Mid-Century Writers Wrangled A Now-Extinct Zeitgeist

Who will write the next great American novel? What does that even mean? In the shifting cultural-political landscape, the Great American Novel, as a category, seems to be increasingly open to more diverse submissions. Those whose work that, in previous decades, may not have been considered consummate or sweeping or palatable due to racial regulations, gender favoritism, etc., can now more comfortably tell their tale. Of course, our exclusionary problem obtains, and the (hopefully) eventual goal of literary, social and intellectual egalitarianism remains just that: a goal.

But the next Great American Novel will no doubt have the most difficulty being forged. It will be a project of bottomless accounting, forging a gestalt from a literal infinity of cultural moments. As the “zeitgeist” darts and splinters into a million esoteric corners of the internet, the idea of a unified cultural disposition stands to dissipate. The next Great American Novel, by nature of the present cultural expansion, could be a story of historical consequence, a sweeping, how-we-ended-up-here tale that doesn’t capture the present as much as it accounts for it. Since our moment consists of an infinite amount of micro-moments, our art could very well end up as a sad and dithering morass.

But my goal is not so much to point out the shifting cultural sands, an overall positive for literature, nor is it to fully elucidate the upshot of a splintered culture. What I wish to say, in the tradition of Douthatian polemics, is that there was a time, however whitey-hetero-male it was, when American writers achieved something special. There was a period, I think, from the second half of the twentieth century up until the proliferation of the internet, when a serious literary culture in America coincided with some of our very best writers. I’m thinking mostly of the post-Fitzgerald Johns, -Updike and -Cheever, and Philip Roth, specifically Roth’s masterpiece, American Pastoral. In Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Swede Levov, the upper-middle class archetype, finds the political turmoil of the 1960s “blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking,” and shredding the uniquely-American idealism implicit in the country’s founding. It may have been that this particular era brought to a head all of America’s historical delusions, that it was the perfect time for any writer to join their political admixture with the country’s spurious purity and placidity, but Roth’s specific gifts seem to have coincided with a culture just ripe enough to be harvested. We only need read American Pastoral to understand how an entire ideological foundation was shattered, how Americans were transported out of “the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral, into the indigenous American berserk.”

One moves through American Pastoral, as well as Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, with a sort of slow-enveloping density, massaged by the rhythm of the writing and scale of the ideas. It is not only the manipulation of language that holds our attention, but the feeling of a gentle becoming. Disparate from other great novels, where the main achievement ends up being the reader as unlikely empath, these writers use their characters as unique cultural sieves, through whom dominant ideas subtly change, mix with and are rejected by their informed disposition. Not only is the broader cultural embodiment captured, relayed and wormed around in in the abstract, but also embroils Roth’s characters. They exist in the cultural world so deeply that each ends up helping define the other. The characters and places are idiosyncratically spun, while constantly making the double movement between personal and political. Like every armchair-gripping citizen in their living room, they tell their personal histories and current struggles while the national emanates vital, unconscious control over their lives.

Of course, all of my claims about these writers have been said before, and I am coming from a place of personal experience, to which no real objective truth can be acceded. But there is something to be said about even the perceived. What Roth and Updike do in their mid-twentieth century work consists of an entire liberal education: history, politics, philosophy, psychology, literature.

They wrangled America the best they could, and forged major works of art by simultaneously complicating and distilling the personal through the universal. That, I think, is worth a mention.

  • Hank Wordsworth

    Roth and Updike? The last great American novelists? Or a symptom of their eclipse? Maybe I’ve missed something…please share one or two passages from each novel you cited as something I should sleep on. Thanks.

    • Kyle Ferrer

      Roth’s journey in the the American berserk passage from American Pastoral; Updike’s passage at the beginning of Rabbit, Run where he looks in on his son at his parents home.

      Hard to pull-quote works whose beauty comes from their totality.

      • Hank Wordsworth

        Ok. I found your Updike passage to see if I could tune in on it and surprisingly I could. Updike generally lacks a certain essentialism and does too much diamond cutting on the surface of things for my taste. See if I’ve helped him with that:

        He walks into the scent of frying bacon, hazing visibly in the light of the kitchen window. He drags his feet of weary day, after day, after day. He know he should rush. Thirty minutes to drudgery, to more forced and unforced errors, threats, write-ups, another termination. But in one bright corner he sees himself sitting in a high chair, and a quick, salvaging pride seizes him: His son will get it right. Unlike this father and father’s father and father’s father’s father, He will. With one more heart surgery he will get it right. He kisses him on the cheek and the child’s face brightens into a wide smile. “Mother making you breakfast, boy,” he assures him, and as he looks the son looks at the sedulous, careworn woman busy over her cooking, her face deep with anxious uncertainty and love.

        As for Roth, I tried and tried and tried but find him completely unreadable. Nevertheless, I’m willing to take another swing at any miraculous cut and paste of his genius you think I missed.

        • Kyle Ferrer

          I appreciate your willingness to dive back in. Sometimes Updike’s novels can be a bit turgid, and his overly lush metaphors can end up swamping them (although I still think they are overwhelmingly worth it). Pigeon Feathers, Updike’s collection of short stories, contains gem after of gem, and they tend to be a little tighter by nature of their structure. Maybe try that.

          As for Roth, I must say Pastoral is the only thing by him that I have read, as well as a short story or two, which I don’t remember enjoying. I am much more intimate with Updike. I could leaf through and try to find a passage for you, but I seem to have left my copy back home.

          Alas, I’ve enjoyed the banter, and appreciate your consistent readership.

          Kyle