The Macho Fifties


James Jones

In the wake of Ernest Hemingway, who made the idea of the Great American Novelist respectable– even macho– the 1950’s was the heyday of the male American novelist. The decade showcased a score of ambitious new male authors, if no great ones, all pursuing the traditional novel.

Among them, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Michener, J.D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Herman Wouk. At the end of the decade but ably writing about it, J.F. Powers and Richard Yates.

(Throw in playwrights Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge; poets from John Berryman to Kenneth Rexroth to the Beats; and short fiction writers like Truman Capote, and the list becomes more impressive.)

The role of novelist was thought of not as an effete pursuit but as masculine as working construction– and as fast a road to celebrity as pop singer or baseball player. A legion of men leaving military service in particular wanted to be novelists. They wanted to be Hemingway.

Not every one of these men can make the tourney brackets.

Should any of them?


11 thoughts on “The Macho Fifties

  1. I think two of the writers were indeed great: Saul Bellow and James Baldwin. Irwin’s stories still stand up but it’s difficult for any story writer to be called great. Everyone tells me Ralph Ellison is also great, but somehow I’ve not read that. It was a very difficult time for all women writers. And yes, the playwrights were wonderful; alas, I’ve stopped reading playwrights. I don’t know whyl


  2. Aside from his personal proclivities, Gore Vidal fits the profile. (And not because of his arrogance.) An ambitious ex-GI wanting to write the Great American Novel and thereby become famous. (Given his opportunities and social standing, in another era it’s unlikely he’d become a writer.)
    James Baldwin may not belong on the list– wasn’t exactly macho– but I’m sure wasn’t a pushover either. He WAS an expatriate in Paris. Inspired by Hemingway?


    1. I do think Baldwin belongs here, maybe more so than the others (with the possible exception of Ralph Ellison, whom I’ve not read. To be a black writer among all those pseudo-macho performers was to be brave and tough.


  3. p.s. The not-supposed-to-be-asked question is why and how the American literary world became demasculinized. No one could entertain the idea of a Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Foer as anything approaching an alpha male. I know, for the good of the herd etc. etc. But what might be good for the pack is not necessarily good for art.
    (What a lot of literary folk don’t get is that America isn’t Europe. This was a rugged land– in some places still is. It requires, at times, rugged literature.)


  4. There are several interesting views of the young Gore Vidal in Volume 4 of Anais Nin’s diaries. She disliked his writing– and ended up strongly disliking him. Nin had problems with American realism, what she called “detached” writing. Yet the objective writing style of Baldwin and Vidal is what made them both superb essayists.

    The postwar American realists , as Nin points out, were too plugged into the conscious. There were few depths to their novels– did not even use plots as expressions of the subconscious. (See Rider Haggard’s SHE for an example.) Almost total objectivity. Yet for the reader today awash in postmodern solipsism a la David Foster Wallace, on one hand, or masses of fantasy/vampire/zombie novels on the other, that these men dared look at the outside world– the actual world– and that most of them wrote with great clarity, is refreshing. They were grounded.

    Nin records one conversation with Vidal where they end up agreeing that they were too halves of a great novelist, which I find to be a true observation.
    Ralph Ellison wrote one masterpiece, INVISIBLE MAN. The best novel written by any of the 1950’s novelists here listed, with the possible exception of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates. Which makes the selection process challenging. . . .


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