The Macho Fifties

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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?

 

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The American Novelist

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Irwin_Shaw_(1948)(Pictured: Irwin Shaw.)

HAVING READ and reviewed Jay McInerney‘s most recent novel as a way to check his suitability for the big Tournament, we encountered, in the book’s strengths and weaknesses, more than we expected.

We found the novel, Bright, Precious Days, no better than a 1950’s novel by O’Hara, Cozzens, Wouk, or Shaw. The corollary to this is that their once-admired novels are no better than his.

We caught McInerney using the trademark James Gould Cozzens plot “surprise” two-thirds of the way through to jumpstart the narrative. Effective– if you haven’t already experienced it.

One can travel back in time further than J.G. Cozzens and Company to find apt comparisons to the McInerney book– to Booth Tarkington, the most popular award-winning novelist of the 1910’s and 1920’s. Tarkington’s writing style and subjects are notably similar to those of Mr. McInerney. “The novel of manners.” Which isn’t Booth’s fault– but Jay’s. Or the publishing industry’s.

The next step in this line of thought: The very concept of “The Great American Novel” may be obsolete. Perhaps the novel form itself.

Which calls into question the premises of our tournament.

THE idea of American literature for over 100 years has been the idea of the novel. The belief that the novel is the “white whale” of American letters. The chief object for a writer to pursue.

Yet when you read or re-read these thick books; well-designed products created by giant corporations filled with talent– products as surely as are automobiles manufactured by General Motors– you find that, as art, most of them are failures. Diverting, yes. Absorbing? Often. Insightful? Occasionally.

Deep art which shakes the soul of the reader? Which shatters assumptions, premises, convictions, viewpoints; turning the world upside down? No.
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IN FILLING THE BRACKETS of this tournament, we have the almost impossible task of assessing each writer in context. Which means not undervaluing literary giants of the past because they’re no longer considered giants– while not overvaluing the literary stars of now. (The latter task is easier, as there no longer are literary giants who overawe the culture-at-large.) This means factoring in the extent to which hype and unearned critical acclaim– or mere politics, pro or con– have distorted a writer’s reputation.

Joyce_Carol_Oates_2013

(Pictured: Joyce Carol Oates.)

If this were 1930, Booth Tarkington would be a shoo-in to make an all-time American writers tournament. If it were 1987 instead of 2017, Joyce Carol Oates would be a shoo-in. Sometimes writers, by failing to take another step intellectually or creatively beyond initial promise, take care of their own reputations. Or maybe, in time, it becomes apparent their initial successful work was overvalued all along.