American Fiction in the Cold War

By Thomas Hill Schaub

A more appropriate title for Schaub’s study might be The Liberal Narrative in American Fiction of the 1950s. He focuses the majority of his attention on the early post-war years, turning to the New York Intellectuals—Howe, Trilling, and Schlesinger, in particular—for his diagnosis of the crisis at the heart of the American Left at the start of the Cold War. Quoting heavily from C. Wright Mills’s 1952 essay, “Liberal Values in the Modern World,” Schaub writes: “any ‘democratic or liberal-even humanist-ideals . . . are in fact statements of hope or demands or preferences of an intellectual elite psychologically capable of individually fulfilling them, but they are projected for a population which in the twentieth century is not at present capable of fulfilling them.’ The new kinds of social and political organization which have arisen have left liberal values without any footing: ‘the ideals of liberalism have been divorced from any realities of modern social structure that might serve as the means of their realization'” (19).

Schaub argues that American writers of the New Left responded to this crisis—precipitated largely by the revelation of Stalin’s savagery—by returning to a brand of realism better suited to balance their well-intentioned but ultimately naïve faith in the perfectibility of American society with the hard facts of humanity’s obvious failings. Schaub labels this style of writing the “liberal narrative.” Lionel Trilling describes it as such: “Some paradox of our natures leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination” (22). As an example, Schaub often turns to Richard Chase’s 1949 study of Melville, an author who “presents his reader with a vision of life so complexly true that it exposes the ideas of Henry Wallace as hopelessly childish and superficial” (23).

Facing for the first time in human history the very real possibility of apocalypse, artists shunned the formal sterility of Henry James and turned inward, exposing the problems of consensus culture by examining those most alienated from it. It’s no coincidence, Schaub notes, that much of the best writing of the era was written by African-Americans, Jews, and women. In chapter 4, “The Unhappy Consciousness,” he argues that the “new liberalism” manifested itself in a shift to first person narration: “often autobiographical, a point of view which embodied in one degree or another the isolation of the speaker, while at the same time issuing from the unimpeachable authority of his consciousness and perception” (68). Schaub describes this new narrative as one based on psychology, a narrative voice barely distinguishable from the author’s own mind. Norman Mailer’s first novel, for instance, begins with “an omniscient confidence, . . . but Barbary Shore begins much more uncertainly and has already acquired the characteristic first person, often disturbed voice of the fifties” (72). The Beats likewise turned to technique as a means of exposing the “phoniness” (to borrow a term from another novel of the day, The Catcher in the Rye) that characterized so much of “mass culture.”

After setting up his argument, Schaub turns his attention to chapter-long studies of four representative “liberal narratives”: Ellison’s Invisible Man, O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Mailer’s The White Negro, and Barth’s The End of the Road.