Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Leopards in the Temple:
The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970

Morris Dickstein
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
$15.95 / £10.50, 144 pages, ISBN 0-674-00604-6.

Donna Spalding Andréolle
Université Stendhal Grenoble III

As the title of the work announces, Leopards in the Temple takes a comprehensive look at a crucial period of modern American literature, presented here both as the reflection of the profound changes in U.S. society in the postwar era and in its own right as the expression of an ever-changing American identity comprised both of mainstream and minority voices.

In Chapter 1 ("Culture, Counterculture and Postwar America") Dickstein retraces the period 1945-1970 in terms of historically significant events, establishing links between postwar phenomena and counterculture art of the 1950s and 1960s. As he puts it:

The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the sixties generation rebelled against: a beaming president presiding over a stagnant government, small-town morality, racial segregation, political and social repression, Cold War mobilization, nuclear standoff, suburban togetherness, the domestic confinement of women, the reign of the nuclear family. [1]

According to the author, the postwar popular culture already showed marks of the division and self-alienation that would bloom into the counterculture of the 1960s. In this panoramic shot of the period to be studied in the following chapters of the book, however, it is to be noted that Dickstein questions the social vision of radical historiography which, he believes, depends on "tenuous links between politics and culture that [are] arbitrary or reductive" because based on a purely ideological bent. [2]. Last but not least, Dickstein underlines the emergence of the youth culture, which remains one of the most emblematic movements of postwar America with novels such as Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, movies such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle, the songs and pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley, and which all express the raw sexual energy and rebelliousness of a whole new generation of artists who came to dominate the popular culture of the late 1950s and the 1960s. Dickstein thus sets the stage for his analyses of different trends in the novels of 1945-1970 which he divides by theme: the war novel; the "New Fiction"; the road novel ("the Outsider as Young Rebel") and "literature of the extremes".

Chapter 2 ("War and the Novel") focuses on the evolution of the World War II novel, starting with Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and moving to more absurd postmodern versions in the works of Vonnegut, Pynchon, Heller and others. Dickstein then moves on to a closer analysis of the Vietnam war novel as well as a discussion on the delayed emergence of the Holocaust novel which progressively replaced other World War II novels. In the war novel of the 1960s, Dickstein notes a growing style of nihilistic, fragmented narratives with disembodied narrators and formulaic narration, departing thus from the older romantic versions of war to deal with atrocity (Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5), contingency (Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow), absurdity (Heller’s Catch-22), moral ambiguity and paranoia. [37] It is to be said here that the author goes into considerable analytical detail of the most representative authors of the period, linking each to previous literary traditions, contemporary trends and cultural phenomena. At the end of the chapter Dickstein distinguishes Vietnam fiction, film and journalism from its World War II counterpart: "In the world we see here, patriotism is little more than the illusion that unhinges us, that seduces us toward destruction." [52]

Chapter 3 ("The New Fiction") looks more closely at the 1950s and the turning inward of American literary vision to "explore the existential dilemmas of selfhood" [53]. Novels of this period tend to deal with social upheaval and the disappearance of the wartime consensus culture; they deal with the conflicts of racial classes and the darker, ambiguous dimensions of American culture as illustrated in the popularity of the film noir and hard-boiled detective stories. Dickstein also addresses writers’ strong concerns with "victims and outsiders": Jewish writers moved from Depression stories to concerns with identity, morality and man’s place in the universe, "exploited workers and poor immigrants gave way to lonely salesmen, loveless clerks and long-suffering shopkeepers." [63] Dickstein here does an extensive analysis of the works of such authors as Chester B. Himes and Saul Bellow to show the transition of postwar writing emerging from newly articulate ethnic groups (Blacks and Jews) and the impact of the Holocaust on the literary trends of the 1950s. Finally, this period is also described as one of emerging gay voices, of which Truman Capote is a representative example and whose early works such as Other Voices Other Rooms are studied extensively in the second half of the chapter.

To discuss the importance of the road novel, the subject of Chapter 4 ("On and Off the Road: The Outsider as Young Rebel"), Dickstein returns to the late 1940s, which although he states "was hardly a stellar period in American fiction", was nevertheless "the testing ground for everything that happened in American writing for the next twenty years." [83] Central to the fiction that would be produced over the next two decades was "the prismatic figure of the outsider, the misfit, the madman or the primitive," who became in the 1960s "one of the great nay-saying figures in American culture." [84] In this the longest of the five chapters of his work, Dickstein takes the reader back to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Marlon Brando’s role in The Wild One to examine the seminal figures of the young rebel that influenced the evolution of the road novel (product, in fact, of the Depression and 1930s films and stories). Extensive attention is paid to Kerouac and Ginsberg as voices of revolt, and a significant part of the chapter is dedicated to Updike’s writing, as well as to the works of Nabokov and Barth. In fact this chapter is at the heart of Dickstein’s argumentative analysis of the 25-year period under scrutiny, in which he brilliantly brings together multiple facets of social, political and artistic trends into the one synthetic picture of American culture that the road novel incarnates.

The final chapter ("Apocalypse Now: A Literature of the Extremes") explores the apocalyptic mood of the fiction of the 1960s with the eruption of the themes of insanity, or the use of race as "the major metaphor of social identity in the postwar years." [145] Dickstein again studies Norman Mailer’s work in the 1950s and beyond to show how such themes shaped a new style. Most importantly, Dickstein points out how writers such as Mailer, along with Mary McCarthy and James Baldwin

did much to erode the lines dividing the novel from the essay. Together they helped make the essay a major literary form; first by importing fictional techniques, then by rescuing the essay from the whimsical voice of the eccentric gentleman […] and infusing it with a sense of personal immediacy and social crisis. [153]

As in the previous chapters, Dickstein devotes time to the most representative authors of the period, in particular the importance of the rise of ethnic minorities with the contributions of writers such as Ralph Ellison for example.

All in all, then, Dickstein paints a thorough picture of the American literary landscape between 1945 and 1970, meticulously analyzing major literary production with a critical eye combining an in-depth knowledge of American literary trends and the panoramic insight of the cultural historian. A reference book for scholars interested in any of the authors of the period examined and a pleasant read for all specialists of American studies.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.