Jay Sage: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Chat Wrap here on The Entertainment Bureau. Jared Feldman and I are in the midst of our decade-by-decade look at American entertainment culture. Today, we’ll be discussing the iconic literature of the 1950’s, a period that was defined by its post-World War II roots.
Jared Feldman: Literature really took a modern turn following the events of World War II, with authors willing to take chances they never would have dreamed of pre-war. Beat literature was really the hot style of the era.
Sage: True. Literature, especially popular fiction, often attempts to capture the essence of a time period. The work that survives typically performs this job the best. The depiction of the 1920s that most people hold in their minds is greatly affected by The Great Gatsby. Similarly, you can’t help yourself from thinking of Jack Kerouac and his timeless novel On the Road when you consider the 50s.
Feldman: Kerouac really epitomized the main talking points for the Beat Generation including a rejection of materialism, and a sort of nihilistic appeal for the existentialism of the world. Despite the apparent perfect world in the suburban fifties, writers like Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg were more in opposition, trying to expose what the world was like for those outside the mainstream.
Sage: It was indeed a reaction to a mainstream that had become more capitalistic and homogenized with the rise of the American suburb. The Beats began as a small unknown group of writers and artists who hung out in New York City bars and coffeehouses discussing their disillusionment with the “American Dream”. It was years later that their work began to get traction in California, and the term “beatnik” was coined as a derogatory. Another great beat novel, Naked Lunch, was penned by William Burroughs during this time period.
Feldman: Agreed, it was another interesting take on the situation at hand and received a good deal of acclaim, unfortunately Burroughs has frequently been pushed to the side when considering the beat generation because of an unfortunate accident where he killed Joan Vollmer attempted to recreate the deeds of the famed archer William Tell.
Sage: Burroughs was certainly a deeply disturbed man. He repeatedly kicked and relapsed into a lifelong narcotics addiction until his death in 1997. Much of Naked Lunch (the parts that people are capable of understanding anyway, it’s a very convoluted novel) deals with a dystopian future where junkies are at the very bottom of the totem pole in society. The symbolism is deftly handled, and of course the drug culture, along with sex and jazz were major thematic elements in the Beat writers’ search for the elusive “It”.
Feldman: When one considers the 1950s and literature, beat writing is the primary genre considered, but there was also a great deal of literature, pop and otherwise that emerged in that decade as well. JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was published a year after. In terms of more pop literature, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel Casino Royale was released in 1953 and J.R.R Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring found itself in stores in 1954.
Sage: I think I was the only high schooler to not identify even a little bit with Holden Caufield (phony!), but you can’t deny the influence that Catcher in the Rye had. For a better reading experience from Salinger, I recommend Franny and Zooey from 1957.
Feldman: Catcher in the Rye is one of the those books that was groundbreaking for its time, and an interesting look back into the teenage mind of the era. While some of those things still apply today, it was a bit “hammy” at times at least from a modern point of view.
Sage: Also, we’d like John Lennon back, Mr. Salinger. All jokes aside, it does stand as an American classic. A personal favorite is the Narnia series, which was began in 1950 by C.S. Lewis with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Feldman: An epic series to say the least, though it might be considered as a young adult read the first book in the series and a few of the subsequent sequels really put a charge into the modern fantasy genre.
Sage: Also, science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were very active in the 50s. Though it’s not my favorite genre, the horror of World War II along with the rise in technology therein gave way to some great concepts in the science fiction realm.
Feldman: I’m a big fan of Asimov’s short stories, mostly because he found a unique way to create an entire new world, with a real world connotation in only a few short pages. Though I enjoy Bradbury his message occasionally gets lost in the great world that he’s trying create and over explaining at certain points.
Sage: Another great writer of the time period was Vladimir Nabokov, whose most famous work Lolita was a salacious look at the intricacies of love, lust and attraction. In a modern context, the message has been unfortunately reduced to “Oh, the one about the perv?” but it really was a great novel. He’s also responsible for two of my other favorites, Pnin and Pale Fire.
Feldman: Lolita is probably one of those books that would have been better suited for the 1960’s, where the hippy counterculture might have better understood the message. At its time of release it was lambasted by critics not for its literary prowess but for its incredibly out there subject matter. Today it’s well regarded but isn’t quite as respected as it should be.
Sage: Of course, there’s quite an extensive tradition in America’s faux-Puritan culture of book burnings and the like. There aren’t many pieces of great literature that were never controversial.
Feldman: True and true indeed. I believe that’ll wrap it up for this edition of the EB’s Chat Wrap be sure to check back often for more news and insights on All Things Entertaining.