Introduction to After the Lost Generation

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By Norman Mailer[1]

Two Jewish grandmothers meet at a street corner. One is proudly pushing a carriage; the other exclaims, “What a beautiful granddaughter you got!”

“That’s nothing,” says the first old lady. “Wait till I show you her picture!”

To be Jewish is to be excised from one’s roots. So there is real need of documentary evidence to certify one is what one is supposed to be. The record becomes more vital than one’s breath.

Now, given the modern condition, where only a lucky man or woman can find his old street corner looking the way it did in childhood, we are all Jews to a degree. We are three-quarters amputated from the past and live in dread of the future. Acts of definition obsess us. The twentieth century may yet be seen by later philosophers — if we have any — as that intellectual era when the passion was not so much to find answers to questions as to assign names to the aspects of problems.

While John Aldridge did a great deal more than assign terms in this work, After the Lost Generation, first published in 1951, he most certainly also gave to the authors he wrote about, a cohesive sense of identity that was most useful. It is enriching to the marrow, I suspect, to feel that one is not only a talented, lonely, mixed-up, beleaguered, near genius of an unworthy (which is, of course, the inner landscape of many a young writer), but that one is also part of a literary phenomenon and has even been defined, has been entered onto the formal lists of literary endeavor. One has thereby been given the only sense of peerage one is ever going to get. (For we fail to remember quickly enough that young writers, seeing themselves as nature’s aristocrats, are helped immensely by a Register, even if one rails against its judgements.) Indeed, I wonder if it has not been a great loss in well-deserved literary status to such exciting writers of the sixties as Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Harry Crews, Tom McGuane, Stanley Elkin, John Gardner, Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison, and Thomas Pynchon; or to Jayne Anne Phillips, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver and Jerome Charyn of the seventies, that neither group has ever been given a collective comparative work by a critic of Aldridge’s stature. The painful but crucial certification never came for them as a group. There was no one to understand their special problems as a literary generation. On the consequence, they have, to that degree, been deprived of recognition and insight.

Aldridge defined the special dilemma confronting my generation — no small feat for the young critic he was then. After the Lost Generation not only analyzed our period and the difficulties that were there to confront a would-be powerful literature, but he also showed uncanny insight into our working problems, our near-to-insuperable working problems.

While Jack Aldridge was, of course, quite a martinet to suffer in our young day — once in pain and exasperation I wrote to him, Why don’t you stop acting like a literary General MacArthur on his high and lonely peak? — that was because one had to read his remarks about oneself with a sinking heart. He showed the literary critic’s most indispensable first gift: authority. It was usually awful what he said, but right. His sentences landed on one’s mind with the immaculate aplomb of a bird picking its touchdown on the rocks. Worse, Aldridge was the nearest guideline to absolute truth that the working novelist had in my young days. I wonder if there was ever a critic who understood any better the roots of the problems that beset the novelist of his own generations. So I give him this accolade: what finer compliment can a novelist offer a literary critic than that he thinks and reacts and understands one’s working difficulties like a novelist — which is to say he perceives our writing problems from within our creative box rather than outside it; yes, on rereading After the Lost Generation, it is amazing how much Aldridge knew about novel writing before he turned thirty.

In addition, he had an instinct for the dilemma confronting each literary enclave that staked out its claim after the First World War and after the Second. (Indeed, how many enclaves there were!) His nose for the operative paradox besetting each literary purlieu was as true, as sensitive, and usually as dependable in his hands as a matter with a dowsing rod. I cannot forbear from giving a few fair examples:

{{cquote|The code which The New Yorker teaches its writers is evident in everything they write . . . . It depends for its existence upon a view of the world as a vast cocktail party where the very best people say the most frightening things about themselves and one another in a language which the servants are not expected to understand.}

On Capote in Other Voices, Other Rooms, on Carl Frederik Buechner in A Long Day’s Dying, and on John Horne Burns’s Lucifer with a Book:

Although he never mentions it, Aldridge did write this precocious work (Precocious, for certain, in general soundness of its judgments) while under the shadow — as were all of us — of the Holocaust. That shadow has stayed with us. If lives today in our fear of nuclear war as if the latter is like another chapter of the same horrific novel. Sometimes I think this fear has offered a damage that is an order of magnitude greater than the shock of literary sensibilities that dame from the decimation of millions of solders in World War I. For if we look back to 1940 or 1941, we were, in America, a particularly carefree generation of college sophomores. We were — I quote from Aldridge’s preface — “still able to think about tomorrow as if it were absolutely sure to come. There was no war then, at least not for my friends and me, but the excitement of war was everywhere; and it gave a special brightness and clarity to all that we saw, did, and thought . . . . I remember that there was nothing quite like the taste of the black coffee that we drank in the late nights and early morning of that time, or the green of the trees in the summers, particularly when we had gone for days without sleep, or the sadness of the leaves blowing over the streets in the falls, particularly when we had been reading Thomas Wolfe . . . .”

That was the generation that would encounter the terrifying ghosts of World War II — more demoralizing to us by far that the ghosts that pursued English youth after World War I, even as apathy and absurdity are, upon consideration, vastly more terrifying (because more stultifying) than disillusion. We came out of that second war a secretly stunned and intimately paralyzed generation, but we hardly knew it, for only the inner core of our intellect was affected; that private of the self is not always available to us. What was wrong was more abstract and more of a mystery than death itself. I think it still is. Who among us can comprehend our present time with its smog, its dull architectural monstrosities, its mediocre political figures, its information glut, and each government’s endless exploration into more cosmic destruction? We know less than ever of why we do it to ourselves. So it has been a hell of a way to write these last forty years, but Aldridge, with his fine, even unrelenting sense of clarity, has been one of the few lights on the route through the interminable swamp. Thus, it now gives me real pleasure to come upon the abundance of his literary and social insights in the pages of this book. How nice that they still prove so valuable a third of a century later.

Citation

  1. From Aldridge, John W. (1985) [1951]. After The Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars. New York: Arbor House. Reprinted by Project Mailer with permission of the estate of Norman Mailer. (85.14) Thanks to the word processing skills of Jean Parker.