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A Century Of American Realism
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
The Depression and the Second World War were intimately related; after all, the Depression did not end until war broke out. Yet the Second World War did not produce many great novels, and for very clear reasons. The middle-class writers of the twenties went from protected, sheltered homes—from a world still full of the belief in American destiny—to the shattering experiences of the war. But the people of my generation who went to the war from the Depression had no illusions. The war seemed to us neither just nor unjust, but merely a horrible necessity. It also follows that the people who wrote after the Second World War were not middle-class, not interested in forms the way Hemingway and Dos Passos were, not as sophisticated artistically, and not very often as original. Steinbeck wrote one or two quite good books, but he was not as interesting a writer as Hemingway or Dos Passos. There is nothing in the least original, artistically, in The Grapes of Wrath ; it is simply a true, forceful book. No new forms were developed. Norman Mailer’s first book, The Naked and the Dead , was modelled on Dos Passos and Hemingway. It was not in the least original, though it’s a good book.
Do you mean that modern conditions do not provide a favorable environment for creative writers?
That is, I suppose, the most important question one can ask about the current literary situation. Novelists, of course, enjoy living well and having money, but they cannot keep from feeling morally and intellectually that things are wrong with our society. There is a contradiction between the enormous wealth and splendor of American life and the sense of anxiety, of something fundamentally immoral going on in our society today. A lot of people are able to delude themselves that they are living in the best of all possible worlds, but the novelist, if he’s a real writer, senses that things are not right. A writer like Saul Bellow, for example, whom I think very highly of, is a very successful American. He has a position of great honor, and he certainly enjoys all the fruits of living in our intoxicating century. Yet his work is full of the most terrible sense of grief, of guilt, of foreboding. Why is this? Because in this privileged world human relationships are deteriorating. Bellow is aware, I would assume, that we have a civilization but not a culture, a society without standards. He recognizes that something about the very nature of modern society makes for great destructiveness. This awareness of man’s destructiveness has become more intense as a result of the Second World War. You cannot kill thirty million people and then expect that the world will go back to normal and that sensitive writers will say: “Life is great.”
Does Norman Mailer’s work reflect something of the same view —that modern society is destructive, that “things are not right”?
Yes. Mailer is an extraordinarily talented man. He has a very muscular, combative kind of talent, and he completely understands and rejoices in the popular side of American life. In what I think is his best book, The Armies of the Night , he says that he even felt a sneaking sympathy for the federal marshals in Washington opposing the pickets (of whom he was one), because he recognized in them the same comic, sardonic talent which he had found among the men he had known in the Army. Like Stephen Crane, he has a great passion for what happens in the street, in crowds. At the same time, of course, Mailer is also a very interesting ideologist. More than any other good novelist that I can think of, he openly declared after the war that the next chapter in the American imagination would have to deal with a whole new attitude toward sex. His point was that white middle-class men had deprived themselves of certain fundamental qualities of passion. In a famous essay called “The White Negro” he compared the active, strong, reckless quality of the Negro, who as a kind of outlaw in American society had to gain his way by forceful means, with the timid and obedient white middle-class American.
As a novelist, Mailer has been extremely erratic. He has shown himself to be almost uninterested in finishing books properly. But I think he is an original, in many ways the most original, American novelist since Scott Fitzgerald. He reminds me always of Crane and Fitzgerald. He’s very sophisticated, but very passionate, very strong, and he also has an extraordinary sense of mischief. The best thing about Mailer is that he has recognized that in our time a strong talent is literally subversive. He has social intelligence of a very prophetic kind.
Twentieth-century America has produced some of the most extraordinary capacities for unhappiness the world has ever seen. And the best novelists have called the score properly on what is happening. The novel as a literary creation deals with the human soul in active relationships, and these are enough to make one despair sometimes. The easy confidence which Americans were supposed to feel has quite departed. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t live with a sense of anxiety and foreboding because of the violent animosities of our time. And this is where the modern novel really succeeds—in describing human beings and their capacity for destruction.