T he alienation and stress underlying the 1950s found outward expression in the 1960s in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture whose effects are still being worked through American society. Notable political and social works of the era include the speeches of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the early writings of feminist leader Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963), and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), about a 1967 antiwar march.
The 1960s was marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage, that has carried through the present day. Novelist Truman Capote -- who had dazzled readers as an enfant terrible of the late 1940s and 1950s in such works as Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) -- stunned audiences with In Cold Blood (1966), a riveting analysis of a brutal mass murder in the American heartland that read like a work of detective fiction. At the same time, the "New Journalism" emerged -- volumes of nonfiction that combined journalism with techniques of fiction, or that frequently played with the facts, reshaping them to add to the drama and immediacy of the story being reported. Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) celebrated the antics of novelist Ken Kesey's counterculture wanderlust, and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) ridiculed many aspects of left-wing activism. Wolfe later wrote an exuberant and insightful history of the initial phase of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff (1979), and a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a panoramic portrayal of American society in the 1980s.
As the 1960s evolved, literature flowed with the turbulence of the era. An ironic, comic vision also came into view, reflected in the fabulism of several writers. Examples include Ken Kesey's darkly comic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a novel about life in a mental hospital in which the wardens are more disturbed than the inmates, and Richard Brautigan's whimsical, fantastic Trout Fishing in America (1967). The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical, in Thomas Pynchon's paranoid, brilliant V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966), and the grotesque short stories of Donald Barthelme, whose first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published in 1964.
In a different direction, in drama, Edward Albee produced a series of nontraditional psychological works -- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966), and Seascape (1975) -- that reflected the author s own soul-searching and his paradoxical approach.
At the same time, the decade saw the belated arrival of a literary talent in his forties -- Walker Percy -- a physician by training and an exemplar of southern gentility. In a series of novels, Percy used his native region as a tapestry on which to play out intriguing psychological dramas. The Moviegoer (1962) and The Last Gentleman (1966) were among his highly-praised books.
Thomas Pynchon (1937- )
Thomas Pynchon, a mysterious, publicity-shunning author, was born in New York and graduated from Cornell University in 1958, where he may have come under the influence of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, his innovative fantasies use themes of translating clues, games, and codes that could derive from Nabokov. Pynchon's flexible tone can modulate paranoia into poetry.
All of Pynchon's fiction is similarly structured. A vast plot is unknown to at least one of the main characters, whose task it then becomes to render order out of chaos and decipher the world. This project, exactly the job of the traditional artist, devolves also upon the reader, who must follow along and watch for clues and meanings. This paranoid vision is extended across continents and time itself, for Pynchon employs the metaphor of entropy, the gradual running down of the universe. The masterful use of popular culture -- particularly science fiction and detective fiction -- is evident in his works.
Pynchon's work V is loosely structured around Benny Profane -- a failure who engages in pointless wanderings and various weird enterprises -- and his opposite, the educated Herbert Stencil, who seeks a mysterious female spy, V (alternatively Venus, Virgin, Void). The Crying of Lot 49, a short work, deals with a secret system associated with the U.S. Postal Service. Gravity's Rainbow (1973) takes place during World War II in London, when rockets were falling on the city, and concerns a farcical yet symbolic search for Nazis and other disguised figures. The violence, comedy, and flair for innovation in his work inexorably link Pynchon with the 1960s.
John Barth (1930- )
John Barth, a native of Maryland, is more interested in how a story is told than in the story itself, but where Pynchon deludes the reader by false trails and possible clues out of detective novels, Barth entices his audience into a carnival fun- house full of distorting mirrors that exaggerate some features while minimizing others. Realism is the enemy for Barth, the author of Lost in the Funhouse (1968), 14 stories that constantly refer to the processes of writing and reading. Barth's intent is to alert the reader to the artificial nature of reading and writing, and to prevent him or her from being drawn into the story as if it were real. To explode the illusion of realism, Barth uses a panoply of reflexive devices to remind his audience that they are reading.
Barth's earlier works, like Saul Bellow's, were questioning and existential, and took up the 1950s themes of escape and wandering. In The Floating Opera (1956), a man considers suicide. The End of the Road (1958) concerns a complex love affair. Works of the 1960s became more comical and less realistic. The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) parodies an 18th-century picaresque style, while Giles Goat-Boy (1966) is a parody of the world seen as a university. Chimera (1972) retells tales from Greek mythology, and Letters (1979) uses Barth as a character, as Norman Mailer does in The Armies of the Night. In Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), Barth uses the popular fiction motif of the spy; this is the story of a woman college professor and her husband, a retired secret agent turned novelist.
Norman Mailer (1923- )
Norman Mailer is generally considered the representative author of recent decades, able to change his style and subject many times. In his appetite for experience, vigorous style, and dramatic public persona, he follows in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway. His ideas are bold and innovative. He is the reverse of a writer like Barth, for whom the subject is not as important as the way it is handled. Unlike the invisible Pynchon, Mailer constantly courts and demands attention. A novelist, essayist, sometime politician, literary activist, and occasional actor, he is always on the scene. From such "New Journalism" exercises as Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), an analysis of the 1968 U.S. presidential conventions, and his compelling study about the execution of a condemned murderer, The Executioner's Song (1979), he has turned to writing such ambitious, heavyweight novels as Ancient Evenings (1983), set in the Egypt of antiquity, and Harlot's Ghost (1992), revolving around the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.