1960s, American Literature, Counterculture, Fiction, Harper Lee, Heller, Kesey, Novels, Puzo, Teaching, Updike, Vonnegut
Note: Most readers / followers are likely not new to the series, but just in case you are, you might want to check out the original post.
As I started thinking about picking an American novel from the 1960s, I realized that the series is reaching the decades that I tend not to think of as “literary.” Now, before all of you post-war lit folks start throwing things, let me explain that remark. I simply mean that, like many other folks, my access point to this period of time is not primarily literary. And in fact, that’s really true for most of the twentieth century from the 30s on. Case in point — as someone with a deep love for classic cars, when someone says “1967 — what do you think of,” I don’t immediately jump to the Vietnam War, to the civil rights movement, to the dawn of hard rock, and so forth. Instead, I think “that’s the first year Chevy built the Camaro.” The rest of it comes a beat or two later, but it’s still colored by the aesthetics of the 60s. And I suspect that this is true for many of us;images of riots, protests, hippies and VW vans, Woodstock, the Kennedy’s, Vietnam — these are the associations that tend to spring to mind.
There are, of course, good novels available to include in a teaching curriculum that address many, if not all, of these issues. One could reach for counterculture icon Ken Kesey’s prominent novelss, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Sometimes a Great Notion, or perhaps for the stranger and more prophetic visions offered by Philip K. Dick’s eventually influential Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The work of the former writer certainly address the struggles of the working class (Notion) and the extreme countermeasures brought to bear on those who refused to conform to social standards (Cuckoo), and the latter’s novel has rich undertones of the anxieties wrought by the onset of the nuclear age, speaking to fears of the “end of mankind.” All great stuff, to be sure.
And let us not forget, the 1960s saw the publication of a number of excellent novels from American writers that finally began to cut through the lingering literary romanticism of WW II (see Across the River and Into the Trees, From Here to Eternity</em), tapping into the absurdist / surrealist response typified in European drama, via Heller's Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Were I to lean in that direction, I would have to choose Vonnegut, because 1) I love that book and 2) Vonnegut has had a far greater influence on my own worldview than Heller. I won’t call Heller a “one-hit-wonder,” but I will say that I tried several times to read Good as Gold and failed miserably; nothing else he wrote ever seemed to resonate with me as strongly as Catch-22. I can always read Vonnegut — ANY Vonnegut.
I also feel compelled to point out that it was in the 1960s that John Updike began coming into his own as a novelist, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Updike. I’ve read a few of the “Rabbit” novels, a compendium or two of short stories, and a number of essays and creative non-fiction type pieces, and I always manage to come away with something interesting. Well, alright, not always, especially not with the later novels, but I do appreciate the way Updike documented the rise, fall, and fractious dissolution of the East Coast middle class with clarity, grace, and quiet, almost silent melancholy.
Yet as I ponder the literary legacy of the 1960s via the form of the novel, it seems more and more to me that few, if any, worthy novels written and published during the decade were able to speak to, capture, or otherwise address the zeitgeist of the era in any successful fashion. If I were to teach a novel ABOUT the 1960s, it would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which did not see publication until 1990, and yet, in my opinion, best captures the cars, the clothes, the music, and the rift created by Vietnam. I would have a hard time handing students a novel and telling them to use it to understand the civil rights movement, when the speeches of Dr. King and Malcolm X speak so eloquently, passionately, and immediately to that cause. This is not to say that I do not believe some novels did manage to address these issues in compelling and meaningful ways (keep reading!), only that the immediacy and urgency of the movement itself was extremely difficult to capture in a work of fiction (I’ll pause here to recommend an excellent graphic novel, Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), as an excellent resource for the connections between the black civil rights movement and the early gay/lesbian rights movement).
So, in light of all that (and oh, how I love to use this blog series as a forum for “thinking out loud”), I’m going to take an unconventional approach and select a novel that, I would argue, better speaks to many aspects of contemporary American culture: Mario Puzo’s Godfather. This is NOT the most elegant, eloquent, or well-written novel of the decade, to be sure; yet it spawned two excellent and highly influential films, and reignited America’s fascination with the dark anti-heroes of the urban underworld. By covering not only the New York mob scene, but also the Italian mob’s hand in establishing Las Vegas as “America’s Playground,” as well as attempts to exert control over Hollywood cinema, Puzo’s novel can be read as a metaphorical guide to the open misogyny and mimetic violence that unchecked capitalism can spawn. The Hollywood connection also provides a great lesson in discussing the “life imitates art” angle; in the novel, Sonny Corleone’s violent death is certainly influenced by gangster films of the 30s and 40s, a notion underscored by the scene in Coppola’s film, which echoes on down through The Sopranos and beyond.
For my alternate pick, I’m going to take a more conventional route and choose Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. True, it’s been about 20 years since I last read the book, but in the intervening time I’ve come to realize just how influential and important the book really was. Its frequent classification as “young adult” fiction is somewhat off, I think (as is the existence of the category itself); although it’s true that the frame narrator, Scout, is an adolescent, the themes and overall tone of the novel aim much higher. Scout’s “awakening” from childish prejudices and perspectives mirrors the awakening of the civil rights generation, most of whom were much older than Scout when they began to seriously question the treatment of black citizens throughout the country, let alone in the South. It provides a foundation for discussing white privilege alongside of issues of common poverty and intolerance for any deviation from a specific “norm,” i.e. wealthy, white, heterosexual, and Christian.
And now it’s your turn!
I missed the 1950s (but I’ll get to it). For now, Harper Lee is a great choice but she’s taken. I’m going to suggest her compatriot, then, and go with Capote’s In Cold Blood because it’s absolutely groundbreaking. For my white, straight dude, I’m going to counter and vote for Catch-22. In a general sense, I’m really fascinated by this cluster of novels that are about WWII but found their real audience in the Vietnam generation and era. Having said that, then, I think that Slaughterhouse does a better job *feeling* like the 1960s while Catch-22 does a better job wrestling with the implications of a supposedly “good” war, which certainly spoke to the ’60s generation on many levels.
Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X’ is a viable contender (although not a novel, I suppose) as is Plath’s The Bell Jar (ditto).
Josh M said:
Haley’s book would certainly be towards the top of my list too, were I not restricting myself to novels. I feel that your comments re: WW II novels finding their voice / audience a generation after the war speak to my sense that there are few, if any, novels published in the 60s that capture the immediacy of the anti-war / counter-culture movements in a truly effective manner. And other than O’Brien, who has only a handful of really solid novels, I’m having a hard time thinking of any novelist who wrote about the war in Vietnam with a similar level of success as Vonnegut / O’Brien. Genuinely interested in suggestions if you know of any.
I didn’t even have to think about this one. Not picking Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness isn’t an option for me. It’s one those books that knocks the crap out of your preconceptions about how things are or should be, especially as a young adult. Even that old fart Bloom recognizes how great it is.
Since we’re talking about teaching these, I’d probably pick Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle over Slaughterhouse-Five (though I love both) as my number two. I think it is more fun than the latter and does a nice job of concisely dealing with Cold War anxieties, banana republic adventurism, the military-industrial complex, and the legacy of the Manhattan Project. That and thumbing its nose at myths of progress, hierarchy, and master narratives.
Honorable mention to the most important book of the decade: Silent Spring.
and I’m sure Vonnegut would appreciate my unintentional pun on “number two.”
Josh M said:
I figured you’d be picking one of Le Guin’s novels for this, just wasn’t sure which one. Your shout-out re: Rachel Carson resonates with me, too, as I kept sifting through my mental archives and online lists, thinking that I would probably NOT teach a novel were I free to choose any book published during the decade. In fact, Hunter S. Thompson would be at the top of my list in that case.