The Magazine

The Best Years of Our Lives

When did critics start yearning to return to the life of the 1950s?

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Tom eventually quits his job, and together the Raths leave the rat race for what the novel promises will be a more authentic life in Vermont. Wilson's novel remains largely readable, and Rath's memories of combat, rendered plainly and without melodrama, still make for powerful reading. But The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ends--as Castronovo puts it--in a "bundle of clichés." It has dated, as bestsellers almost always do.

Castronovo is an astute, blunt, and erudite critic; he is enthusiastic, not jargonistic, and manages to make many of the classic books of the 1950s--the ones most English majors know--seem relevant and fresh. He is interested, for example, in "accessible modernist classics" like Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (1952) and Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953). These books offered "thick symbolic and poetic texture" but "were nevertheless fun to read." They "transcended" the naturalistic mode and its "raw clunky narratives" but preserved its "vigor and directness" nonetheless. Ellison and Bellow were not, like so many 1950s novelists, literary descendants of Theodore Dreiser; they "experimented with language without losing contact with a readership hungry for vivid stories."

Castronovo is generous, but largely balanced in his praise of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) for creating, each in its own way, "a unique idiom for registering personal experience." He hails the originality of such noir novels as Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man (1948), Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1953), and David Goodis's Shoot the Piano Player (1956); these stories of "ruination, blindness and anguish" make readers "think about warped human nature and scare us into some insights about ourselves."

Beyond the Grey Flannel Suit also praises J.F. Powers, whose Morte d'Urban (1962), about a Catholic priest, reveals a novelist with brilliant narrative and satiric skills. Powers's territory, Castronovo writes, "is, to a large extent, Mencken's booboisie," and yet his gallery of "rogues, clucks, and do-nothings, and know-nothings" is displayed "with a subtlety and dramatic sense that makes scourges of provincialism such as Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken seem heavy-handed."

Castronovo also reminds us that the 1950s were a golden age for the short story, as the works of Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and Philip Roth reveal. These writers have not lost their relevance; certainly Cheever, with his careful prose and his mix of the fantastic and the real seems as fresh as ever, the one '50s writer who, in his short fiction, hasn't dated at all.

WHAT ELSE ENDURES? In a chapter on critical writing, Castronovo points to the accomplishments of both Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling, two prolific and influential essayists who began to fade in the 1970s as criticism became more academic and recondite, and competing strains of literary theory, imported from the continent, began to hold sway. Trilling and the more acerbic and combative Macdonald were among the best of the 1950s critics who wrote "for a general literate audience," as Castronovo observes, focusing on "freestanding essays about our cultural life." They "dealt with issues that have never faded," including "popular vs. high art, politics and the demands of literature, the media, quality (or lack of it) in popular fiction, the dumbing down of American life."

Castronovo sent me back to Trilling, and I found essays like "Kipling," "Little Dorrit," and "Flaubert's Last Testament" as engaging as ever. Who could not be impressed by the depth of Trilling's learning, the seriousness of his purpose, or the lovely roll of his prose? Trilling brings into the twentieth century the music of the great Victorian stylists, like Matthew Arnold, one of Trilling's intellectual heroes. Of course, Sigmund Freud was another of Trilling's heroes, as such essays as "Freud and Literature" and "Art and Neurosis" make plain. Freud is also there, less explicitly, in Trilling's trenchant analysis of the sensibility of Alfred Kinsey, which appeared after the 1948 publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

Kinsey, Trilling admits, did his homework, interviewing scores of men about their sexual practices and histories. But Kinsey, Trilling argues, did not take sex seriously enough. Instead, he signaled a baleful trend, believing that if you collect enough data and tally up all the numbers you can arrive at an objective presentation of the truth--even in regard to a subject as complex and encompassing as human sexuality. Kinsey's report emphasizes "the anatomical and physiological nature of sexuality," and relies "on animal behavior as a norm." It is "by no means unaware of the psychic conditions of sexuality, yet it uses the concept almost always under the influence of its quantitative assumption."