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CHANGING THEIR SPOTS

Morris Dickstein, Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-70 (Harvard, 2002)

Before attending to the content of American literary critic Morris Dickstein’s book about "the transformation of American fiction, 1945-1970" let me enter two quibbles. First, although I don’t have any trouble with the periodization, which seems reasonable enough–the U.S. after World War II, birth of postmodernism, and all that–why confine it to American fiction? The theme of Dickstein’s Leopards in the Temple is about the arrival and eventual eminence of "outsiders"–Jews, blacks, homosexuals, Southern women, and spiritual rebels–in the ranks of American novelists. What would happen to the thematics of the book–fiction in dialectical relationship to the social, economic and political developments of American life in the period–if Dickstein, for instance, included American poetry in his reflections?

Certainly, 1945-70 was an important era in American poetry. It was the moment of the "The New American Poetry" (to cite the title of Don Allen’s period-defining anthology of 1960). In allegedly demarcating a "new poetry" from an ongoing "academic" poetry, it brought to the fore figures like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, John Ashbery, and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom are as intellectually and artistically interesting and productive as the roster of novelists Dickstein discusses. As for the conveniently-targeted so-called academic poets, who weren’t really "academics" now that we have some hindsight on the matter, why aren’t Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and a half dozen others as interesting in their way as Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, John Updike, and Philip Roth? Of course, most of the above-named poets aren’t Jewish or black or rebel outsiders, although several of them are gay. And I suppose that if you include poets, then what’s to stop you from bringing in playwrights, social critics and a host of others? Or even movies and television? Dickstein mentions Ginsberg and Lowell a couple of times, and there’s the occasional reference to Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Norman Brown and Herbert Marcuse, just as there is mention of movies and other cultural fare. But all that is just by the way, rather than substantial. Why not, then, a book about "American writing, 1945-70"? Why privilege "fiction"?

Second, if you’re going to write about fiction after World War II, then why "American fiction," or at least, why not English-language fiction, or the American or English-language novel in relation to other fiction? What is its connection to say, French fiction, with Camus, Genet, Robbe-Grillet et al? Or Eastern European and Russian novels? Or Boll and Grass in Germany? I can see that this second proposal is a bit tendentious, since it would require the author to explain the social circumstances of all those other countries in relation to their novelists, and things might quickly get out of hand. But the first suggestion, writing about "writing" rather than fiction, seems sensible, especially since Dickstein doesn’t offer an explanation for why he’s narrowed his focus down to a single genre, one that he later admits "has declined in importance."

Okay, enough of that. I’m aware that book reviewers shouldn’t ask the author to write a different book from the one he’s written. So, I’ll read the book at hand.

The title, Leopards in the Temple, is taken from a Kafka parable in which the leopards keep coming into the courtyard of the temple and drinking the sacred juice, until finally, since you can’t keep the leopards out, they simply become part of the ceremony. It’s an okay conceit, I guess, but maybe a little conceited. After all, whether the leopards get incorporated into the ritual or not, they don’t change their spots.

All in all, Dickstein’s survey and analysis of mid-20th-century American fiction and its times is reasonably interesting, and marked by consistently thoughtful, intelligent judgments. One of the things I like about it, being a contemporary of Dickstein’s, is that it reminds me of all the books that mattered to me when I was a younger reader. That is also one of Dickstein’s motives in writing it. "In this book I try to come to terms with the writers who emerged during the most impressionable period of my reading life," he says, "the writers who have enriched our culture for the last half century, even as fiction itself has declined in importance."

Dickstein, who is also the author of Gates of Eden, a book about American culture in the 1960s, begins by pointing out that the late 1940s and 1950s are different from the conventional image we have of the period as one of solely repressive conservatism and, further, that the disjunction between the buttoned-down 50s and the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s is not as great as it’s made out to be by defenders of one side or the other of the divide in current cultural historiography. One of Dickstein’s aims is to take a fresh look "at the strong radical undercurrents that led directly to the culture wars of the 1960s."

World War II, Dickstein notes, "brought a powerful but artificial unity to Americans, first by ending the Depression, which highlighted class divisions." As well, the war "also shook Americans loose from their local moorings, from religious roots and isolated lives in small towns." The overall effect was that "a more cosmopolitan America was coming into being, a good deal more open to social differences yet resistant to political dissent and social criticism. Outsider groups such as blacks, women and Jews… having seen something of the world, were not about to return to the kitchen, the ghetto, or the menial jobs to which they had been confined." And, correspondingly, "the arrival of these outsiders in the mainstream of American society had a close parallel in the arts."

Dickstein observes that "if social suffering, poverty, and exploitation topped the agenda of the arts in the 1930s"–reflected in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, as well of the works of John dos Passos and James Farrell–then "neurosis, anxiety, and alienation played the same role in the forties and fifties, when economic fears were largely put to rest." While the 1950s were the era of hysterical anti-communism and McCarthyism, it was also the case that "the number of women who worked outside the home, especially married women, doubled between 1940 and 1960." Similarly, "the civil rights movement of the late fifties and early sixties did not come from nowhere, but developed out of continuous civil rights agitation"– black soldiers home from the war, desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. If homosexuality remained closeted in that era, nonetheless, in the arts the explicit discussion of the subject began to appear, notably in Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1953). Finally, another "radical turn of the forties and fifties was the explosive emergence of youth culture," a partial spinoff of economic growth. In fiction, it took the "form of picaresque novels of flight and adventure." Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provided the classic locus of such 1950s works as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Dickstein’s argument that "on closer examination, postwar culture looks more edgy and unsettling than we once imagined" is well taken. He’s right to claim that "the radicalism of the 1960s, which once seemed to surge up out of nowhere, reveals its sources in the turbid cross-currents of the postwar years."

Dickstein’s survey of the American war novel from World War II to Vietnam provides one of the most interesting discussions in the book. He points out that the Second World War marked a sharp generational break in American writing, with the major pre-war writers, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, all fading from the scene, as did both the so-called "proletarian" writers and the "novelists of manners" of the 1930s. Their successors were 25-year-old Norman Mailer with The Naked and the Dead (1948) and the slightly older James Jones, whose From Here To Eternity (1951) Dickstein rates as probably the best novel coming immediately from the war. Dickstein also notes a break between the initial, naturalistic WWII war novels and those that began appearing in the 1960s. Later landmark works like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night are marked by "absurdity and moral ambiguity." Dickstein sees such stances as leading directly to the Vietnam War writing of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, writing which crystallizes doubts about the mixture of "social intolerance, boosterish optimism, and metaphysical angst" of the 1950s.

There are also a couple of problems with Dickstein’s war novel discussion. For one thing, inexplicably, there’s no mention of the Korean War, the first 20th century conflict that America didn’t win outright. A range of works that include the now-little-remembered The 49th Parallel: A Marine’s War Journal by Martin Russ as well as the popular and successful movie and television versions of Robert Altman’s MASH aren’t cited by Dickstein, even though the Korean War probably offers a better explanation of the turn in war writing from the earnestly straightforward Mailer and Jones to the sardonic tones of Heller and Vonnegut. The unclear war objectives, the inconclusive and surreal battles, and the murky outcomes of Korea not only presaged the Vietnam quagmire, but also had a kinship to the contemporary absurdist theatre of Beckett, and must have been influential in the later, more retrospective writing about World War II.

A second problem in Dickstein is that here, and elsewhere in the book, his central conceptual notion of "outsiders" becomes a bit slippery. While the Jewish Mailer fits into the category of "outsiders" that Dickstein is elaborating, his labeling of Jones as also an outsider on the grounds of being "an aimless Midwesterner, a romantic anarchist" muddies the distinction between the new presence of categories of people who heretofore hadn’t been prominent American novelists, and simply misfit individuals. There’s a tendency in Dickstein to turn everyone into an outsider to fit the thesis. But Jones, for instance, doesn’t appear to be any more of an outsider than Steinbeck before him, or Updike a couple of decades later. Overall, though, Dickstein is right to say that "the evolution of the war novel from the late forties to the late seventies is a measure of how the attitudes of American writers changed not only toward war but toward American society… For the writers of the sixties and seventies, whether they wrote about World War II or Vietnam, there was no longer even a trace of nobility about going to war."

Dickstein’s following chapter, "The New Fiction," is rather less satisfactory, although he has interesting things to say about Chester Himes, a neglected black writer who eventually turned to detective fiction, as well as the early writing of Saul Bellow. Dickstein’s point is that both Himes and Bellow were harbingers of an "introspective approach that would become the major current in postwar fiction." He cites Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground as the "master text" for a good many "modern portraits of the thwarted, angry, alienated outsider chewing nervously on his own bitter thoughts."

In this chapter, Dickstein also begins a discussion about writing the deals "more frankly with homosexuality," citing the obvious figures–Vidal, Baldwin, and Truman Capote–but also offering some astutely appreciative remarks about the prose of Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles, as well as taking note of John Rechy, Hubert Selby, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Neither here nor later is Dickstein’s discussion of writing about gay experience particularly illuminating. For one thing, there’s no mention of the most accomplished American gay novel of the early 1960s, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, the book that set the mark for the emergence of such gay liberation fiction of the mid-1970s as the novels of Anderew Holleran and Edmund White. (Isherwood, as a gay English immigrant to California, I suppose even qualifies as one of Dickstein’s "outsiders"). Nor does Dickstein refer to Paul Goodman’s novel Making Do, written around the same time as Isherwood’s book. Coming back to my earlier complaint about limiting the field to fiction, Goodman provides the paradigm example. Novelist, social critic, and essayist, Goodman seems to me one of the more important writers of the 1950s and 60s, and although Dickstein accords him passing reference, he’s really ruled out by the definition of scope in Leopards in the Temple.

The subsequent chapter, whose title metaphor, "On and Off the Road," plays on Kerouac’s On the Road, is both coherent and substantial. Dickstein’s initial focus is on the portrayal of various "rebels without a cause" whose "protests occur not in a Depression world of crisis… but in a triumphant world of postwar affluence and economic growth, a world they find soulless rather than exploitative… The terms of their radicalism are existential, not political; they seek inner satisfaction and identity, not social justice." Dickstein offers crisp and insightful treatment of J.D. Salinger’s "not growing up novel," Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). The genius of the latter, says Dickstein, "was to attach the new restlessness to the classic American mythology of the road, and to use it to express a subversive set of values–exuberance, energy, spirituality, intensity, improvisation–that would challenge the suburban and corporate conservatism of the 1950s." Although Kerouac’s lyrical prose–the thing that I thought as a 16-year-old reader to be the most exciting new style in American writing–may have weathered badly, Dickstein accords the Beat Generation author considerable and generous empathy.

Dickstein also devotes extensive attention in this chapter to a number of "off-road" writers and writings, such as John Cheever, John Updike, Nabokov’s Lolita, and the work of John Barth, one of whose proto-postmodern novels is called The End of the Road. While it’s not altogether clear, despite Dickstein’s case for it, how the various authors of suburbia and its discontents qualify as American outsiders, a lot of what Dickstein has to say about their work is interesting and pertinent.

That brings us to about three-quarters of the way through Dickstein. And at that point, I did an odd thing in my reading of Dickstein: I paused long enough to re-read Saul Bellow’s recent novel, Ravelstein (2000), mainly to reassure myself that reading the stuff itself is preferable to reading about it. Well, I was reassured, but the re-reading turned out to be surprisingly more than that.

I had first read Ravelstein when it came out two years ago, curious to see what the 85-year-old Nobel Prize-winning Bellow would do with a fictionalized memoir of his friend, Allan Bloom, the conservative professor and author of the best-selling Closing of the American Mind, who died of AIDS in 1992. And Bellow’s novel was okay, not great maybe, but okay. So I wrote a nice, respectful, even elegant–if I say so myself–review of Ravelstein for The Vancouver Sun, but I remember at the time thinking to myself that the writing seemed a little loose, a little baggy, even though it’s a relatively short novel. But then I thought, geez, Bellow is 85, that he can still do the thing at all, well, you’ve got to give him credit.

But when I re-read it while in the midst of reading Dickstein, I had to revise my views. Ravelstein is more than okay, it’s good, very good. As for the alleged looseness, Bellow or the narrator, Chick (they’re pretty much the same), tells us it’s going to be loosey-goosey:

"Ravelstein would frequently say to me, ‘There’s something in the way you tell anecdotes that gets to me, Chick. But you need a real subject. I’d like you to write me up, after I’m gone…’"

Chick demurs a bit, considering he’s some 15 years older than his 60-something-year-old pal. "It depends, doesn’t it," he says, "on who beats whom to the barn?" Ravelstein/Bloom is not having any of that. "Let’s not have any bullshit about it," the dying Ravelstein says. "You know perfectly well that I’m about to die…" And, as Chick concedes to himself, "Of course I knew it. Indeed I did."

Ravelstein pushes on. "’You could do a really fine memoir. It’s not just a request,’ he added. ‘I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks… I’ve often thought how well you deal with a story when you’re laid back.’"

And that’s exactly what Bellow does–a laid-back, loosely connected set of anecdotes and odds and ends that add up to a portrait of the last days of Ravelstein. Allan Bloom, who was a Plato and Rousseau scholar at the University of Chicago and who, on Bellow’s advice, wrote what turned out to be a surprise best-seller that made him suddenly rich enough to be as extravagant as he’d always wanted to be, was not a particularly likable sort, except to his network of cronies and former grad students, many of whom were now in positions of power during the Reaganite 1980s. Even Bloom’s craving to be in the power-loop is not all that charming.

Ravelstein tells Chick, "I want you to show me as you see me, without softeners or sweeteners." And again, Bellow lives up to the injunction. Very little sugar-coating. We see Ravelstein in a penthouse suite at the fanciest hotel in Paris (Michael Jackson has rented the floor below), then going out with Chick to the Lanvin shop where he buys a $4500 jacket, and then going with Chick to the Cafe Flore where he spills his third espresso onto the lapel of his new but now-wrecked jacket, and then we see him buying an $80,000 Bimmer for his Singapore Chinese boyfriend, and then… well, all the rest of his relentless squandering. In real life, Bloom was what would be called a "closeted" gay, and in his bestseller in which he bashes lefties, feminists and various dissidents and their dogs, there’s not a word about gay lib, and in his dying, he and his entourage did their best to keep what was killing him hush-hush. Bellow, laid-back or not, lays all this out, and offers his own considerable, affectionate "despite all this," and leaves it to the reader to make what he or she will of it, which is as it should be.

But what makes Ravelstein pretty great (enough of this "more than okay" stuff), and why I’m indulging in this excursus, is that it’s a book about a lot of old guys, including Bellow, dying, and Bellow’s book faces mortality pretty much without flinching, without "softeners or sweeteners," as he promised. It’s not just about Bloom’s death, but also Bellow’s near-death-no-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel experience (that Bellow got to write Ravelstein at all is pure luck), and the approaching ends of a whole raft of elderly people the two protagonists have known forever. Maybe the reason I found Ravelstein more interesting, and more admirable as writing the second time around is because I’m slightly more aware of myself edging into the category of people Bellow is considering, but more likely it’s because I now saw the point of Bellow’s approach. In any case, this is a book about getting into Charon’s boat and crossing the River Styx. You can feel the chill rising from the waters. And reading it (again), whether or not I attach it to an analysis of its social context, a la Dickstein, is more thought-provoking than any commentary on it.

Now, I don’t know exactly what re-reading Ravelstein has to do with the sinking Dow-Jones rate, the former Clinton Administration or Dickstein’s book. Sure, the writing of any period is going to have something to do with the ideologies, politics, economics, social life of the times. How could it be otherwise? If we knew enough about Sumerian politics, we could probably get some additional insight on Gilgamesh. I think that what I’m harbouring behind my suspicions of the perfectly worthy activity of relating writing to its context is the notion that art has a quality of duration that allows it to transcend its immediate temporal circumstances. So, sure, all of the connections of art to its time is interesting enough, but the really interesting thing is the degree to which it transcends it. Yeah, it helps to have someone explain about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines to get a better understanding of Dante’s Commedia, but even if you don’t know much about the internecine politics of 14th century Florence, The Inferno is still a great poem.

Dickstein titles his last chapter, "Apocalypse Now: A Literature of Extremes," but I’m not sure that the notion of "extremes" really works. The chapter has interesting things to say about Mailer, Bellow, Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth, but much of what it has to say works against the book’s self-limitation to fiction. As Dickstein himself judges, Mailer’s best writing in the 1960s wasn’t fiction at all, but the personalized reportage of Armies of the Night and Mailer’s coverage of the American political party conventions. As Dickstein notes about Mary McCarthy, she was but one of many novelists "who strayed into autobiography, and published essays and memoirs almost indistinguishable from her fiction." The same can be said for the best of Baldwin’s writing. "Baldwin and Mailer," says Dickstein– and he can add Gore Vidal to the best of the essayists on the list–"did much to erode the lines dividing the novel from the essay. Together they helped make the essay a major [American] literary form, first by importing fictional techniques, then by rescuing the essay from the whimsical voice of the eccentric gentleman… and infusing it with a sense of personal immediacy and social crisis." So, it turns out that one of the transformations of American fiction in the period Dickstein is writing about is transforming itself into another genre altogether. Maybe it is, after all, a case of the leopards changing their spots.

Dickstein closes with an essay on Philip Roth, who is my Nobel-candidate-in-waiting among the American writers of the last quarter-century. Again, Roth doesn’t quite fit into the time parameters of the book, since his really great body of work dates from the 1980s to the new millennium, although he certainly meets the raving Jewish prodigal son criterion. Again, when one considers his prolific late work–the Zuckerman Unbound cycle, the ambiguous autobiography of The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), the straightforward Patrimony memoir (1991), the zany Israeli excursion of Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath’s Theatre (1995), and the magnificent Human Stain (2000)–it leaves conventional notions of fiction pretty shredded. In the end, although I’m appreciative of what Dickstein does in Leopards in the Temple, I think I want to know more about the sacred juice that the leopards drain to the dregs.

Berlin, July 24, 2002 3900 words

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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