Near the end of this fine book, John Aldridge observes: “The history of the period from 1890, roughly, to 1940 might . . . have been the history of the disappearance of the novel as an art form in society. . . . Yet there has seldom if ever been a time when more novels of distinction as well as novels of more distinction have been produced or when writers have been more intent on exploiting and extending the possibilities of the novel as an art form.”
This statement, which might seem a contradiction, really falls in line with what we have come to accept as orthodox 20th-century literary history. The novel, as men had known it in the days of Dickens and Trollope, was produced in a world where men ardently believed that the triumph of justice and goodness depended primarily on the solicitude of just and good men; the form itself existed to facilitate the practice of these virtues. That confidence persisted through the 19th century. It receded from the minds of men between the time of Arnold and the end of World War I, when men first began to question and then to reject the view of nature underlying the traditional position.
In this intellectual climate, the novel went through two major transformations: one leading the novelist away from the dead world of society and shared values into one of private consciousness (Joyce, Conrad, and Woolf), the other turning away from the old morality toward the pronouncement of new attitudes of social protest and nihilistic rebellion (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos).
It is to this last group that Aldridge devotes roughly one-third of his book. The Lost Generation writers could not bring themselves to adopt the traditional stance of the novelist for the obvious reason that the values that had animated their literary ancestors did not impress them as real. They were determined, therefore, to smash idols, and smash they did. Even if their books had not been good, their ability to write in the very teeth of a hostile tradition would be reason enough to grant them our grudging respect. But what books they were! U.S.A., The Sun Also Rises, and The Great Gatsby were stunning achievements that moved a generation of young intellectuals in the 1920’s and 30’s and still move readers today, albeit in a different way.
Yet granting their talent, one must question whether the immediate effects of the Lost Generation were for the best. Perhaps more adeptly than any other group of revolutionary artists before them, they succeeded in destroying the assumptions that underlay their civilization, and in doing so left the next generation with nothing to believe in. Clearly they did their job too well, with effects that can be seen if we compare them with their successors. The young men who marched off to World War I did so idealistically chanting the phrases of Woodrow Wilson. Their youthful successors, weaned on A Farewell to Arms and Three Soldiers, approached the next war with the jaded attitude of aged prostitutes. Life with all its ideals was simply false, and all it could offer them was an early grave in war or a late grave in peace. Arguments for the superiority of democracy over totalitarianism did not interest them and do not appear in their postwar novels, except as the platitudes of hypocritical, self-serving officers.
To a disconcerting but perceptible degree, this cynicism emerges in Aldridge’s critical commentary. More than once he refers to the upper echelons of the Allied armies as Fascist, as if their opposition to Mussolini and Hitler was some hideous conspiracy. But Aldridge primarily focuses his criticisms on the hollowness of the Vidals, Mailers, Shaws, and Millers (only Vance Bourjailly escapes with sympathetic treatment). These writers were remarkably prolific and usually sold well. Yet something was missing. As Aldridge observes, their novels tend to be either insipid and hopelessly contrived exercises in myth and symbol (Frederick Buechner’s A Long Day’s Dying) or journalistic ventures masquerading as novels (Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead). Whatever they are, they are not literature—not in the older mode of the 19th century, since they lack moral perspective and since they display neither the revolutionary form nor the inner consistency that characterized the works of the Lost Generation. Beyond that, these authors present a cheap and trivial world beyond human endurance (even Hemingway, for my money the most cynical of the Lost Generation, could not be charged with that).
Originally published in 1951, After the Lost Generation remains worthwhile reading, with insights as fresh as the day they were made. One may not go along with all of Aldridge’s conclusions (though I found myself in agreement more often than not), but he will close this book with a clearer understanding of the deficiencies of the writers of the early 50’s, with the satisfaction of having encountered an acute and critical mind, and with the confidence that he needn’t waste his money on a group of authors who are not worth anyone’s time.
[After the Lost Generation, by John W. Aldridge (New York: Arbor House) $6.95]