In post–World War II America, literature revealed the nation’s attitudes about patriotism, race, gender, and ecology.
“In the 1940s,” Hutchinson (American Culture/Cornell Univ.; In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, 2006, etc.) writes, “literature mattered.” His capacious, informative cultural history amply supports that declaration: writers, he adds, “were celebrities” whose works were widely read and whose ideas were discussed on the radio and in newspapers and magazines. Book publishing thrived, fueled by demand, not least among returning soldiers, who had hungrily devoured free books published under the auspices of the Armed Services Editions. Public libraries and the proliferation of inexpensive paperbacks made books available to a huge reading public. Colleges began creative writing programs, and New Criticism came to dominate English department offerings. Hutchinson attentively examines works by a pantheon of writers, some of whom have become canonical (Carson McCullers, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wright), some enjoying popular contemporary acclaim (Irwin Shaw, Jo Sinclair, Howard Fast); he also draws on influential literary critics, such as Lionel Trilling; memoirists, such as Alfred Kazin; and historians. Hutchinson appears to have read everything written during the prolific decade. Among the themes that recurred in 1940s literature was the war itself, where a “sense of separation, of loneliness and unreality, surfaces over and over again, in accounts of both the battlefront and the home front.” Writers expressed disillusionment about what they were fighting for, hatred toward their officers, and fear of being ground up “in the maw of history.” Hutchinson devotes chapters to Jewish and African-American writers who negotiated the relationship among ethnic, religious, and racial identity “and the ideal of universality or a planetary humanism” that arose after the horror of the war. Einstein notably suggested that “the only solution for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government.” Planetary humanism, however, was undermined by pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny.
A richly detailed investigation of burgeoning creativity in a decade marked by both hope and dread.