"The Availing Stuff of our Experience": The Historical Novel and the American Sixties
Laura Tanenbaum, Suffolk County Community College, SUNY
"History was not a matter of missing minutes on the tape. I did not stand helpless before it. I hewed to the texture of collected knowledge, took faith from the solid and availing stuff of our experience."
Don DeLillo, Underworld
In response to its reputation as a popular or middlebrow genre, literary practitioners of the historical novel have often taken pains to distance themselves from the perceived norms of the genre. Similarly, critics have frequently delineated the select number of works which transcend its perceived limitations. Of these, the focus on period detail at the expense of deeper immersion into the ethos or imagination of a given age is most frequently cited. Thus in her recent New Yorker profile of the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, renowned for her literary recreation of Ancient Rome, Joan Acocella notes that Yourcenar 'has described the average historical novel as "merely a more or less successful costume ball."' For Yourcenar, as for many, more is required: 'Truly to recapture an earlier time, she said, required years of research, together with a mystical act of identification' (242).
At the same time, a self-critical strain runs through the history of the genre, deeming a reflective awareness of one's own historical position and subjectivity as essential as voluminous research or even a fertile historical imagination. We can see evidence of this strain in Manzoni, who turned from the popular success of The Betrothed to the thirteen-year task of producing On the Historical Novel and in Tolstoy, who ended War and Peace with two epilogues that gloss the novel's historiographic musings in essay form. In the twentieth century, we find Lukács' discussion of the genre in relation to his arguments on behalf of realism against modernism, Dos Passos' self-critically modernist blend of fact and fiction in the USA trilogy, and E. L. Doctorow's use of metafiction to continue Dos Passos' engagement with the radical past.
For these novelist and theorists, an engagement with the present as well as the past is not a presentist failure of historical imagination but its necessary precondition. Thus they confront not only the superficiality Yourcenar decries but the frequent conservatism of the genre: the ease with which careful representations of the past tend towards reverence and nostalgia. For Lukács, historical drama represented the 'other' to the historical novel, a form more likely to fall into romanticism's nostalgic desire for heroes and its hatred of the present. Contemporary readers are as likely to find these elements in the most popular products of the genre as in the period films that have taken over the role played by drama in Lukács' time. Historical novelist Thomas Mallon offers a contemporary rational for such conservatism, arguing that
readers always liked historical fiction, not because they wanted to drag history into the present and make it useful, but because they want to put themselves back into history, into the past, to wander around it as if in a dream, to ponder themselves as having been too late -- a much more common feeling than the feeling that one has been born too soon (610).
Unlike many contemporary advocates of art for art's sake, Mallon does not so much equate disinterest with truth as self-consciously defend a subjectively romantic and nostalgic approach. Describing the origins of his novel Aurora 7, he concedes that his portrait of the idyllic New York City of his childhood is likely inaccurate, but asserts 'I wanted to float, politically incorrect to the point of bliss, through a past where children got their vaccinations, babysitters mixed martinis, and the Yankees won the pennant every year' (604).
Notably, Aurora 7 is set in 1962. While Don DeLillo has famously noted that he would not have been able to write any of his books prior to Kennedy's assassination, it is unlikely that Mallon could have set his novel at any moment since. When it comes to the period generally referred to as 'the sixties' -- more precisely the years that followed the assassination through the mid-seventies -- there is little chance of the kind of disinterested enjoyment or uncritical nostalgia Mallon calls for. To represent the sixties is to take a position as to their meaning, and to take such a position is to take a position on the contemporary. The period is of course more often associated with film, television, and music than with literary expression. In the years since, when these forms and popular cultural in general have represented the period, we often find the nostalgia and heroic narratives Lukács associates with historical drama. At the same time, a counter-nostalgic revisionist narrative, one by which the period's radicalism represent a temporary aberration marked by irrationality and violence, has become increasingly common since the political and social backlash that began in the eighties and has arguably continued ever since.
Many of the most prominent novelists of the postwar period -- from Vonnegut and Mailer to Pynchon and DeLillo -- have both been influenced by and responded to the transformations of the period, responding to both these nostalgic and counter-nostalgic narratives. At the same time, the association of many of these writers and of the period itself with postmodernism has called into question the viability of their historical projects. Most famously, Frederic Jameson's encyclopedic survey of postmodernism declares that "[t]he historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only 'represent' our ideas and stereotypes about the past (which thereby at once becomes 'pop history')" (25). Notably, this conclusion follows a discussion of Doctorow's work. For Jameson, the self-conscious and critical techniques that align Doctorow with the genre's self-critical tradition are not conduits to historical and political consciousness but symptomatic of their impossibility. Terming Doctorow 'the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past,' Jameson draws an implicit parallel between the cultural impasse that impedes meaningful representation of the past and the impasse of the American political Left, unable to find a workable past suitable to the age of global capitalism (24). Thinking more specifically of what is at stake in the representation of the sixties, it is worth noting that Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971), a fictionalized account of the Rosenbergs' execution and its impact on their surviving children, whose own political trajectories are shaped by the New Left and the counterculture, equates the Old Left with rigors of modernism and the New Left with the purported illiberalism and nihilism of postmodernism. Thus witnessing the famous 1967 march on the Pentagon, Daniel, son of political martyrs, coolly concludes 'It looks worse than it is. There was nothing to it. It is a lot easier to be a revolutionary nowadays than it used to be' (257). Echoing Jameson's theoretical pessimism, Doctorow's fiction also echoes the genre's tendency towards nostalgia and what Lukács terms 'hatred for the present.'
Thus in spite of his political sympathies, (or, perhaps, because of them, if one thinks in terms of his loyalty to the moment defined by Dos Passos, who, as Michael Denning reminds us, was himself writing a 'decline of the Left' story even before his own rightward turn), Doctorow comes to view the radicalism of the sixties as primarily defined by irrationality, an aberration symptomatic of the decline of a true American radicalism. This central question of whether the period and its radical movements deserve a role in history at all -- that is, whether the radicalisms of the sixties represent part of a larger American radical tradition or an aberration, the apotheosis of political engagement or the eclipse of the political by the psychological -- is at the heart of many of the most interesting representations of the period. In this essay I will look at three of Doctorow's contemporaries whose political sympathies and affective relation to the radicalism and transformations they depict are less readily apparent. Critically acclaimed works by prominent authors, Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (1990) and Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), are all ambitious attempts to rework this contested piece of history in line with a larger national story. The titles of these works alone suggest the scope of their historical projects, each intimating an allegorical configuration of the American landscape. While Roth and Pynchon juxtapose the period to a wider historical vision, DeLillo echoes Dos Passos in a different way, weaving the period into his survey of American life from the early fifties through the end of the Cold War.
Near the end of American Pastoral, which depicts the impact of sixties radicalism on a successful Jewish-American family, the attempt to make historical sense of unfolding events collapses. Seymour 'the Swede' Levov, a father and successful businessman, has lived a charmed life that is irreversibly undone by his daughter's violent act of protest against the Vietnam War. Throughout the novel, he has taken up and rejected various explanations for what has happened to him. At a dinner party in one of the novel's final scenes, he reflects on his dislike for the wife of a friend. Then his thoughts are wrenched back to his daughter:
If Merry had been her daughter, things would make sense. If only Merry had fought a war of words, fought with words alone, like this strident yenta. Then Merry's would not be a story that begins and ends with a bomb but another story entirely. But a bomb. A bomb. A bomb tells the whole fucking story (340-1).
His thoughts return to speculations about the sexual intrigues involving his dinner-table companions and their banal of-the-minute debates about the meanings of Deep Throat.
But does a bomb tell the whole story, and what is the story it tells? The novel's complex structure separates its own point of view from that of the Swede, whom the novel recognizes as clinging impossibly to an always-obsolete mythology of American innocence. The Swede's story is recounted through his encounters with Nathan Zuckerman, the alter-ego writer figure in many of Roth's works, the Swede's high school classmate, and the kind of interlocutor on which self-critical historical novels often depend.i Nevertheless, the Swede's view of sixties radicalism -- as an unfathomable aberration defined by its illiberalism and illogic -- permeates the novel. No alternative reading of the period finds equal weight or a full hearing. In this respect, the novel echoes the commonplace of representations of the period in popular culture and political discourse. Violence is seen as revealing the essence of the period's radicalism, negating its political claims, regardless of how atypical these acts may have been or the extent of the state violence to which they responded. Moreover, the train of Swede's thoughts at the dinner party underscores the familiar narrative by which politics dissolves into 'lifestyle,' as the Swede's circle absorbs the shocks of history by retreating into numbing debates about sex and pornography.
Beyond retracing these familiar narratives, however, the scene suggests the contradictions faced by those representing the upheavals of the late sixties. The novel presents the Swede's failure to understand these transformations even as they create an absolute historical break whose aftereffects penetrate every aspect of his life. At the same time, the novel suggests that after these transformations the self-satisfied yearnings of upwardly mobile white middle-class men can no longer be taken at face value. Just as the Swede is forced to confront the meaning of history and recognize that his goodness serves as little protection, his authority to do so has been brought into question. Roth's protagonist experiences this loss as violent, and we thereby suspect that there are other reasons than the demands of narrative that his novel -- like so many recent novels and films about the period -- revolves around the historically rare act of violence by the (white) radical left. The narrative impulse to seek out a singular, dramatic, transformative event combines with a sense of historical trauma and displacement; radical violence becomes the focus of these anxieties. Notably, the state violence which radicalism sought to oppose finds no more than a marginal role. For Roth, as for Pynchon and DeLillo, with the notable exception of DeLillo's first novel Americana (1971), in which the war retains a visceral immediacy, the Vietnam War remains by necessity an abstraction; the figure of Merry becomes a crucial stand-in for everything incomprehensible with which history confronts us.
The novel as a whole, like the Swede, treats Merry at times with moving kindness and at times with horror, but at all moments with the kind of incomprehension reserved for historical or political others.ii A stutterer whose verbal difficulties stand in sharp contrast to the famous loquaciousness of most of Roth's protagonists, Merry is rendered to us most vividly through the Swede's imagination, or, more precisely, his failure of imagination. While novel suggests this father figure's general bewilderment at the rapidity of change among the young and his psychological struggles with his daughter's sexuality, her will to ideological purity lies at the heart of his horror. Roth's narrative distance from the Swede serves to interrogate the Swede's self-satisfied liberalism; the dinner-party scene described above represents the culmination of this strain, which builds throughout the novel. Not presented, however, are any possibilities hiding behind the "they" that represents Merry, her friends, and an entire political moment:
They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted most ruthlessly. They manufacture like unstoppable machines the abhorrence that propels their steely idealism. Their rage is combustible. They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. The draft isn't even hanging over their heads; they sign on freely and fearlessly terrorize against the war, competent to rob at gunpoint, equipped in every way to maim and kill with explosives, undeterred by fear or doubt or inner contradiction -- girls in hiding, dangerous girls, attackers, implacably extremist, completely unsociable (254-5; italics added).
Roth's language here is the language of political and ideological otherness, echoing Vivian Gornick's description of the misremembering of the affective life of American Communism by anti-Communist writers intent on buttressing their own humanistic 'we':
Between us and them there is no vital relation; what is in us could never be in them; what is in them bears no resemblance to what is in us. We hold the life of the individual dear, they hold it cheap. We raise babies, they eat babies. We glory in the life of the mind, they put ideologic electrodes into the life of the mind. We walk straight and free and clear, they hide, hunched and shadowy, at the ends of alleys. We learn, they brainwash. They are all always they, we are all always we (20).
For the Swede, Merry's act of violence represents the purest form of this otherness, a quality which pervades all her actions. In one of the novel's strangest scenes, he imagines attempting to understand his daughter through séance with Angela Davis, an encounter with political, racial, and sexual otherness that only leaves him in deeper bewilderment and despair.
This represents an unusual departure from the bulk of his work, which has tended to treat all of its characters, even and sometimes especially those with extreme beliefs, as necessary components of dialectical explorations. Thus what Lukács saw as the goal of the historical novel -- to make real 'the concrete possibilities for men to comprehend their existence as something historically conditioned, for them to see in history something which deeply affects their lives and immediately concerns them' -- exists in American Pastoral not as a possibility of consciousness but as a nightmare of confusion (24). The novel thereby echoes Jameson's pessimism as to where the self-critical impulses of historical fiction have led. Although the novel approaches the events of the sixties through multiple narrative layers -- Zuckerman makes sense of the Swede's attempts to make sense of his daughter's action -- this structure leads the reader not to sense historical connections but to view the encounter of history and politics as aberrational, inexplicable and necessarily traumatic.
Yet this is not to say that the Swede -- or the novel -- embodies the neoconservative demonization of the sixties Left. In his account of Roth's underappreciated relationship to the Left, Marshall Berman reminds us of what many representations of the period forget: that its most viscerally felt divide was between liberals and radicals. As Berman notes, where Roth falters in the depiction of radicals, 'he's terrific on their mostly liberal (and antiwar) parents' (53). Offering an elegy for the Newark of the Swede's childhood, American Pastoral can also be read as an elegy for twentieth century American liberal optimism. In this respect, despite its different take on radicalism, its tone and vision echo the historical projects of Dos Passos and Doctorow.
Despite preceding Roth's novel, Thomas Pynchon's 1990 Vineland, his most direct representation of the period to which his aesthetic and thematic concerns have often been linked, represents a response to the Swede's incomprehension. Beginning in the iconic year of 1984, the novel directly responds to the revisionist readings of the period's radicalism which gained traction throughout the eighties. Reversing American Pastoral's generational dynamic, Vineland presents Prairie Wheeler, daughter of one-time hippies Zoyd and Frenesi, as its historical interlocutor. Yet by the end of the novel, it is clear that it is the Reagan-era conservative reaction against the sixties -- including and perhaps especially among bewildered liberal father figures like the Swede -- rather than the period itself, that cries out for explanation. The question 'How did Reagan come from all this?' (a question reflected on the plot level in the mystery that surrounds Frenesi's betrayal of her radical friends) is as paradoxical to Pynchon's characters as the entrance of history and violence into his American idyll is to the Swede.
Thus although Vineland shares with American Pastoral a tendency to gravitate towards the extremes of the period, the novel's radicalism is far from the inexplicable strangeness the Swede confronts. While the radicalism Roth depicts is purely political in nature, a test case of disproportionate fury and misapplied theory, Vineland's radicalism is diverse, cultural as well as political, rooted in history, at times self-defeating and self-serving but also vital. It encompasses ex-Communists, ninjas and "run of the mill dopers" as well as filmmakers, bikers and bands. Pynchon also emphasizes the porous boundaries between the radical and the reactionary, emphasizing the story behind Frenesi's betrayal of her radical friends. While Vlatka Velcic argues that Vineland shares with a range of novels the tendency to demonize sixties Leftists and to focus excessively on incidents of radical violence, this focus is offset by Pynchon's deep investment in preserving and recuperating a particularly American radical tradition. The novel thus self-consciously responds to the amnesia and demonization which have hampered this project throughout recent history, most notably through its unusual use of humor.
As Terrence Rafferty suggests, the novel's 'purity of desire to get through to us' ensures that the novel's jokes 'reveal themselves, much later, to be more than jokes' (111, 108). In one scene, a member of the political collective PRiii is coaxed into proving his commitment by handing over his Porsche to a group of Black radicals. Yet the telling of this story, reminiscent of the anecdotes of factionalism and 'radical chic' so grimly outlined in many accounts of the period, instead reveals tenderness for the motives underlying what are often termed the period's excesses:
It is difficult in this era of greed and its ennoblement to recall the naturalness and grace with which Rex, way back then, smiling, simply produced from the depths of his fringe bag the pink slip and keys to the 911 and handed them on up to the podium where Elliot X, mike in hand, a class act, went to one knee, like a performer to a fan, to receive them (231).
While some have viewed such moments as sentimental and or uncritically nostalgic, they serve to recreate Roth's 'they' as a 'we', taking the period out of the realm of aberration and psychological pathology and back into history.
As many critics have noted, the novel further serves this purpose by offering a genealogy of the Left, from Prairie's Wobbly great-grandparents to her blacklisted grandparents and 'not quite' red-diaper baby turned hippie turned informer mother. While the novel's juxtaposition of the Old and New Left through the evolution of particular family histories recalls The Book of Daniel, Pynchon resists Doctorow's conclusions and suggests a story of the Left that is not solely a story of decline. Thus while American Pastoral ends with a dinner party that reveals the fissures that will irrevocably undo the comforts of the Swede's liberal milieu, Vineland concludes with a communal meal that reunites three generations. Because none of the novel's characters -- including or especially the forces of reaction embodied by FBI agent Brock Vond -- share the Swede's naiveté, recognition of the vicissitudes of history and violence does not come as disillusionment or betrayal. Thus the novel can end with an affirmation of the pastoral utopianism Roth's novel undercuts: 'The small meadow shimmered in the starlight, and her promises grew more extravagant as she [Prairie] drifted into the lucid thin layer of waking dreaming' (384). In making Roth's 'they' his 'we', Pynchon, so often noted for his hermetic brand of postmodern, fulfills the possibilities of self-critical literary historical narrative: to offer testimony to a world that it has passed, infused with imaginative sympathy for the period's ethos and its possibilities for the present and future.
If Vineland recreates Roth's 'they' as a 'we', Underworld, Don DeLillo's 1997 examination of the Cold War period from the early fifties to the early nineties, creates a world in which any possible delineation of a 'they' and a 'we' quickly dissolves. Placing the conflicts of the sixties within the wider context not of the Left, as Pynchon does, but of Cold War history, DeLillo's novel represents a complex response to the demonization and commodification that stand in the way of a historically engaged vision of the period. The extent of this historical project can be seen in the extent to which Underworld represents a departure from DeLillo's earlier works. Many of these novels, most notably Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991), present quintessentially modernist portraits of alienation. Their most memorable scenes depict atomized individuals moving through cityscapes and faceless crowds partaking in mass delusion. Most notably, the Oswald of Libra dreams of entering and understanding history in the terms Lukács describes, but instead becomes its victim and plaything.
By contrast, Underworld elaborately interweaves an array of historically-formed individuals who, however alienated from the wider world and from one another, create a collective portrait of the period that is relentlessly mythological and even allegorical without being heroic. Using the thread of the Bobby Thompson's home run ball from the 1951 game that forms the novel's set piece, the novel jumps forward to 1992 and proceeds backwards towards the revelation of a childhood secret of protagonist Nick Shay. On first reading, Shay, a quintessential example of the 'middle of the road' protagonist Lukács identifies as central to the historical novel, might appear as alienated and passive a figure as DeLillo's Oswald, of whom DeLillo once observed, 'Oswald would not have walked two blocks to shoot at the president. But the president came to him' (Carnes 92). Alternatively, he might be seen as a figure like the Swede, increasingly puzzled by social transformations and challenges to his own authority. And yet the novels engagement with otherness leads somewhere different. At numerous moments -- such as when Nick's brother Matt, a nuclear scientist is confronted by a protester only to speak with her 'in a reassuring, trite and slightly compulsive way, like a first-timer nervous in a singles bar' -- seemingly oppositional political positions dissolve into one another (418). Paul Gediman thereby concludes, 'Underworld is a more rewarding book than American Pastoral because, aesthetically and morally, it's more interesting to explore and give shape to what isn't understood than simply to call it "chaos" and send it into manichean battle with something called "order"' (48); I would suggest that what Gediman deems 'satisfying' could be understood as a reinvigoration of the historical novel's ability to challenge and transform the reader's historical imagination.
For Roth, 'the sixties' signifies the eclipse of historical and political authority on the part of liberal white male patriarchs. DeLillo's novel marks the same shift in far less catastrophic or traumatic terms. This becomes especially clear through the novel's artist figures who embody both the new aesthetics made possible by the cultural shifts of the period and newly empowered racial and sexual identities. As John Duvall argues, the novel echoes Benjamin's famous juxtaposition between the Marxist politicization of art and the fascist aesthetization of politics. Lenny Bruce, Sergei Eisenstein and the fictional visual artists Moonman, Klara Sax and Acey Greene represent the possibilities of political art, making use of the techniques of collage, improvisation, and juxtaposition that mark the novel itself. While Bruce and Eisenstein suggest the historical evolution of the avant-garde and the possibilities of political and historical consciousness, Klara, Acey and Moonman link racial and sexual identity with these possibilities. Working in a medium enmeshed with the everyday life of the city, graffiti artist Moonman rejects commodification in the form of the mainstream's fascination with the marginal when the representative of a downtown gallery seeks to display his work. Similarly, in her silkscreen renderings of the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang, Acey puts racial and sexual difference to work in defiance of superficial notions of the contemporary:
This was supposed to be a postpainterly age, Klara thought, and here was a young woman painting whole heat, a black woman who paints black men generously but not without exercising a certain critical rigor. The frontal swagger of the gangs, a culture of nearly princely hauteur but with bodings, of course, of unembellished threat, and this is what Acey examined surgically, working the details, looking for traces of the solitaire, the young man isolated from his own moody pose (393).
This statement of artistic intent, both visionary and modest, offers an astute commentary on the multicultural scope of the novel itself. As Paul Quinn notes, Underworld avoids any 'ego-driven colonization of the experience of the other,' deftly avoiding the traps of appropriation and totalization faced by contemporary white male writers seeking to employ diverse points of view (21). The assimilation of these figures into such a historically comprehensive text mirrors suggest its wider project by which political oppositions are dissolved and traumatic historical events or period are reintegrated into our understanding of the recent past.
As in Pynchon, humor represents a crucial tool in the kind of self-critical examination that places both authors within the tradition I have outlined. Thus it is not surprising that the figure of Lenny Bruce comes to bear particular weight in the novel. Presented through a series of performances structured around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bruce serves as a conduit for expressing what everyday life under the nuclear threat looks and feels like. Playing with the cliché of Bruce as an apostle of obscenity, DeLillo has Bruce indulge his audience's desire to hear him talk dirty: 'There was no context for the line except the one that Lenny took with him everywhere . . . He seemed to need a particular kind of face into which to deliver his scripture' (585). Bruce articulates the connections between sex, the powerful and the possibility of annihilation:
You look at these girls and you mourn the lost glamour of women's undergarments. The whole nazified system of straps and harnesses. It's a legal outlet for your secret fascist longings . . . All that slithery hardware that makes wars worth fighting. . . The whole point of the missile crisis is the sexual opportunity it offers. You get Raytheon to your place and convince her the whole world's about to go zippo (585-6).
A masterful practitioner of what Beth Bailey terms the 'sex-as-weapon' strain of the sexual revolution, DeLillo's Bruce explodes the clichés of Oedipal conflict, deploying sexual invective to get at unfathomable qualities of power and the presence of death. These scenes produce in us the feeling we imagine in Bruce's spectators, the revelation of our condition Henri Lefebvre describes as the end result of Chaplin's films in the great comic tradition: 'On leaving the darkness of the cinema, we rediscover the same world as before, it closes round us again. And yet the comic event has taken place, and we feel decontaminated, returned to normality, purified somehow, and stronger' (13).
DeLillo's Bruce thereby draws our attention to the absurd and obscene extremes of Cold War ideologies and the top-down visions of history they encourage, anticipating the fuller challenges these ideologies would face later in the sixties from radicals influenced by Bruce's aesthetic and analysis. Bringing the invisible world of the powerful and the unspeakable, unthinkable dynamics of the nuclear age to his audience, DeLillo's Bruce represents a surrogate figure for the historical novelist, embodying the paradox of political and historical consciousness: only a genius willing to step across all boundaries of taste and decorum can articulate the lived realities of a given moment. Thus we are reminded that the radicalisms of the sixties represent neither the traumatic aberration depicted in Roth's novel nor the seamless continuation of an American tradition found in Pynchon but a deliberate response to the always already existing traumas of state power, war and violence.
In 1914, Ortega y Gasset wrote that the novel and the epic 'are precisely poles apart. The epic . . . . speaks to us about a world which was and which is no longer, of a mythical age whose antiquity is not a past in the same sense as any remote historical time. . . The epic past is not our past. Our past is thinkable as having been the present once, but the epic past eludes identification with any possible present' (cited in Carnes 241). When it comes to the sixties, both the reified nostalgia of much popular culture memory and the counter-nostalgic demonization of the period's radicalisms which has become equally prominent represent a version of this epic past: 'a world which is no longer' which 'eludes identification with any possible present.' Widely been recognized as among Roth's most powerful works for its haunting evocation of its historical moment, American Pastoral nevertheless ultimately confronts this kind of past, one which can only be experienced as a traumatic and violent upheaval and which cannot be written into a larger American story. By contrast, by directly engaging the extent to which memories of the period have been shaped by these elements of popular culture, Pynchon creates a past with which we can identify and unearths a workable utopian tradition unencumbered by the fantasies of American innocence that beguile the Swede. Nevertheless, it is paradoxically Underworld, which on first reading does not appear to be especially concerned with the specific events of the period itself, which most thoroughly theorizes the meaning of its transformations. Despite the novel's epic scope, it is this work which offers identification with all of our possible presents, fulfilling the promise of the genre embodied in the epigraph to Libra: 'Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one's own personal world, and the world in general.' Taken from one of Oswald's letters, these lines describe a hope that remained a chimera to that novel's protagonist but remains a reality to any writer fully engaged with the possibilities of the historical and political imagination.
Acocella, Joan. "Becoming the Emperor." The New Yorker 14 February 2005: 242.
Bailey, Beth. Sex in the Heartland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Berman, Marshall. "Dancing with America: Philip Roth, Writer on the Left." New Labor Forum Fall/Winter 2001: 47-56.
Carnes, Mark C., ed. Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront American's Past (And Each Other). New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
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Doctorow, E.L. The Book of Daniel. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Duvall, John. Underworld: A Reader's Guide. New York, Continuum: 2002.
Gediman, Paul. "Visions of the American Beserk." The Boston Review October/November 1997: 46-8.
Gornick, Vivian. The Romance of American Communism. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1. Trans. John Moore. London: Verso, 1991.
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel.Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
Mallon, Thomas. "Writing Historical Fiction." The American Scholar v. 61, no. 4, Fall 1992: 604-610.
Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. New York: Little Brown, 1990.
Quinn, Paul. "Hitting the Home Run." Times Literary Supplement. 26 December 1997: 11.
Rafferty, Terrence. "Long Lost." The New Yorker 19 February 1990: 108-12.
Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Vintage International, 1997.
Royal, Derek Parker. "Fictional Realms of Possibility: Reimagining the Ethnic Subject in Philip Roth's American Pastoral." Studies in American Jewish Literature v. 20, 2001: 1-16.
Tanenbaum, Laura. "Reading Roth's Sixties." Studies in American Jewish Literature v. 23, 2004: 41-54.
Velcic, Vlatka. "Breaking the 'Conspiracy of Silence': Novelistic Portrayals of the Sixties and the Left in Doctorow, Boyle, DeLillo, and Pynchon." Diss. University of California, Los Angeles, 1995.
iFor more on the relationship between Zuckerman and the Swede, see Derek Parker Royal, "Fictional Realms of Possibility."
iiThe last ten years have witnessed a proliferation of ambitious and critically acclaimed novels that directly represent the transformations of the late sixties and seventies and, more specifically, the radical movements of the period. Most recently, a number of novels have turned to the most "radical" or even violent elements of the sixties and seventies (white) Left, particularly groups like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).In addition to American Pastoral, characters based on members of the Weather Underground appear in Neil Gordon's 2003 The Company You Keep, and Russell Banks's 2004 The Darling, while the SLA and Hearst's kidnapping have been treated in Susan Choi's 2003 American Woman and Christopher Sorrentino's 2005 Trance. As I discuss in my reading of Roth, this focus has led many authors towards the aberrational view of the period. Notably, there has been much less engagement with the radical Black, Latino, and Native American or even feminist movements -- non-violent as well as violent. (John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire, a 1990 novel based on the 1985 raid on MOVE headquarters represents one notable exception). Such an engagement would certainly raise questions of identity and authority, particularly for the white male authors under consideration here. More than this, such projects would demand an engagement with questions of state violence these authors have largely proved loathe to undertake. By contrast, the multicultural scope of DeLillo's Underworld, often ignored by critics, renders the novel a more compelling account of this aspect of the period's transformations than many works that focus more directly and single-mindedly on the period itself.
iiiFor a more detailed reading of the novel, in particular its interpretation of Merry and of the New Left, see Laura Tanenbaum, "Reading Roth's Sixties."