I was literally made, shaped, whetted and given a world with a purpose by the American realistic novel of the mid- to late 1930s. From the age of 14 to 17, I gorged myself on the works of Thomas Wolfe (beginning with Of Time and the River, catching up with Angel and then keeping pace till Big Tom’s stunning end), Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, James Cain, Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, Jerome Weidman, and William Saroyan, and knew in my pumping heart that I wanted to be such a novelist. To me, an isolated, supersensitive New York Jewish boy given the privacy to dream in the locked bathroom of middle-class life, these novels taught me about the America “out there” and, more than anything, I wanted to identify with that big gaudy continent and its variety of human beings who came to me so clearly through the pages of these so-called fictions. I dreamed Southern accents, Okies, bourbon and branch water, Gloria Wandrous, juke joints, Studs Lonigan, speeding trucks and big highways, Bigger Thomas, U.S.A., U.S.A.! Nothing to me in those crucial, irredeemable years was as glamorous as the unofficial seamy side of American life, the smack, brutality and cynical truth of it, all of which I learned from the dynamic novels that appeared in Manhattan between 1936 and 1939.
They were my high school, my religion, my major fantasy life; instead of escaping into adventure or detective fiction—there were no groovy comic books then, such as Pete Hamill wrote about ten years later, when Batman flew into his head over in Brooklyn; or, if there were, I was already a kid snob tucked into my literary American dream scene—I escaped into the vision of reality that these fresh and tough pioneering writers were bringing to print from all corners of the country. In an odd way, even though most of these books ended bitterly or without faith, they were patriotic in a style that deeply impressed my being without my being able to break down why: They had integrity to the actual things that people did or said, to the very accents of frustration or despair voiced by their characters; they were all truthful in re-creating American life. This was a naked free show about my real national environment that I damn well did not receive at home—a home full of euphemisms and concealments, typical, with the death of one parent and the breakdown-suicide of the other hanging over the charade of good manners—or in the newspapers, on the radio or at the movies. Except for the fairy tales read to me as a big-eyed child and an occasional boy’s classic such as Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island or the Tom Swift books, this was the first body of writing that had ever really possessed me; and apparently I was never to (and will never) get over it.
How can I communicate the savage greenness of the American novel of 30 years ago as it was felt by a keenly emotional teenage boy?—or girl, I guess, although it was primarily a man’s novel, but certainly not totally. I and the other members of my generation who were given eyes and ears and genuine U.S. lifestyle by it knew nothing about Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson—its father and his beautifully pensive younger brother—until we became intellectually smart-assed and history-minded ten and fifteen years later. We lived in the perpetual present created by those men named in the first paragraph and were inspired to become prose writers because of them. It wasn’t really a question of talent; if you responded to the leaping portrait of American life that these craft-loving realists (superrealists, in actuality) were showing with professionally curved words, you created the talent out of yourself: at first, in imitation of what you creamed over in their style, point of view and impact; then, later, in painful effort to do equal justice to your own personal test tube of experience.
The deservedly legendary American novelists of this raw-knuckled period before the War (they were our celebrities, on high!) encouraged an untested, unformed young guy to dig into his own worst personal experience and make something exciting out of it in the form of a story. The whole movement was, in the finest and least self-conscious sense, the story of myriad personal lives in this country; it encouraged everyone caught in its momentum to look hard at the unique grain of his or her life and its interweave with other lives. None of us who in the late Thirties were swept up into the romantic-heroic fantasied career of wanting to be novelists were in any sense fated for this role, in my opinion; we were baited beautifully by the gusher of skilled novels—Maritta Wolff, John Fante, Dorothy Baker, Bessie Breuer, Daniel Fuchs, Pietro di Donato, Josephine Herbst, the early Robert Paul Smith, Tess Slesinger, Frederic Prokosch, Gladys Schmitt, Irving Fineman, Gale Wilhelm, Albert Halper, Nathanael West, Oakley Hall—that seemed to be goosing each other to shine more truly than the next. To a young, hungering mind once hooked by the constantly fresh stream of national lives that made their debut in these novels—characters from all parts of the country, waitresses, fishermen, intellectuals, Lesbians, truck drivers, salesmen, alcoholics, nymphomaniacs, jazzmen, generals, athletes, everything—it was impossible to call it quits; once the “real” American scene entered your imagination through the eyes of these stand-up individual recorders and native consciences who seemed to loom up, suddenly, hotly, with a rush before the Thirties decade ended in World War Two, there was nowhere else for the youthful truth maniac to go but to the new novels hurrying each other out of the New York publishing womb. New fiction was the hot form, contested, argued, encouraged from Story to the New Masses to Esquire to the (then) Saturday Review of Literature to The New Yorker; the city buzzed with the magazine unveiling of any new talent; it was news that traveled with enthusiasm (Irwin Shaw in The New Yorker, Di Donato in Esquire, James Laughlin telling it like it was down at his family’s Pittsburgh steelworks in Story, before he became publisher of New Directions).
It is very true that as the Thirties drew to a vicious close with the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s preparations for the new blood-and-iron stomping of Europe, the politicalization of the U.S. novel became more acute and the bleak international scene seemed to throw its heavy shadow over our comparatively virginal literary pine thrust and make it suddenly wearier. But all of this is seen from the cool view of later years; whereas if you were just coming alive as a human being in the late Thirties, it all seemed like one nonstop fictional ball. As a high school boy, although I bought my New Masses every week because the Communists were truly involved with fresh fiction (O Meridel Le Sueur, where are you now?), no matter how slanted their typewriters, I found the political-propagandistic implications of the new novels much less important than the powerful concrete punch they delivered. Each of the exciting Thirties novelists, it seemed to me inside my comet-shooting young head, was a pioneer; they were tackling unrecorded experience in each hidden alley and cove of the country that I wanted to be a part of, bringing it to ground for the first time, binding it up and sending it East for exhibition before the rest of the citizenry. Certainly their moral flame was ignited and burning steadily or they would not have gone to the huge labor of making almost the entire country and its people accessible to fiction; but apart from the explicitly political base of men like Farrell and Wright (and the poignant Odets in drama, although his politics was a left cartoon strip compared to the flashing originality of his voice), this flame was used to warm their faith in the value of writing truly rather than held aloft as a defiant gesture.
It was no accident, I believe, that the American novelists of the Thirties took over the explorer’s role in my mind after the merely geographical aspects of exploration had faded into the bottom drawer of childhood.
Their moral integrity—Weidman to his New York garment center, Saroyan to a Fresno pool hall, Faulkner to his luxuriant decaying cottonwood swamps (of the soul)—was more concerned with how to verbally break the back of unarticulated and unacknowledged truth, that which has been seen, smelled and suffered but never before written. They were to my imagination outriders, advance scouts; and what they brought back from the contemporary American frontier was as rare and precious to all of us who were waiting as the information now hugged to earth by an astronaut.
I saw it in even more private terms. As a boy of ten or eleven, I had wanted to be an explorer, my fantasy life taking off in the magic snow tracks made by Robert Peary and F.A. Cook, who fought over discovering the North Pole, and Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, who jointly reached the Southern one. It was no accident, I believe, that the American novelists of the Thirties took over the explorer’s role in my mind after the merely geographical aspects of exploration had faded into the bottom drawer of childhood. Who else but these self-elected, self-taught, self-starting, gutsy men and women with the sniff of glory in their proud nostrils were the real explorers of this country’s unadvertised life? The novelists who electrified me and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young kids like myself between 1936 and the outbreak of the War were idealists in the most adventurous sense, no matter how stained their material seemed to be on the surface. If you said to somebody, as I soon began to after breaking into print on the De Witt Clinton High School lit. magazine, that as an adult, “I wanted to write,” it could mean only one thing: the novel. A bigness impossible to recapture in 1969 attached to those three power words “wanting to write.” One had the image of climbing the jaggedest of the Rockies alone, flying solo like Lindbergh, pitting one’s ultimate stuff against all the odds of middle-class life and coming out of the toughest kind of spiritual ordeal with that book-that-was-more-than-a-book, that was the payoff on just about everything, held in your hand. It was heavenly combat, the way I pictured it, self-confrontation of the most hallowed kind; and if my vision of it was ultraultra, then the legendary American novel itself at this time was the most romantic achievement there was in U.S. life for the dreamer who lived inside everybody with a taste for language, style—and justice!
To have wanted to be a writer in this country in the late Thirties had about it a gorgeous mystique that was inseparable from the so-called American Dream on which every last one of our good writers was first suckled and then kicked out in the cold to make it come true. If that phrase A.D., American Dream, meant going all the way, that the individual in this myth-hungry society had the option to try to fly above the skyscrapers, then writing toward “the great American novel” was not only an act of literature but a positive affirmation of the dream dust that coated all of us born under the flag. All the driving personal ambition, energy, initiative, the prizing of individual conscience and courage that operated or was supposed to operate in every other branch of national life entered strongly into wanting to be a novelist—but with a twist. The act of writing a novel made use of all these widely broadcast qualities, yes, but the reward one sought in it was not palpable gold; best sellers as such were sneered at unless they occurred by accident; the goal was one of absolute truth to the material, to make a landmark on the unmapped moral and aesthetic landscape of huge America that would somehow redeem the original intentions of the country and the selves made by it and represent the purest kind of success story for the person who brought it off.
This meant that being a typical good American novelist in the Thirties, even wanting to be one, was not finally dependent on having an extraordinary gift for telling a story in print. Certainly, there were narrative and stylistic “geniuses” such as Faulkner, Hemingway, perhaps even the early O’Hara, James Cain, Djuna Barnes—each buff and lover of the period will name his or her own—and their overpowering skill with the craft was often a virtuoso performance that set standards and became models to aim at. But the American novel became a great art only in its outward finish and skill, in the Thirties, because of the internal spiritual motivation that made wanting to write it perhaps the sweetest gamble in national life. You might almost say that the romantic promise of the country as a unique society of potential total justice for all, pegged on the limitless possibilities of each individual—all the raging hope that the American Dream slogan meant to the imagination of its most ardent dreamers—was all part of the religion of wanting to be a novelist when I got the call while in high school. If the idea of the mystical American novel had not been bound up with all of these big national feelings and aspirations that writhed around in the direct center of one’s being, that was more than “literature” and seemed to be the most thrilling embodiment of one’s destiny as a member of a making-the-impossible-possible society, I doubt if I and so many prose writers my age would have chosen the written word as our badge.
It was the ambition (when the time came at 15 or 16 to tell yourself what you “wanted to be”) chosen in the pride of the secret imagination by rebel fantasists, now in their 40s, who believed they could rebuild reality closer to the American soul’s desire by writing in the light of a final faith that would transform their portraits of frustration or injustice into the opposite. By this I mean that because they wanted to believe in the promise of the country, were inseparable from its myth, were tied up emotionally and psychologically and every other way with America almost as if it were a person—with their own fulfillment as human beings actually dependent upon the fulfillment of the nation at the poetic height at which they conceived it—they felt they could let go in the novel to the full extent of their negative imagination. Everything bad, awful, unjust, painful, stupid and outrageous in their own lives or theirs in relation to the lives around them could be discharged at full intensity in fictional form, with the underlying implication that it was just and right to give such ferocious bite to negative expression because it was all an attempt to redeem an invisible, psychic Bill of Rights. Towering idealism, paradoxically shown by the extent of the dark “realism” in the characteristic novel of the time, was the climate in which the fictional life of the Thirties grew to bursting; the more the novelist envisioned the way things should be, the more he and his readers felt he had the duty to show the ugly side of the land, the failure of the ideal, the color of the pus, the company goons beating down the strikers.
Wasn’t the novel, to those of us caught in the emotional hell of American teendom, a wish-fulfillment device for would-be lovers banished from the sensual playland that taunted us via radio, billboards, movie marquee and our own famished unconscious?
We kids who wanted to write the American novel knew without analysis, responded totally with our sharpened feelers to the unspoken values that lay behind any particular book in question; if Weidman’s What’s in It for Me? or O’Hara’s Hope of Heaven showed heels and weaklings with special corrosiveness of scene, dialog, action, nailing them to the wall with the brilliance that comes from a mixture of contempt and pity, we shared enthusiastically in the experience because we knew that in writers of O’Hara and Weidman’s stripe, the moral judgment was implicit, rather than explicit as in Steinbeck, Wolfe or Wright. It didn’t matter to us, implicit or explicit, because we were instinctively clued in to the intention of all the late-Thirties novelists just by wanting to make the same nitty-gritty comment on our own life; we knew by feel that even if a specific book baffled our haughty teenage heads, it contained a purposive thrust about a segment of the country’s experience; it was criticizing America under the table in order to purge and lift it; it was forever encroaching on the most taboo, subtle and previously undefined aspects of our mutual life to show a truer picture of the way we lived.
Those of us, then, who couldn’t forget what we had already been through—who remembered each hurt, black skin, Yiddish nose, Irish drunk, wop ignorance, too short, too tall, too poor, afraid of girls, afraid of boys, queer, crippled, sissies, young-bud neurotics/psychotics, the most vulnerable and stung of the new generation who could fight back with words—it was we who thought that being novelists would heroically reclaim ourselves by re-creating the bitter truth about our personal lives and our environment. Obviously, it took sensitivity of the most piercing kind to provide the openings in the personality where painful experience could lodge and stick, so that one day it would all be poured forth in answer against frustration (both personal and social); you must never forget that we who wanted to be novelists not only thought it was the most free and ultimately ethical means of American expression, we were also squeezed by the very existential nuts into needing fiction in order to confess, absolve and justify our life. The majority of us who wanted to write were already middle-class losers who couldn’t make it inside the accepted framework, the thin-skinned minority who were set apart in our own psyches to observing when we wanted to act and to thinking when we wanted to participate—the kids who were constitutionally unable to do the saddle-shoed American thing during the smoking acid bath of adolescence.
Do I therefore mean, to hit it squarely, that writing fiction for me and my breed was a pimply kind of revenge on life, an outcast tribe of young non-Wheaties failures getting their own back, all the shrimpy, titless, thick-lensed, crazy-headed dropouts and sore losers of American youth resolving in the utter misery of the dateless Saturday night to shoot down their better-favored peers in the pages of a novel? Yes, I flatly mean that, in part; the mimetic ability, the gift to re-create lifelike scenes and dialog, to be good at acute description, to even have one’s moral perceptions heightened, is spiced and rehearsed by unhappiness. Wasn’t the novel, to those of us caught in the emotional hell of American teendom, a wish-fulfillment device for would-be lovers banished from the sensual playland that taunted us via radio, billboards, movie marquee and our own famished unconscious? From (in my case) the big, smooth, “in” gentile world of blue eyes and blonde hair and supple tennis-racket bodies that I felt I could never be part of and that then seemed like the top of the heap?
Yes, the American novel for those of us who were precocious outsiders—and there were a thousand reasons why each one of us failed to measure up to the gleaming Robert Taylors and Ginger Rogers who star-touched our Loew’s Saturday afternoons and made us silently weep into the bathroom mirror on Sunday—was a magic, lifelike double in which we thought we could work off our private griefs, transform them into messages of hope and light and remake our lives themselves by the very act of writing a novel. This art form, then, for us, was many things: the freest and most total kind of expression for reality-loving idealists; the place where truth could be told as it could not in real life nor in any place but one’s mind (psychoanalysis was still a decade off for most of us); and a form so close to living matter itself that the illusion of personally controlling experience instead of being its fall guy or victim could not have been stronger. Sure, the novel was a legitimate art form, even for those of us who wanted to use it for the redemption or glorification of self; but it was a yielding female art that was responsive to the most private subjective needs and it provided the only complete outlet for being that was choked and distorted in our waking relationship to society. To us, it was the golden cup of a modern fable—one that we could fill to overflowing with all the repressed hunger in ourselves and also one that could announce our fame, toast us to the sky because of our verbal triumph over the weights that nearly crushed us, make come true in imagination what could not be realized in the bruising action of daily life.
Of course, it was action on a literary level, action with words; but in the final sense, it was substitute or dream action carefully clothed with the wrinkles of a photographic realism. The facade of the great realistic style of the Thirties was documentary, bang-bang-bang, everything as hard and metallic as the shiny unyielding materials turned out in our most modern factories; swift as a biplane, lit up like a radio tube, driving as a racing car on the Salt Lake flats (“James Cain’s style is like the metal of an automatic. You can’t lay his story down.”—Saturday Review of Literature). But this was only the outward enameling that we swung with and mentally caressed because it was all so new and fresh, a prose like the artifacts of the country itself—streamlined. Our stripped-down, whipped-down appreciation of power loved it bulleting across the page. Yet behind the lean, aware, dirty knowingness we were stylistically tuned in to was that assumption, as if by divine right, of impossible freedom—the novelist working out his total hidden life before our eyes—that made novel writing in America such a tremendous adventure, no matter how pinchingly personal the original motives might be that drove you to your desk.
I am certain that those of you reading this who came of age in the same late-Thirties period recognize the excitement about the novel that I am trying to recapture because it made me what I am, essentially. Can you imagine a human being actually molded by something as abstract as a literary from? Yet it was quite real, not only in my case but in that of the sensitive cream of an entire generation who graduated from high school when the U.S. novel had grown so big that it literally stretched us with its broad-shouldered possibilities. Our values, coloring and slant as people were dominated by the overwhelming idea of being novelists, the beautiful obsession that kept us secretly, spiritually high like early Christians. It puffed us up with humility, humbled us with pride, made us into every character we imagined and put us in every story we could cook up; but within, not outwardly as an actor might express it (and there were strong correspondences, although we novelists-in-embryo toughly put down actors as childish narcissists), and we coolly loved ourselves for the infinite range of life that easily gave itself to us and you could be goddamned sure to no one else. When I flunked out of college in 1940, a year after finishing high school, for example, this was not even remotely seen as a failure by me and mine but, rather, as a new and soon-to-be-significant phenomenon that I would be able to write about from firsthand experience. The first time I got laid, drunk, smoked “tea,” shipped out (and jumped ship before we left Sandy Hook), saw death, spent the night in a hospital-clean Pittsburgh jail, masturbated over the fantasy of going to bed with my sister, put on women’s panties and silk stockings for kicks, got into my first adult street fight and almost had the mortal shit kicked out of me—all of these firsts and a hundred others were special, fated, grand experiences for me and for those like me, because I was a novelist-to-be and I was on a special trip!
What a dream it was, what a marvelous hurtproof vest we all wove in the name of the novel (which was another name for religion or faith in the non-churchly modern sense).
I did not, finally, write novels, as anyone familiar with my output knows; but I was made as person and mind and writer in their image, just as a newer generation (and even my own exact contemporary, Tony Curtis, nee Bernard Schwartz) has been created by the movies. The reasons I never added my own by-line to that passionate list are many, some personal as well as cultural; I may not have had the “talent”—although I published my small share of vivid short stories—or, what is more likely, the needs of the post–World War Two period shifted in my eyes and in those of my friends and we put much more importance on trying to understand a new world zooming up around us than on expressing what we already knew. We became, in manner, crisply intellectual, instead of openly lyrical; but much of that same apocalyptic sense of possibility that we once felt in the U.S. novel now went into its examination (the name of the game was literary criticism), until the work of fiction became for us a means to examine life itself. Wasn’t that what it was all about, anyway?—at least, so ran our sincere and often troubled rationalization at the time. But even though the form began to slowly change in the late Forties and early Fifties for a radar-sensitive minority of us, to nonfiction instead of fiction, the goal remained essentially the same: the articulation of American reality by individuals who really, personally cared, because their own beings were so helplessly involved in this newly shifting, remarkably unstable, constantly self-analyzing and self-doubting society that had shot up after the War.
And I was the same: I sweated the national anxiety out in myself (What direction was I going to go in?), the idea of the novel still hanging over me as a kind of star but getting farther and farther distant as my ignorance in other areas—politics, poetry, sociology, history, painting, etc.—was exposed and I tried powerfully to educate myself, now that, as a nonnovelist, I was being challenged socially and even in print. The dream of being a novelist, the dream that being a novelist had been in this country, kept me warm for 20 years; I had put all my golden hope eggs in this mighty basket; now I was torn from this sustaining fantasy by my failure to act and was forced to fend for my self-esteem in a hard-boiled intellectual community (the literary-political magazines, where I published) that had no sympathy for my little inspirational couplet of “What the American Novel Means to Me.” They thought it was either a put-on, because I had written none, or a sentimental indulgence. Therefore, whether it was because I temporarily allied myself with the so-called new criticism in its more cerebral search for reality—and there were a number who had wanted to be fictionists (even wrote their one or two novels) who took this further crook in the country’s prose road along with me—or because basically I did not think “novelistically,” which, in all honesty, I am forced to doubt, or else all my former covetous years were pitiably unreal—or, as I believe, because truth no longer seemed to me to reside in my beloved American novel, as it had in my young manhood—I began in the mid-Fifties to regard the novel as a used-up medium.
For a person like myself, confessedly given great hope and direction by this medium, justified in all my agonizing human goofs by its very existence, because I thought I could one day redeem them through it, the beauty of knowing the novel was there like a loving woman for me to go to when beaten to my knees, it wasn’t an easy emotional matter for me to say in my mind, “It doesn’t sing for my time the way it once did.” But I said it—at least for myself. What had happened, not only to me but, I’m certain, to others who came from my literary environment, was a fundamental change in our perception of where the significant action lay: The fictional realism on which we had been shaped seemed to lead almost logically to that further realism that existed in the world of fact; we had been so close to the real thing with the style of superrealism that it was now impossible to restrain ourselves from wanting to go over the edge into autobiography, the confessional essay, reportage, because in these forms we could escape from the growing feeling that fiction was artificial compared with using novelistic sweep on the actual experience we lived through every day.
I increasingly had about the novel as a meaningful statement for the late Fifties and Sixties, the audience for it in America was no longer as loyal and excited as it had been when we were first mentally and emotionally bowled over by its momentum.
In other words, the very realistic Thirties novel that had originally turned us on made us want to take that giant step further into the smellable, libelous, unfaked dimension of sheer torn-pocket reality: my actual goodbye-world flip-out in 1955; James Agee actually pounding on his small car in Santa Monica a year before he died and telling a friend of mine who had casually quoted a line from Agee’s first and only book of poems, “I wasted it! I should have written only poetry!,” sobbing while he banged on the hood with his fists; Elia Kazan looming tight-faced over Paddy Chayefsky and me at the Russian Tea Room, saying moodily that he had to see the isolated Clifford Odets, Golden Boy with cancer, who had crept back to New York to sniff the ozone of dead triumphs before perishing on the Coast; my remembering while Kazan spoke with disembodied flatness how I had met Odets at 17 at the University of North Carolina and how he had taken me for a drive in his fast Cadillac and switched me on so that I rapped pre–On the Road about speed and how the strange iodine odor came from his antiseptic-smelling body and wiry Brillo hair: all these once-reportorial facts now became the truer story for those of us whose appetite for what is had been built up to a point no longer satisfied by fiction.
In addition to this feeling of irrelevance that I increasingly had about the novel as a meaningful statement for the late Fifties and Sixties, the audience for it in America was no longer as loyal and excited as it had been (as I had been!) when we were first mentally and emotionally bowled over by its momentum. TV, movies, electronic communications of every sort were cutting into the time that people who were totally alive to their era could spend on prose fiction; if it was story you wanted, in the old Saturday Evening Post sense, you could get that dramatized for you on the late-late show while you did a multimedia thing with your companion in bed; and it was only the specialists, critic-teachers, the people in the book trade, who seemed to me to hold out strenuously against admitting that the novel’s dash was being taken away from it by the new media. These electronic whispers of tomorrow could in a momentary flash do what Flaubert and Conrad spent their lifetimes trying to achieve with words: “Above all to make you see.”
Of course, you can say that the post-Faulkner U.S. novel was no longer sought out for story values per se but, rather, for radical insight into existence; that the form provided a framework for an attack from an “ existential” or “absurd” quarter completely different from the realistic Thirties novel; granted—and also more than granted that extraordinarily talented writers were opening up this form and “making it as limitless as the ocean which can only define itself” (Marguerite Young), writers such as John Barth, Young herself, Ralph Ellison, William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Hubert Selby, Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelme, etc.; the list is big because there were and are that many highly imaginative writers who have been doing remarkable things with fiction during these past 15 years. (Ironically, as the novel has shed its effectiveness in our society, there has never been since the Twenties such a yell of native talent, wild originality, deadly challenge.) But the basic fact I noticed as the deluge of new fictional expression increased and readership became a frantic duty, rather than the great thrill it once had been—and the practical impossibility of keeping up with the diversity of new books (new lives!) became obvious—was that the impact of the novel on our beings, on my being, was no longer as crucial as it had been. From my own changing point of view, tremendous Stateside writers could still appear in what was loosely called a novel—and what form has become looser?—but I felt that the entire role of the American novelist as I had originally heroized it had to be transformed into something entirely different if it was to be as masterful to the imagination of the Sixties as it had been to me in the Thirties.
In this sense: For me and my breed, writing fiction was not an entirely realistic, naturalistic, rational human enterprise, in spite of the authentic-seeming imitation of reality on which we were indoctrinated; underneath the accurate surface, it was all bathed in dream or myth; we who wanted to mythologize ourselves and America (and they were inseparable) were trying to personally lift the national life into the realm of justice; we were attempting to use the total freedom of our imaginations to rearrange the shit-specked facts of our American experience into their ultimate spiritual payoff. We wanted to “build Jerusalem” (Blake) out of America’s “fresh, green breast” (Scott Fitzgerald) and the novel was our transcendent, our more-than-could-ever-be vehicle for this rocketing need toward fulfillment of both ourselves and the national seed that had begotten us. In other words, our novel was a form of imaginative action. If you, the novelist, couldn’t make it to the height of your vision in so-called straight or nonliterary life because of one handicap or another, then you did it through your books even better but the goal was the same as the man of action’s, your books were deeds that came out of your mixture of vision and moral commitment (Hemingway, Farrell, Wolfe)and they stood as the seal of where you were humanly at as clearly as if you had sewn your cardiogram into the binding. There could be no faking about taking a stand and you were measured every step of the way by readers who took your fictions as acts that influenced the world of the U.S. spirit until they were outdistanced by new and more penetrating fictional commitments. It was a soul contest of the keenest kind, with the country as beneficiary.
But the effectiveness of such imaginative action today seems to have been reduced to mere toenail picking by the tornado voices of the mass media. Whether or not you and I like it, we have all—novelists as well as readers—become pawns in the newscast of each day’s events. “Our” novel can no longer affect these events in even an indirect sense: Almost every ounce of my energy (for example) is used in coping with my own life; things happen too fast for me to be affected by the stance of some protagonist in a fiction; I am spun around by each latest threat to my survival; and what was once the charismatic lure of the American novel now becomes for me and countless others an extravagance instead of a necessity. But isn’t that what makes art forms change—when life leaves them in the lurch? When concern moves away from them, not by design but by a gut barometer whereby we seek out what is most vital to us and jettison the rest? Because of my existential impatience with fiction as it related directly to my life—and I concede that this could be a flaw of temperament, although it is backed up by my professional work as an editor of new writing—I was and am forced to believe that in varying degrees, my experience is true for readers all over the country; and I felt and feel that prose must find a form that can meet this reality and win readers back to my crucial excitement when the novel was more than a novel and evoked a mystic response that molded being itself, as well as an author’s reputation.
The American novelistic imagination as I received it with open heart and mind 25 and 30 years ago was really the most fully human expression of this society at that time.
But what happens, then—I have had to ask myself—to our significant writers who are still either in love or “imprisoned” in a traditional form that is losing its cultural importance in spite of their brilliant personal flights? What happens—I must ask myself also—to that awesome authority of the imagination that encouraged, demanded people who called themselves novelists to create human beings (like nature itself) and dictate their lives and fate (like gods or supreme justices of the universe)? What happens, further, to that great ton of submerged American experience locked inside themselves, more raw, subtle, potential human riches than the combined knowledge of sociologist-psychiatrist, precisely because it was garnered by their blood as well as brain? What happens, in short, to that special mission, what to me for many years was almost a holy mission, of making an imaginary American world that would be more real than the actuality itself?
And where, as a final question, does the legendary U.S. novelist go when, except for a handful of individuals, he is no longer a culture hero in a radically new environment, when his medium is passing into the void of time and when he is still stuck with a roaring inner need to speak, confess, design, shape, record—the whole once-glorious shmear?
There is one drastic way out and even up, as I personally see it now in 1969; and that is for the American novelist to abandon his imitation or caricature of a reality that in sheer voluminosity has dwarfed his importance and to become a communicator directly to society, without hiding behind the mask of fiction. (I must make it clear that what follows represents my own need and desire imagined out of the confusion of our time and my unwillingness to accept a literature that is primarily a reflection of our era’s helplessness; committed novelists, and some very sharp ones, too, will doubtless block me out of their consciousness and continue to make an ever wilder art of their materials to match the nuttiness that fevers our days; I will always be a sucker for their spirit and bow to the new images they will offer us, but my compelling feeling that now as never before is the time for writing to become direct action and cause things to happen makes even potentially great novels grow small compared with what I can envision if the novelist puts his power into speaking straight to his audience.)
The American novelistic imagination as I received it with open heart and mind 25 and 30 years ago was really the most fully human expression of this society at that time; and it is the new humanizing of American writing by the boldness of direct communication, the revolutionizing of the writer’s relationship to his reader, that seems to me tremendously more needed right now than the pale echo of fiction. Instead of novelists, I believe we now actually have only literary individuals themselves, men and women struggling with their own destinies as people in relation to other people and with the problems that threaten to swamp us all—emotional, sexual, political, racial, artistic, philosophical, financial—and that these should be stated to the reader as candidly as possible, so that he, too, can be brought into the new mutual nonnovel of American life and make possible a truly democratic prose of total communication that can lead to new action in society itself.
I believe the ex-novelist, the new communicator we can already see in the early and various stages of his making (Mailer, again, with The Armies of the Night, plus Miami and the Siege of Chicago; Tom Wolfe and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Norman Podhoretz’ Making It; Dan Wakefield’s Between the Lines; Jan Cremer’s I Jan Cremer; Erje Ayden’s The Legend of Erje Ayden; Fielding Dawson’s An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline; Irving Rosenthal’s Sheeper; Ned Rorem’s Paris Diary; Taylor Mead’s Anonymous Diary of a New York Youth; Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes; my own Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer), should speak intimately to his readers about these fantastic days we are living through, but declare his credentials by revealing the concrete details and particular sweat of his own inner life. Otherwise, he (or she) will not have earned the right to speak openly about everything or to be trusted; he should try to tell the blunt truth, as in a letter, and this includes the risk of discussing other individuals as well—no one should be immune from the effort to clean house, undo bullshit, lay the entire business of being an American right now on the public table without shame. So that the new communicator’s statement—about himself, his friends, his women (or men, if he’s gay), people in public life, the cities, the war, his group therapy, wanting secretly to be a star, wanting to sleep with Mamie Van Doren (or Susan Sontag), still hoping to love and be loved, putting his being directly before the reader, as if the page were a telephone and asking for an answer—be evidence of the reality in which we are all implicated, without exception, and be in itself a legitimization of this reality as a first step to changing it.
How can we suffer from too much truth? Who isn’t heartened to see it when an author respects us enough to tell us where he really lives and by the very nature of his writing asks us to reciprocate? But there is a more significant reason for total leveling than moral straightforwardness in a time famous for its credibility gaps, and that is the power that can return to literature as a daring public act that has to be respected by even those pragmatists who habitually reduce words to playthings. If I write about my own being in relationship to other, real, named, Social Security–numbered beings and present it to you, the reader, it is inevitable that you, too, will be pulled into the scene (at least a few hundred of you will know either me or one of my real-life cast of characters) and must take up an involved position about what you’re being told and experiencing. You are interacting with me and my interactions with others so closely—assuming I have the ability as well as the stomach for truth— that you have become part of the experience, whether or not you seek it. You are there, now included in the network of my life, as I am included in yours, and what you have seen and heard and identified with in my communication will not be put aside like a “story,” because it is an extension of the same reality that unites us both; I will have established a sense of community with you about the destiny of both our lives in this uncertain time that becomes as real as if we were communicating in the flesh—and as existentially suspenseful. Reading then becomes a crucial event, because something is really happening in existence and not in literature alone; due to what I have written, our very lives will touch, the reader is just as much a participant as the writer, your isolation or indifference has been penetrated by reading, just as mine has by writing, and the alienation of our mutual situation has been broken through by my need to make you experience what I have and share my consciousness.
In other words, I want American prose to again become a potent force in the life of the individual in this country and not just his novelty-seeking mind; I want it to be necessary and important once again—even more important, since I see its purpose as having changed—as I knew it when it shaped me; and I want this selfishly, because I have devoted my dreams to this business of words and my own self-respect as mere human refuses to accept that what I once took vows for can be written off as a second-rate art, which “made-up” and irrelevant writing often seems like now, in the aftermath of the electronic-visual explosion. But apart from my own investment in literature—and I can’t rationalize and say that the source of my ideas doesn’t spring from my own unappeasable imagination as a would-be American novelist who was once promised the world and shall never forget that fact—who can deny that once a gifted writer tells it to his equals exactly like it is, we are moving into a new dimension, where writing is used to speak directly to being? And where the talents of reporter and pamphleteer are now usurping those of novelist to awaken individuals to the fact that we all share a common bag as probably never before.
It seems plain to me that the man we used to call the American creative writer is now beginning to express living history through himself so urgently that he is becoming its most genuine embodiment. The imagination that once led him to build a stairway to the stars has been forced into coping with his own imperiled life on the same quaking ground that holds us all. Out of necessity, he is being pushed toward a new art of personal survival and, as a result, he must move ever further into the centers of action to fight for his fate; if he left the crucial decisions of our time to the others while he concentrated on his “work,” as in the old days, he would be living a lie, because he is now too personally a part of each day’s events to pretend they don’t shake him and dominate his existence. His only choice is to insert himself into these events through his writing, to become an actor upon them instead of a helpless observer, to try to influence the making of history itself with his art, so that he can save himself as a man. His driving need for direct participation in our national life now makes the new communicator want to change America in a pact with his readers, and to begin by changing his own life in the commitment of laying it on the line.
For myself, time has shown that the vision I saw or read into the American novel that immediately made me a character in it, the hero who wants to be a novelist, could be fulfilled only if the novel was real and was acted out. Perhaps—in the light of this late recognition of my own need to personify what to many others existed solely in the imagination—I was scheduled all along not to write novels, as I always thought, but to try to put their essence into action. If this is so, I embrace it willingly as the more exciting and now necessary of the alternatives; for just as I once believed that art was the highest condition to which a person could attain, I now believe that if this is true, it is the duty of those who conceive such an ideal to use it on society itself and take their literary lives in their hands, if need be, in the dangerous gamble to make the word deed. That’s where the new prose action is 30 years after I got hooked—for real, chums, for deadly real.
[Photo Credit: Bags]