Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
Flannery O'Connor, a native of Georgia, lived a life cut short by lupus, a blood disease. Still, she refused sentimentality, as is evident in her extremely humorous yet bleak and uncompromising stories.
Unlike Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston, O'Connor most often held her characters at arm's length, revealing their inadequacy and silliness. The uneducated southern characters who people her novels often create violence through superstition or religion, as we see in her novel Wise Blood (1952), about a religious fanatic who establishes his own church.
Sometimes violence arises out of prejudice, as in "The Displaced Person" (1955), about an immigrant killed by ignorant country people who are threatened by his hard work and strange ways. Often, cruel events simply happen to the characters, as in "Good Country People" (1955), the story of a girl seduced by a man who steals her artificial leg.
The black humor of O'Connor links her with Nathanael West and Joseph Heller. Her works include short story collections A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955), and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965); the novel The Violent Bear It Away (1960); and a volume of letters, The Habit of Being (1979). The Complete Stories came out in 1971.
Saul Bellow (1915-2005)
Born in Canada and raised in Chicago, Saul Bellow was of Russian-Jewish background. In college, he studied anthropology and sociology, which greatly influenced his writing. He once expressed a profound debt to Theodore Dreiser for his openness to a wide range of experience and his emotional engagement with it. Highly respected, Bellow received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Bellow's early, somewhat grim existentialist novels include Dangling Man (1944), a Kafkaesque study of a man waiting to be drafted into the army, and The Victim (1947), about relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the 1950s, his vision became more comic: He used a series of energetic and adventurous first-person narrators in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) -- the study of a Huck Finn-like urban entrepreneur who becomes a black marketeer in Europe -- and in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a brilliant and exuberant serio-comic novel about a middle-aged millionaire whose unsatisfied ambitions drive him to Africa.
Bellow's later works include Herzog (1964), about the troubled life of a neurotic English professor who specializes in the idea of the romantic self; Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975); and the autobiographical The Dean's December (1982).
In the late 1980s, Bellow wrote two novellas in which elderly protagonists search for ultimate verities, Something To Remember Me By (1991) and The Actual (1997). His novel Ravelstein (2000) is a veiled account of the life of Bellow's friend Alan Bloom, the best-selling author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a conservative attack on the academy for a perceived erosion of standards in American cultural life.
Bellow's Seize the Day (1956) is a brilliant novella centered on a failed businessman, Tommy Wilhelm, who is so consumed by feelings of inadequacy that he becomes totally inadequate -- a failure with women, jobs, machines, and the commodities market, where he loses all his money. Wilhelm is an example of the schlemiel of Jewish folklore -- one to whom unlucky things inevitably happen.
Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)
Bernard Malamud was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. In his second novel, The Assistant (1957), Malamud found his characteristic themes -- man's struggle to survive against all odds, and the ethical underpinnings of recent Jewish immigrants.
Malamud's first published work was The Natural (1952), a combination of realism and fantasy set in the mythic world of professional baseball. Other novels include A New Life (1961), The Fixer (1966), Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and The Tenants (1971). Malamud also was a prolific master of short fiction. Through his stories in collections such as The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), and Rembrandt's Hat (1973), he conveyed -- more than any other American-born writer -- a sense of the Jewish present and past, the real and the surreal, fact and legend.
Malamud's monumental work -- for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award -- is The Fixer. Set in Russia around the turn of the 20th century, it is a thinly veiled look at an actual case of blood libel -- the infamous 1913 trial of Mendel Beiliss, a dark, anti-Semitic blotch on modern history. As in many of his writings, Malamud underscores the suffering of his hero, Yakob Bok, and the struggle against all odds to endure.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991)
Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story master Isaac Bashevis Singer -- a native of Poland who immigrated to the United States in 1935 -- was the son of the prominent head of a rabbinical court in Warsaw. Writing in Yiddish all his life, he dealt in mythic and realistic terms with two specific groups of Jews -- the denizens of the Old World shtetls (small villages) and the ocean-tossed 20th-century emigrés of the pre-World War II and postwar eras.
Singer's writings served as bookends for the Holocaust. On the one hand, he described -- in novels such as The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), set in 19th-century Russia, and The Family Moskat (1950), focused on a Polish-Jewish family between the world wars -- the world of European Jewry that no longer exists. Complementing these works were his writings set after the war, such as Enemies, A Love Story (1972), whose protagonists were survivors of the Holocaust seeking to create new lives for themselves.
Vladimir Nabokov (1889-1977)
Like Singer, Vladimir Nabokov was an Eastern European immigrant. Born into an affluent family in Czarist Russia, he came to the United States in 1940 and gained U.S. citizenship five years later. From 1948 to 1959, he taught literature at Cornell University in upstate New York; in 1960 he moved permanently to Switzerland.
Nabokov is best known for his novels, which include the autobiographical Pnin (1957), about an ineffectual Russian emigré professor, and Lolita (U.S. edition, 1958), about an educated, middle-aged European who becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old American girl. Nabokov's pastiche novel, Pale Fire (1962), another successful venture, focuses on a long poem by an imaginary dead poet and the commentaries on it by a critic whose writings overwhelm the poem and take on unexpected lives of their own.
Nabokov is an important writer for his stylistic subtlety, deft satire, and ingenious innovations in form, which have inspired such novelists as John Barth. Nabokov was aware of his role as a mediator between the Russian and American literary worlds; he wrote a book on Gogol and translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. His daring, somewhat expressionist subjects helped introduce 20th-century European currents into the essentially realist American fictional tradition. Nabokov's tone, partly satirical and partly nostalgic, also suggested a new serio-comic emotional register made use of by writers such as Thomas Pynchon, who combines the opposing notes of wit and fear.
John Cheever (1912-1982)
John Cheever often has been called a "novelist of manners." He is also known for his elegant, suggestive short stories, which scrutinize the New York business world through its effects on the businessmen, their wives, children, and friends.
A wry melancholy and never quite quenched but seemingly hopeless desire for passion or metaphysical certainty lurks in the shadows of Cheever's finely drawn, Chekhovian tales, collected in The Way Some People Live (1943), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). His titles reveal his characteristic nonchalance, playfulness, and irreverence, and hint at his subject matter.
Cheever also published several novels -- The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977) -- the last of which was largely autobiographical.
John Updike (1932- )
John Updike, like Cheever, is also regarded as a writer of manners with his suburban settings, domestic themes, reflections of ennui and wistfulness, and, particularly, his fictional locales on the eastern seaboard of the United States, in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Updike is best known for his five Rabbit books, depictions of the life of a man -- Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom -- through the ebbs and flows of his existence across four decades of American social and political history. Rabbit, Run (1960) is a mirror of the 1950s, with Angstrom an aimless, disaffected young husband. Rabbit Redux (1971) -- spotlighting the counterculture of the 1960s -- finds Angstrom still without a clear goal or purpose or viable escape route from the banal. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Harry has become a prosperous businessman during the 1970s, as the Vietnam era wanes. The final novel, Rabbit at Rest (1990), glimpses Angstrom's reconciliation with life, before his death from a heart attack, against the backdrop of the 1980s. In Updike's 1995 novella Rabbit Remembered, his adult children recall Rabbit.
Among Updike's other novels are The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (l988). Updike creates an alter ego -- a writer whose fame ironically threatens to silence him -- in another series of novels: Bech: A Book (l970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998).
Updike possesses the most brilliant style of any writer today, and his short stories offer scintillating examples of its range and inventiveness. Collections include The Same Door (1959), The Music School (1966), Museums and Women (1972), Too Far To Go (1979), and Problems (1979). He has also written several volumes of poetry and essays.
J.D. Salinger (1919- )
A harbinger of things to come in the 1960s, J.D. Salinger has portrayed attempts to drop out of society. Born in New York City, he achieved huge literary success with the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), centered on a sensitive 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who flees his elite boarding school for the outside world of adulthood, only to become disillusioned by its materialism and phoniness.
When asked what he would like to be, Caulfield answers "the catcher in the rye," misquoting a poem by Robert Burns. In his vision, he is a modern version of a white knight, the sole preserver of innocence. He imagines a big field of rye so tall that a group of young children cannot see where they are running as they play their games. He is the only big person there. "I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff." The fall over the cliff is equated with the loss of childhood innocence -- a persistent theme of the era
Other works by this reclusive, spare writer include Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963), a collection of stories from The New Yorker magazine. Since the appearance of one story in 1965, Salinger -- who lives in New Hampshire -- has been absent from the American literary scene.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
The son of an impoverished French-Canadian family, Jack Kerouac also questioned the values of middle-class life. He met members of the Beat literary underground as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City. His fiction was much influenced by the loosely autobiographical work of southern novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Kerouac's best-known novel, On the Road (1957), describes beatniks wandering through America seeking an idealistic dream of communal life and beauty. The Dharma Bums (1958) also focuses on peripatetic counterculture intellectuals and their infatuation with Zen Buddhism. Kerouac also penned a book of poetry, Mexico City Blues (1959), and volumes about his life with such beatniks as experimental novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg.
The Turbulent But Creative 1960s
The 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), and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), about a 1967 antiwar march.
The 1960s were marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage that has carried through the present day. Novelist Truman Capote (1924-1984) -- 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 (1965), 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. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Tom Wolfe (1931- ) celebrated the counterculture wanderlust of novelist Ken Kesey (1935-2001); Radical Chic & 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 the whimsical, fantastic Trout Fishing in America (1967) by Richard Brautigan (1935-1984).
The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical, in Thomas Pynchon's paranoid, brilliant V and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, and the grotesque short stories of Donald Barthelme (1931-1989), whose first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published in 1964.
This new mode came to be called metafiction -- self-conscious or reflexive fiction that calls attention to its own technique. Such "fiction about fiction" emphasizes language and style, and departs from the conventions of realism such as rounded characters, a believable plot enabling a character's development, and appropriate settings. In metafiction, the writer's style attracts the reader's attention. The true subject is not the characters, but rather the writer's own consciousness.
Critics of the time commonly grouped Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme as metafictionists, along with William Gaddis (1922-1998), whose long novel JR (l975), about a young boy who builds up a phony business empire from junk bonds, eerily forecasts Wall Street excesses to come. His shorter, more accessible Carpenter's Gothic (1985) combines romance with menace. Gaddis is often linked with midwestern philosopher/novelist William Gass (1924- ), best known for his early, thoughtful novel Omensetter's Luck (1966), and for stories collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968).
Robert Coover (1932- ) is another metafiction writer. His collection of stories Pricksongs & Descants (1969) plays with plots familiar from folktales and popular culture, while his novel The Public Burning (1977) deconstructs the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage.
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 (1963) 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 (1966), 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.
In Pynchon's comic novel Vineland (l990), set in northern California, shadowy forces within federal agencies endanger individuals. In the novel Mason & Dixon (1997), partly set in the wilderness of 1765, two English explorers survey the line that would come to divide the North and South in the United States. Again, Pynchon sees power wielded unjustly. Dixon asks: "No matter where...we go, shall we find all the World Tyrants and Slaves?" Despite its range, 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 himself 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. Later novels -- The Tidewater Tales (1987), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), and Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994) reveal Barth's "passionate virtuosity" (his own phrase) in negotiating the chaotic, oceanic world with the bright rigging of language.
Norman Mailer (1923- )
Norman Mailer made himself the most visible novelist of the l960s and l970s. Co-founder of the anti-establishment New York City weekly The Village Voice, Mailer publicized himself along with his political views. In his appetite for experience, vigorous style, and a dramatic public persona, Mailer follows in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway. To gain a vantage point on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War protests, black liberation, and the women's movement, he constructed hip, existentialist, macho male personae (in her book Sexual Politics, Kate Millett identified Mailer as an archetypal male chauvinist). The irrepressible Mailer went on to marry six times and run for mayor of New York.
Mailer is the reverse of a writer like John Barth, for whom the subject is not as important as the way it is handled. Unlike the invisible Thomas Pynchon, Mailer constantly courts and demands attention.
A novelist, essayist, sometime politician, literary activist, and occasional actor, Mailer 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), Mailer has turned to writing such ambitious, if flawed, novels as Ancient Evenings (1983), set in the Egypt of antiquity, and Harlot's Ghost (1991), revolving around the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Philip Roth (1933- )
Like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth has provoked controversy by mining his life for fiction. In Roth's case, his treatments of sexual themes and ironic analysis of Jewish life have drawn popular and critical attention, as well as criticism.
Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), satirized provincial Jewish suburbanites. In his best-known novel, the outrageous, best-selling Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a New York City administrator regales his taciturn psychoanalyst with off-color stories of his boyhood.
Although The Great American Novel (1973) delves into baseball lore, most of Roth's novels remain resolutely, even defiantly, autobiographical. In My Life As a Man (1974), under the stress of divorce, a man resorts to creating an alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, whose stories constitute one pole of the narrative, the other pole being the different kinds of readers' responses. Zuckerman seemingly takes over in a series of subsequent novels. The most successful is probably the first, The Ghost Writer (1979). It is told by Zuckerman as a young writer criticized by Jewish elders for fanning anti-Semitism. In Zuckerman Bound (1985), a novel has made Zuckerman rich but notorious. In The Counterlife (1986), the fifth Zuckerman novel, stories vie with stories, as Nathan's supposed life is contrasted with other imaginable lives. Roth's memoir The Facts (1988) twists the screw further; in it, Zuckerman criticizes Roth's own narrative style.
Roth continues wavering on the border between fact and fiction in Patrimony: A True Story (1991), a memoir about the death of his father. His recent novels include American Pastoral (1997), in which a daughter's 1960s radicalism wounds a father, and The Human Stain (2000), about a professor whose career is ruined by a racial misunderstanding based on language.
Roth is a profound analyst of Jewish strengths and weaknesses. His characterizations are nuanced; his protagonists are complex, individualized, and deeply human. Roth's series of autobiographical novels about a writer recalls John Updike's recent Bech series, and it is master-stylist Updike with whom Roth -- widely admired for his supple, ingenious style -- is most often compared.
Despite its brilliance and wit, some readers find Roth's work self-absorbed. Still, his vigorous accomplishment over almost 50 years has earned him a place among the most distinguished of American novelists.