Examination of the mid-20th-century novels that reenergized the Democratic Party’s staid image.
Surveying a range of works including Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Joan Didion’s Democracy, Szalay (English/Univ. of California, Irvine; New Deal Modernism, 2000) posits that “selling hip to white consumers involved selling them the fantasy that consumption could turn them black—but only for as long as they wished to be.” Faced with mass defection from Southern conservatives opposed to civil rights and New Deal social programs, the Democratic Party rebranded itself as the arbiter of a culturally savvy neoliberalism that promised its supporters both personal independence and social justice. Unfortunately, white liberal authors often held conflicted views of African-Americans, idolizing them as “authentic” hipsters, while fearing their growing power to displace white hegemony. Szalay painstakingly delineates the contradictions inherent in books like William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, written from the perspective of a slave leading a revolt. In 1968, Styron’s book simultaneously won the Pulitzer Prize and prompted an outpouring of criticism. Rabble-rouser Norman Mailer also received his share of criticism and adulation for his essay “The White Negro,” which cemented the Beat-era image of African-Americans as heroic prototypes to be held at arm’s length, worshiped for their musical prowess and allegedly innate sense of “cool.” Angst-ridden white middle-class authors like John Updike and E.L. Doctorow plunged headfirst into the melee, often by grossly caricaturing African-American males on behalf of their own liberation. In his best chapters, Szalay addresses Ralph Ellison’s complex take on civil rights in his posthumous Three Days Before the Shooting…, and Joan Didion’s typically ambivalent and glacial response to the Democratic Party’s shifting alliances.
A persuasively argued, though dense and occasionally pedantic treatise—will appeal to students of literature and liberal politics.