Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Reading In A World Of Your Own

There's an article in Newsweek on "Baby Boomers and Books: A Love Affair." The author, Malcolm Jones, tries -- somewhat half-heartedly and unsuccessfully -- to clear the boomers of the charge of narcissism through their reading. Instead, he shows that the books most important to his circle of boomers were written and published during their lifetimes, were targeted to them in particular, and were disproportionately sappy and/or escapist.

The best literature written during the boomers' lifetimes, and which largely accidentally wound up shaping boomers' literary tastes, was neither written by nor for them. On the Road, Howl, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Catcher In The Rye -- all of these books were written by and for the generation of G.I.s, the young men (mostly) born in the teens and twenties who came of age in the forties and fifties, who fought for their country and came home to go to school, make art, fight for change, and create a world of sexual, social, and artistic freedom, sometimes in cities, sometimes in small groups, sometimes completely on their own.

The Kennedys were of the G.I. generation; so was Martin Luther King, Jr. (slightly too young for WWII), Thurgood Marshall (slightly too old), Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, Dick Leitsch and the other early organizers for gay rights, and virtually all of the other political figures we associate with the 1960s.

In literature, the GI generation includes Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright (a little long in the tooth with this group), Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Flannery O'Connor, Norman Mailer, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Elizabeth Bishop. In short, virtually every writer we associate with substantial achievement in postwar American literature. Even Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Sylvia Plath were born in the 1930s. Calling them boomers is like calling the Harlem Renaissance and young modernist generation GIs.

The only unifying cultural experiences for baby boomers, and in which they led the charge, were the anti-Vietnam movement, 1960s rock and roll, and 1970s cinema. There has been no substantial contribution of the baby boomers to art or literature on anywhere near the scale of the generation preceding them. The rest is narcissism and intrigue.


PoN said...

boomers SUCK!

Gavin said...

"There has been no substantial contribution of the baby boomers to art or literature on anywhere near the scale of the generation preceding them."

Wow, that sounds vaugely familliar.

Still, I think it may be worwhile to start answering the question of who the Boomer writers are, if only to demonstrate that there aren't many of consequence.

So who are the Boomer writers? Richard Ford? Edward P. Jones? Is it possible, in a counterintuitive sense, that the Boomers are still to young to have produced their great writer? After all, even most of the people who we consider our great "contemporary" writers—Roth, Morrison, Updike, Raymond Carver—were born in the 1930s. Are the young turks all Xers, or are there a few people who still might make their way into the pantheon from the "generation" born roughly between, say, 1945 and 1964?