefront church. Other important Baldwin works include Another Country (1962), a novel about racial issues and homosexuality, and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), a collection of passionate personal essays about racism, the role of the artist, and literature.
Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994)
Ralph Ellison was a midwesterner, born in Oklahoma, who studied at Tuskegee Institute in the southern United States. He had one of the strangest careers in American letters -- consisting of one highly acclaimed book, and nothing more. The novel is Invisible Man (1952), the story of a black man who lives a subterranean existence in a hole brightly illuminated by electricity stolen from a utility company. The book recounts his grotesque, disenchanting experiences. When he wins a scholarship to a black college, he is humiliated by whites; when he gets to the college, he witnesses the black president spurning black American concerns. Life is corrupt outside college, too. For example, even religion is no consolation: A preacher turns out to be a criminal. The novel indicts society for failing to provide its citizens -- black and white -- with viable ideals and institutions for realizing them. It embodies a powerful racial theme because the "invisible man" is invisible not in himself but because others, blinded by prejudice, cannot see him for who he is. Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
Flannery O'Connor, a native of Georgia, lived a life cut short by lupus, a deadly blood disease. Still, she refused sentimentality, as evident in her extremely humorous yet bleak and uncompromising stories. Unlike Porter, Welty, and Hurston, O'Connor most often held her characters at arm's length, revealing their inadequacy and silliness. The uneducated southern characters who people her novels often create violence through superstition or religion, as we see in her novel Wise Blood (1952), about a religious fanatic who establishes his own church.
Sometimes violence arises out of prejudice, as in "The Displaced Person," about an immigrant killed by ignorant country people who are threatened by his hard work and strange ways. Often, cruel events simply happen to the characters, as in "Good Country People," the story of a girl seduced by a man who steals her artificial leg.
The black humor of O'Connor links her with Nathanael West and Joseph Heller. Her works include short story collections (A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965); the novel The Violent Bear It Away (1960); and a volume of letters, The Habit of Being (1979). Her Complete Stories came out in 1971.
Saul Bellow (1915- )
Born in Canada and raised in Chicago, Saul Bellow is of Russian-Jewish background. In college, he studied anthropology and sociology, which greatly influence his writing even today. He has expressed a profound debt to Theodore Dreiser for his openness to a wide range of experience and his emotional engagement with it. Highly respected, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Bellow's early, somewhat grim existentialist novels include Dangling Man (1944), a Kafkaesque study of a man waiting to be drafted into the Army, and The Victim (1947), about relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the 1950s, his vision became more comic: He used a series of energetic and adventurous first-person narrators in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) -- the study of a Huck Finn-like urban entrepreneur who becomes a black marketeer in Europe -- and in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a brilliant and exuberant serio-comic novel about a middle-aged millionaire whose unsatisfied ambitions drive him to Africa. Bellow's later works include Herzog (1964), about the troubled life of a neurotic English professor who specializes in the idea of the Romantic self; Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975); and the autobiographical The Dean's December (1982).
Bellow's Seize the Day (1956) is a brilliant novella often used as part of the high school or college curriculum because of its excellence and brevity. It centers on a failed businessman, Tommy Wilhelm, who tries to hide his feelings of inadequacy by presenting a good front. The novella begins ironically: "When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought...." This expenditure of energy ironically helps lead to his downfall. Wilhelm is so consumed by feelings of inadequacy that he becomes totally inadequate -- a failure with women, jobs, machines, and the commodities market, where he loses all his money. He is an example of the schlemiel of Jewish folklore -- one to whom unlucky things inevitably happen. Seize the Day sums up the fear of failure that plagues many Americans.
Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)
Bernard Malamud was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. In his second novel, The Assistant (1957), Malamud found his characteristic themes -- man's struggle to survive against all odds, and the ethical underpinnings of recent Jewish immigrants.
Malamud's first published work was The Natural (1952), a combination of realism and fantasy set in the mythic world of professional baseball. Other novels include A New Life (1961), The Fixer (1966), Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and The Tenants (1971). He also was a prolific master of short fiction. Through his stories, in collections such as The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), and Rembrandt's Hat (1973), he conveyed -- more than any other American-born writer -- a sense of the Jewish present and past, the real and the surreal, fact and legend.
Malamud's monumental work -- for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award -- is The Fixer. Set in Russia around the turn of the 20th century, it is a thinly veiled glimpse at an actual case of blood libel -- the infamous 1913 trial of Mendel Beiliss, a dark, anti-Semitic blotch on modern history. As in many of his writings, Malamud underscores the suffering of his hero, Yakov Bok, and the struggle against all odds to endure.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991)
Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story master Isaac Bashevis Singer -- a native of Poland who immigrated to the United States in 1935 -- was the son of the prominent head of a rabbinical court in Warsaw. Writing in Yiddish (the amalgam of German and Hebrew that was the common language of European Jewry over the past several centuries) all his life, he dealt in mythic and realistic terms with two specific groups of Jews -- the denizens of the Old World shtetls (small villages) and the ocean- tossed 20th-century emigré of the pre-World War II and postwar eras.
Singer's writings served as bookends for the Holocaust -- the destruction of much of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. On the one hand, he described -- in novels such as The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), set in 19th-century Russia, and The Family Moskat (1950), focused on a Polish-Jewish family between the world wars -- the world of European Jewry that no longer exists. Complementing that were his writings set after the war, such as Enemies, A Love Story (1972), whose protagonists were survivors of the Holocaust seeking to create new lives for themselves.
Vladimir Nabokov (1889-1977)
Like Singer, Vladimir Nabokov was an Eastern European immigrant. Born into an affluent family in Czarist Russia, he came to the United States in 1940 and gained U.S. citizenship five years later. From 1948 to 1959 he taught literature at Cornell University in upstate New York; in 1960 he moved permanently to Switzerland. He is best known for his novels, which include the autobiographical Pnin (1957), about an ineffectual Russian emigre professor, and Lolita (U.S. edition 1958), about an educated, middle-aged European who becomes infatuated with an ignorant 12-year-old American girl. Nabokov's pastiche novel, Pale Fire (1962), another successful venture, focuses on a long poem by an imaginary dead poet and the commentaries on it by a critic whose writings overwhelm the poem and take on unexpected lives of their own.
Nabokov is an important writer for his stylistic subtlety, deft satire, and ingenious innovations in form, which have inspired such novelists as John Barth. Nabokov was aware of his role as a mediator between the Russian and American literary worlds; he wrote a book on Gogol and translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. His daring, somewhat expressionist subjects, like the odd love in Lolita, helped introduce expressionist 20th-century European currents into the essentially realist American fictional tradition. His tone, partly satirical and partly nostalgic, also suggested a new serio-comic emotional register made use of by writers such as Pynchon, who combines the opposing notes of wit and fear.
John Cheever (1912-1982)
John Cheever often has been called a "novelist of manners." He is known for his elegant, suggestive short stories, which scrutinize the New York business world through its effects on the businessmen, their wives, children, and friends. A wry, melancholy and never quite quenched but seemingly hopeless desire for passion or metaphysical certainty lurks in the shadows of Cheever's finely drawn, Chekhovian tales, collected in The Way Some People Live (1943), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). His titles reveal his characteristic nonchalance, playfulness, and irreverence and hint at his subject matter. Cheever also published several novels -- The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977) -- the last of which was largely autobiographical.
John Updike (1932- )
John Updike, like Cheever, is also regarded as a writer of manners with his suburban settings, domestic themes, reflections of ennui and wistfulness, and, particularly, his fictional locales on the eastern seaboard, in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Updike is best known for his four Rabbit books, depictions of the life of a man -- Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom -- through the ebbs and flows of his existence across four decades of American social and political history. Rabbit, Run (1960) is a mirror of the 1950s, with Angstrom an aimless, disaffected young husband. Rabbit Redux (1971) -- spotlighting the counterculture of the 1960s -- finds Angstrom still without a clear goal or purpose or viable escape route from mundaneness. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Harry has become prosperous through an inheritance against the landscape of the wealthy self-centeredness of the 1970s, as the Vietnam era wanes. The final volume, Rabbit at Rest (1990), glimpses Angstrom's reconciliation with life, and inadvertent death, against the backdrop of the 1980s.
Among Updike's other novels are The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), and Bech: A Book (1970). He possesses the most brilliant style of any writer today, and his short stories offer scintillating examples of its range and inventiveness. Collections include The Same Door (1959), The Music School (1966), Museums and Women (1972), Too Far To Go (1979), and Problems (1979). He has also written several volumes of poetry and essays.
J.D. Salinger (1919- )
A harbinger of things to come in the 1960s, J.D. Salinger has portrayed attempts to drop out of society. Born in New York City, he achieved huge literary success with the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), centered on a sensitive 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who flees his elite boarding school for the outside world of adulthood, only to become disillusioned by its materialism and phoniness.
When asked what he would like to be, Caulfield answers "the catcher in the rye," misquoting a poem by Robert Burns. In his vision, he is a modern version of a white knight, the sole preserver of innocence. He imagines a big field of rye so tall that a group of young children cannot see where they are running as they play their games. He is the only big person there. "I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff." The fall over the cliff is equated with the loss of childhood and (especially sexual) innocence -- a persistent theme of the era. Other works by this reclusive, spare writer include Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters (1963), a collection of stories from The New Yorker. Since the appearance of one story in 1965, Salinger -- who lives in New Hampshire -- has been absent from the American literary scene.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
The son of an impoverished French-Canadian family, Jack Kerouac also questioned the values of middle-class life. He met members of the "Beat" literary underground as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City. His fiction was much influenced by the loosely autobiographical work of southern novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Kerouac's best-known novel, On the Road (1957), describes "beatniks" wandering through America seeking an idealistic dream of communal life and beauty. The Dharma Bums (1958) also focuses on peripatetic counterculture intellectuals and their infatuation with Zen Buddhism. Kerouac also penned a book of poetry, Mexico City Blues (1959), and volumes about his life with such beatniks as experimental novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg.


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