Commentary Magazine


Anti-Americanism & Other Cliches

If statistics are correct—and after all they don’t always lie—the arts appear to be flourishing in America at present. Museum attendance has been up, concert halls are filled, over the past decade or so the ballet has come into its own, and there seems to be a revival of interest in the movies. The only art which does not seem to be looking up, up, up is literature. By literature I mean of course serious literature—writing which, while seeking to entertain, seeks to do more than that alone. My sense of the matter is that serious people seem more and more to have turned away from serious writing.

This is, of course, a difficult point to prove. Arguing against it is the fact that novelists in our day have become celebrity figures. Creative writing courses—in fiction and in poetry—have now become a staple of university and adult education. Then, too, so many people do buy books and many nearly unreadable books of putatively serious intent do seem to sell very well. Whenever I acquire a paperback version of a contemporary novel, it seems inevitably to bear the claim, “Sixteen Weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List.” Perhaps in the seventeenth week they pulp it.

But whatever the celebrity of novelists, however wide the spread of writing as an aspiration or a hobby, whatever the numbers of people buying supposedly serious books, I retain the sense that literature means less to people than it once did. Again, this is not a point that admits of easy proof—or perhaps even of proof at all. But I notice that I never hear people argue strongly about the quality of novels, or declare that they love a particular novelist or poet, or announce that a recent collection of poems or a new novel has greatly moved them. If you don’t believe this, ask yourself what novel by a contemporary American writer you are much looking forward to. Or—a tougher question still—ask yourself if over the past five years you have bought a book by a contemporary poet.

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All of which is a roundabout way of saying that something odd has happened in American literary culture in recent years. Although a literary culture often thrives in the midst of political power—witness the long hegemony around the world of English literature—suddenly American literature, contemporary American literature, seems rather backwater, a bit beside the point, somehow or other less than first-rate, even though American political power is still great. Why?

Not long ago Saul Bellow, in an interview, said that he thought American writers no longer had the great subject. The great subpect of our day, he said, belonged to those writers who had survived totalitarian regimes and lived to write about it: Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Kundera. Bellow was not saying anything as foolish as C. P. Snow said a few years ago, when he remarked that at least in the Soviet Union they took writers and their ideas seriously, the proof being that a writer there could get killed for his ideas. What Bellow seemed to be saying was that these writers, often wretched in the conditions of their lives, were nonetheless privileged as writers in their experience, for their experience had brought them face to face with terror and evil, goodness and heroism—in short, with the largest human feelings and with destiny played out on the grand scale.

For contemporary American writers the job of literature was more complicated, or so Bellow thought. They had to come at things less directly, more obliquely, with comedy and irony being perhaps their chief literary weapons. This is, of course, a description of the way Saul Bellow himself proceeds. But at an even slightly lower level than Bellow is able to work it, this vein of writing, relying so heavily on irony and comedy, quickly becomes desiccated and dreary in the extreme. In its academicized versions—in the recent books of such writers as John Barth, John Hawkes, William Gass, and worse—it becomes a kind of English department amusement, though even in English departments such novelists are scarcely everyone’s notion of a good time.

Bellow’s is a provocative and in many ways a troubling point. Next to the largeness of a Solzhenitsyn, the depth of a Sinyavsky, even quite good American writers—John Cheever, say, or Robert Lowell, to name only the recently deceased—seem, as literary men, rather self-absorbed and shrunken. Now I do not wish to put down such writers as John Cheever and Robert Lowell, whose dedication to their craft was considerable and whose achievements were won against real obstacles. But somehow, at this moment, it is the writers who are able to connect their work with history who seem the most impressive. I think here of a writer like V. S. Naipaul, whose great subject is the Third World on its collision course; or even of Gabriel García Márquez, a writer in whose politics I find nothing to admire but whose attempt to reconstruct the history of Colombia in his fiction has stirred deep interest.

There can be little doubt about it: writing with the wind of history at his back lends a writer’s work a sense of urgency, even sometimes a feeling of grandeur. It is this sense of urgency, this feeling of grandeur, that is currently missing from contemporary American writing.

Not all American writers would agree. A large number, after all, feel that they are writing with the wind of history at their backs. Yet most of these are writers whose position vis-à-vis their own country turns out to be an adversary one. They write as if they were living in a hostile environment, surrounded by the enemy. Usually they are writers with a heightened, even feverish, sense of self-drama. Their characteristic tone is struck in the following remark made not long ago by Norman Mailer: “I used to hate America for what it was doing to all of us. Now I hate all of us for what we’re doing to America.” We? The late George P. Elliott once wrote an essay entitled, “Who Is We?” It is a bit tricky to know for certain who the we is in Norman Mailer’s condemnation, but I feel fairly certain we is not meant to include Mailer himself.

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To think the worst of one’s own country—against a superabundance of evidence to the contrary—gives the self-dramatizing American literary imagination a background against which to dramatize itself. The contemporary literary scene is rife with writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a crude anti-Americanism. Where history does not provide the wind at their backs, they supply their own hot air. To take a tag line from the most recent book by the editor of the Nation, let me name some names:

There is, to begin with, Robert Coover, the culminating moment in whose last novel, A Public Burning, is the buggery of Richard Nixon by, of all people, a character called Uncle Sam. There is Robert Stone, a richly talented writer but one whose reigning idea, expressed in each of his three novels, is that, with all the evils loose in the world, none surpasses that of American innocence, which, as Stone puts it in the first of his novels, A Hall of Mirrors, is “so vast and awesome that the entire world will be reduced by it.” There is Joseph Heller, whose idea of moral courage in his last novel, Good as Gold, is to attack Henry Kissinger behind the screen of fiction; and to whose earlier book, Catch-22, Evelyn Waugh, when sent a copy in the hope of obtaining a blurb, responded: “You may quote me as saying: ‘this exposure of corruption, cowardice, and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.” And then there is E. L. Doctorow, whose novels feature what he takes to be the coarseness, indeed the barbarity, of life in the capitalist United States and who, in an article on George Orwell, recently wrote:

We and the Soviets have actually created an unholy alliance, a gargantuan intimacy, in which, by now, our ideological differences are less important than the fact that we think the same thoughts, mirror each other’s responses, heft the same bombs, and take turns committing crimes and deploring them, in some sort of alternating current of outrage and despair, outrage and despair, that has with smoke and sulphur generated an ectoplasmic gel of objective reality along the lines of Orwell’s tortured vision.

It somehow seems important to point out that Doctorow’s comments on the similarities shared by the Soviet Union and the United States appear in a recent issue of Playboy. The Soviet Union and the United States have in common none of the similarities Doctorow points to, but one similarity, I suspect, they might share—and this is that, in either of the two countries E. L. Doctorow, whose specialty is telling his readers what they wish to hear, would likely be a success. A dacha on the Vineyard, a dacha on the Black Sea.

Literary anti-Americanism exists on another, perhaps a lesser, level, in works in which America is portrayed not as the sole cause of the world’s horrors but a serious affliction nonetheless for those compelled to live in it. In the stories and novels of Ann Beattie there is always time to direct a little kick at Richard Nixon or make a sneering reference to the Pentagon. In the work of Jill Robinson America is depicted as emptily grotesque; everyone is an alcoholic, or on pills or cocaine, and children are suffering for want of good solid values. In John Updike’s novels the American middle class can always rely on a good drubbing, and in as recent a novel as Rabbit Is Rich Updike chronicles what he takes to be the United States in decline but without being terribly convincing that he much cares. One becomes used to this sort of thing from American writers, so used to it that one does not even blink when the novelist Stanley Elkin, at a dinner party given for him by his publisher for winning a literary prize, says of Disneyland (as reported in Publishers Weekly), “I did not like it at all. It was just like Auschwitz or Dachau. They put you in these little electric carts and trundle you around.”

The list of politically tendentious novelists, of political intrusions in novels that pretend to be above politics, and of flat-out politically fatuous remarks by novelists could be greatly extended. Stendhal once likened the introduction of politics in a novel to a pistol shot at the opera. But in the work of the writers I have mentioned the introduction of politics is more like a belch at the buffet: misplaced, gross, indecent. What unites these writers, in my view, is that not only do they not think well of their country but they do not seem to take much joy in life altogether. Coover, Stone, Heller, Doctorow, Beattie, Updike, and the rest are either angry, or soured, or depressed, or outraged, or filled with yearning, but of none of them can one say with any confidence that he is on the side of life. And since life somehow seems to have let these writers down, perhaps it is not so surprising that they should also feel that their country has let them down, too.

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The opinion these writers hold of their country is not something that they can be argued out of. I am not even certain that it is the responsibility of a writer to love his country, though in complicated ways the best writers from Dickens through Tolstoy through Henry James to James Joyce have always done so. No, all that can be asked of these writers is that they knock off the clichés. For all the views and visions and opinions I have quoted and enumerated are solid mahogany clichés—tried and tested and found perfectly untrue.

Clichés, like ideas, have consequences. And this particular set of clichés has not only helped to lay waste a good deal of literary talent but in ways direct and indirect has drained much of the prestige that the literary mind not so long ago held in this country. Yet the real crime in these clichés is against literature itself. They are a violation of the ideal of fidelity to the complexity of experience that has always been literature’s special claim on the attention of educated people. I think that this kind of complexity is simply not available to writers who really believe that Richard Nixon is a monster in the class of Hitler and Stalin, that what is truly wrong with the world today is multinational corporations, and that America in its essential character is no different from the Soviet Union. If you can compare Disneyland to Dachau or Auschwitz, I don’t think you are in a position to report what life is like in this or any other country.

William Dean Howells, in the middle of an essay on Dostoevsky, once suggested that American writers do best “to emphasize the smiling aspects of life”—for which suggestion, to adopt a homey phrase, Howells caught his critical lunch. I am not here suggesting anything of the kind. Nor am I asking that our writers produce politically correct literature; that is to say, literature whose political opinions reflect my own. The relationship between politics and literature is always a delicate, always a tricky, one. In any negotiation between the two, though, literature must retain a firm upper hand. It seems to me possible, for example, to admire both André Malraux’s La condition humaine, which extols the revolutionary personality, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which deplores the evil that is the reverse side of the coin of revolutionary idealism. One can admire both novels because in both of them literature has the upper hand, and in both the writer’s allegiance is not to hating his country or to gaining “justice for the Rosenbergs,” but to the ideal of fidelity to the complexity of experience.

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“Literature, as usual, lingers behind change,” wrote Desmond MacCarthy. And, I would add, the university, as usual, lingers behind literature. The effect of the clichés I have been discussing on the university teaching of literature is one of their indirect consequences, though perhaps the consequences are not as indirect as all that. Quite obviously literary studies have been much influenced by politics over the past twenty years or so through the formation of feminist and black and other separate studies. The Modern Language Association meetings have become a flea market, where such groups plug their wares. A friend of mine, recently back from an MLA meeting in Houston, himself a man educated at Columbia by professors of the urbanity and intellectual suavity of Lionel Trilling, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, and Jacques Barzun, reported on this meeting, sighed, and of his own career said: “It’s not what I had in mind, not what I had in mind at all.”

Politics, along with compartmentalizing literary studies into feminist this and radical that, has also made possible a general lowering of standards, so that now it is de rigueur not only to teach contemporary writers but even to teach not very good ones. Nobody quite knows what goes on in the classroom, or how many teachers, in a radical confusion over what constitutes academic freedom, simply push a political line in their teaching. Such a teacher at my own university, for example, finds Walt Whitman to be a racist, William Carlos Williams a sexist. Given time and his talent for original discovery I am sure he will one day announce that Marianne Moore was never quite sound on disarmament. Twenty or so years ago he would have been told by senior professors to knock off the politics and teach the books. Today even the senior professors are fearful of interfering with what they wrongly construe to be his academic freedom to push his own rather dopey political line.

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But the rot, at university literature departments, goes deeper. I think a great many teachers of literature now operate with shot confidence. They seem to believe less and less that what they are doing is in any way central, or even of much importance; and not to believe that what one is doing is of importance is to invite demoralization. One sign of this demoralization can be found in the rise in recent years of structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction in university literature departments. This is not the place to discuss the merits of such idea-systems or the quality of the works that they have produced. But what can be mentioned briefly—and I think can be agreed upon—is that the adoption of these systems by teachers of literature represents a further professionalization of the study of literature in America, a further drawing in toward parochial interests and drawing away from the notion that literature, in its moral and social implications, is important to all educated people. Literature, after all, was once where the moral imagination got its very best workout. The lines between literature and life were assumed to be intertwined, which was one of the chief reasons that literature repaid study. In the human record of significant utterance and events, it was literature that supplied the italics.

As for this tendency in literary studies, in a recent issue of the (London) Times Literary Supplement one of its proponents, the Yale professor Paul de Man, calls it “the return to philology.” Hans Aarsleff has remarked about 19th-century philology that “it appeared to satisfy every article of scientific faith in objectivity and disengagement from ideology.” I suspect that among our new philologists the disengagement from ideology may be part of the attraction of structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction. (Yet, as someone recently asked, “How is it no one deconstructs Karl Marx?”)

Not that ideologists of the Left are missing among the literary theorists. A critic like Edward Said, much honored in what English teachers call the “profession,” can blithely write about “a whole world manipulated by every variety of ahistorical consumerism, whose ethnocentrism and mendacity promise the impoverishment and oppression of most of the globe,” and can regret that “in American literary studies there has not in the past quarter-century been enough work of major historical scholarship that can be called ‘revisionist.’” A strong case has been made by Gerald Graff that the new textual criticism has a large ideological component. “Roland Barthes,” Graff notes, “goes so far as to assert that all language is ‘quite simply fascist.’” Beneath all those literary-critical obfuscations and obscurations of the new New Criticism, one can now begin to hear the old familiar hum of axes being ground.

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Because cliché leftism has not thus far been directly confronted, American literary culture in our time seems sadly thinned out. Twenty-five years ago many of the most interesting minds of the day were those of literary men: figures such as Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and F. R. Leavis. There was also, in those days, quite a respectable second line of literary men, among them Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Philip Rahv, Newton Arvin, F. O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase, and R. P. Blackmur. Comparable figures, of whatever political coloration, are not around today. Nor are they likely to arise, at least so long as present trends toward cliché-laden leftism on the one hand and English-department professionalism on the other continue to dominate the creation and the study of literature. For those who care about literature, a very great deal is thus at stake in the future tendency of our politics.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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