United States Non-fiction Literature
Extremely alert and alert non-fiction follows, and sometimes anticipates and conditions, the various stages of this desperate search in many ways. And this on several levels.
The 1950s had seen the problem of the individual brought to the fore in a society massified by a super-industrial revolution. These are classics of sociological and socio-economic criticism well known also in Italy. We will remember The lonely crowd, from 1950 (trad. It., The solitary crowd, Bologna 1956) and Individualism reconsidered from 1964, by D. Riesman; Childhood and society, from 1950 (it., Childhood and society, Rome 1966), which will then be followed by Identity: Youth and crisis, from 1968 (it., Youth and identity crisis, Rome 1974), by E. Erikson; Hidden persuasers(New York 1957; transl. It., The occult persuaders, Turin 1958), by V. Packard; The affluent society (therein 1958; trans. It., The opulent society, Milan 1963), by K. Galbraith.
In the 1960s, the Canadian M. McLuhan introduces the theme of the relationship between information and knowledge that will dominate much of the debates of the time with exasperations – and sometimes even distortions – of his well-known and hallucinatory vision of the media as an extension of man and his possibility of perception of reality (Understanding media, Toronto 1964; trad. it., The tools of communication, Milan 1967; Culture is our business, therein 1970). As for the post-Marxist “prophecy” of H. Marcuse (v.), It and its direct or mediated influence in the political and ideal debate of the 1960s, also in Italy, had a specific season of popularity.
Moreover, there are many key books that seem to mark and almost indicate or summarize the most important movements of ideas of the last fifteen years: if T. Leary’s book, The politics of ecstasy (New York 1968) defined, more or less ambiguously, the intellectual and cultural boundaries of the psychedelic experience, is still a non-fiction book, the now classic The feminine mistique by B. Friedan (trans. it., La mystic of femininity, Milan 1964), with the later and more militant Sexual politics K. Millet (New York, 1970; trans. trans., the politics, Milano 1971) and the female eunuch G. Greer (the female eunuch, Milan 1972), to represent the point of reference and departure for the feminist movement.
Then there are the essays by J. Cage, Silence, A year from monday, New York 1961 (trad. It., Silenzio, Antologia da Silence and A year from monday, Milan 1971), himself a well-known exponent of the artistic avant-garde in various fields (music, dance, theater) to offer, among other things, a meeting point – less paradoxical than it appears – between technological culture and Zen spirit. At the same time, a peculiarly American cultural and literary experience, such as those of HD Thoreau, will be re-evaluated and reused.
But think especially in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (posthumous, 1965; trans. Trans., The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Torino 1967), which became the world, lit by the tragedy of the leading Negro said Malcolm Little Malcolm X, the manifesto of Black power, to fully grasp the solidity of the bond that links, in recent years, the world of ideas and the form of its expression to that of action and cultural and political debate. The meaning of literature in recent years, therefore, cannot fail to coincide, also for this reason (that is, that of the effectiveness and rapidity of the dissemination of the ideas expressed also by the printed media as well as the consequent and relative game of editorial interests that determines it or accompanies), largely with non-fiction. It is no coincidence that the essay by one of the best-known authors of this period, N. Mailer’s White negro, appeared in Advertisement for myself (New York 1959; trans. It., Advertisement for myself, Milan 1962), with its hero of the American night, seems to be able to be taken as a focal point of “transition” between the fifties and the sixties.
Naturally, the most strictly critical non-fiction is the field in which the complex game of mirrors between creative literature and reflection on it, between ideological source and critical gloss, which seems to us so peculiarly characterize the period we are dealing with, is most manifested. What distinguishes, in the variety of addresses, this critical literature from that which preceded it, is above all the precise, militant attention to the cultural themes of the moment and the collocation, if not the identification, of the literary fact in this context. ‘scope. This approach, replacing that of the enduring and authoritative tradition of New criticism, does not remain without consequences in the field of American letters.
The myth, therefore, or the illusion, or the mystification of this critical militancy – depending on the point of view from which the battle will be considered – is that of a neo-avant-garde considered as an even ideological response to the crisis of values in American society.. On the one hand, the postulation of the death of literature and criticism and the affirmation – or rhetoric – of the literature of silence, on the other hand, the opposition of the “new” literary “sensitivity to the imperialism of the hyper-rationality of the entire Western artistic tradition “.
The very term “new sensibility” is, indeed, the invention of S. Sontag, one of the most effective critics and with the years (Against interpretation and other essays, New York 1967; trans. Trans., Against Interpretation, Milan 1967), while “The literature of silence” gives its title to another influential critical book (I. Hassan, The literature of silence, New York 1967), and R. Poirer, former director of Partisan review, has instead suggested, as an alternative to a humanistic critique, the use of modules for verifying more or less objectivizable models of performance or performance, both literary and political, of individual authors (The performing self, New York 1971). It has been said that this highly informed, militant and intelligent criticism is also influential, indeed extremely influential.
It is not so easy to discern whether an essay like The Illiberal Imagination by R. Scholes, based on non-structurability and non-rationalizability, and therefore on the non-narrability of the present, limits itself to critically supporting the narrative relativism of a J. Barth or of a K. Vonnegut or becomes in some way an ideological source of this type of literature which renounces the omniscence of the narrator of tradition; or how much, on the other hand, Barth or T. Pynchon himself owe to Poirier’s concept of playful literature.
At this point it also becomes necessary, as well as being quite obvious, to take note of the echoes – or convergences – of many European trends or fashions, from the structuralism of C. Lévi-Strauss to the phenomenology of Heidegger, to the contributions of linguistics and psycholinguistics, from semiotics of R. Barthes to the criticism of the negativity of M. Blanchot, up to the anti-Balzacian echoes of Robbe-Grillet. However, in the USA it happens that the belief and insistence on the meaning of the futility of literary culture, on the rhetoric of the end, underlies what has rightly been called “the ambiguous radicalism of today’s American counterculture”. For this same fact they take on an entirely different significance in the cultural history of the 1960s and early 1970s,
Finally, the vitality of American critical literature in recent years is also represented in many other ways: if the whimsical critical militancy of L. Fiedler partially falls within the lines described above, the literary chronicle of an A. Kazin polemically opposes it. Nor can the importance of academic criticism be totally underestimated (just as the importance of the various university centers in the attitude, formation and explosion of important cultural and political movements cannot be underestimated). It is valid for everyone to name, even as exponents of the historical-cultural school of American studies, H. Nash Smith and L. Marx.
The critic who more than any other had followed and directed forty years of American literary life died in these years: E. Wilson (v.).
The poem. – Even in poetry the 1940s had cast on the following decade the shadow of the “restrictions of benevolent tyranny” of the New Criticism and of the presence of Eliot and Pound (especially in his imagist version). This presence, with and through W. Stevens and H. Crane, was reflected in the erudite, formal and compressed poetry of very different poets such as T. Roethke and R. Eberhart, K. Shapiro and S. Kunitz, R. Jarrell and R. Lowell or R. Wilbur. All of this had been especially noticeable on a linguistic level. It is still at the linguistic level that the first new sign of the poetry of the Sixties must certainly be grasped.
New – or old – indigenous sources are rediscovered, from W. Whitman to C. Sandburg, from the Pound of Cantos to WC Williams, and with them the idiomatic, immediate, discontinuous of that “hoarse American language” of the newspaper not transferred into poetic language with a simple naturalistic operation, but filtered through the complex mediation and historical elaboration of a cultural myth.
This exquisitely formal (or anti-formal, if you prefer) sign is flanked by ideological signs from the former which are anything but separate and distinct. In the first place, even in chronological terms, it is the search for a more genuinely historical dimension of consciousness which also finds expression in the punctuality of an almost stubborn reference to the current one (so much so that it has been observed that some poems born from the Vietnam War cannot already today read without footnotes). On the other hand, in apparent contradiction to this type of research, we tend to see poetry as an internal correlative of that intact and virgin continent that has so long dominated the American imagination. The “open” forms of this poem, these “new frontiers”,
Finally, the attempt to place the last resort of another American historical and literary myth in poetry and its own formal experimentation: that of a democracy in “celebrated and permanent revolution”. Not too paradoxically the same sources seem to feed apparently different researches. It will be Whitman, and his robust poetic inclusiveness to provide the key to poetry open to historical circumstances as well as to the compensatory poetry of a freedom and innocence – even spatial – now lost.
WC Williams, an influence so important in the poetry of the Sixties that it sometimes came against all disavowed evidence (see the case of L. Ferlinghetti), provides almost obsessive models of poetic diction and the pattern, also widely repeated, of linguistic collage, historical and cultural. His Paterson, moreover, is a poem not in the American language, but on theAmerican language, and another of his short poems provides the most complete metaphorical representation of a certain vision of American poetry of the Sixties: a poem that continually flourishes from its own failures just like the flower whose formal model takes effect when it undresses of its own petals. And through the metaphor, in fact, poetry also becomes a correlative of democracy in permanent revolution.
However, the indication of trends does not exempt, as will be seen, from further distinctions. The exceptionality, drama and variety of the contradictions that exploded in America in the Sixties directly affect the poetic research of those years which recorded continuous second thoughts, retreats, frustrations and renunciations, and nourished by these, no less than positive achievements.
It will suffice to think – at an extremely simple level – how the use of the “raucous everyday idiom”, which seems a generalized constant, is directly undermined by the semantic distortion operated by the public use of certain words through the mass media and as the poet can only be aware of it (“Language – wrote D. Levertov – they erode you as war erodes us”). Or it will suffice to think how the attempt at poetic internalization of historical processes has often clashed with an irresistible temptation to set aside historical memory as unsustainable at the level of individual conscience, to understand how – especially during and after the Vietnam War (” the war did not end for us even when peace was declared ”
It will therefore no longer be so easily reliable – in the poetry of these years – the now famous distinction of P. Roth of “pale faces” and “redskins” (in turn following the Apollonian and Dionysian Nietzschean) or, on the formal level, that of R. Lowell between “raw” and “cooked” verse, or Ferlinghetti between poetry of the ivory tower and poetry of the street. In fact, the mutations of taste that follow or accompany a crisis of collective consciousness of an entity never registered before, allow only in broad outline a distinction between schools and poetic tendencies. Within each group and each school, alongside the inevitable differentiation determined by individual talents, further differences, evolutions and involutions must be implied to be grasped at a chronological level.
All this variety finds a good representation, even historical, in the anthologies that had great merits in the poetic culture of the time. The now famous The New American Poetry by D. Allen (New York 1960) stands as a sort of manifesto of “open poetry” (from C. Olson to the Dominican Brother Antoninus, from R. Duncan to D. Levertov, R. Creeley or A. Ginsberg), somehow breaking with everything that had been anthologized up to that point. More eclectic are the anthologies from the late 1960s (such as Naked poetry by S. Berg and R. Mezey from 1969, or Possibilities of poetryby R. Kostelanetz of 1970). They make room, without particular taste discrimination, for the various schools that have gradually established themselves: the Black Mountain group with Olson and Creeley, the New York group with J. Ashbery and K. Koch, the Beats by Ginsberg and Corso, or the so-called “San Francisco Renaissance” school by R. Duncan and L. Ferlinghetti. With the same catholicity of choice these anthologies, in fact, also document and codify the numerous exchanges that took place between the various groups.
Let’s start with the first, in chronological order, of these schools, that is the one grouped around Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the magazine of the same name published there. The group has its own precise historical location which coincides precisely with D. Allen’s anthology of 1960 in which C. Olson’s essay-manifesto reappears (Projective verse), together rector of the Experimental College from 1951 to 1956 and central figure of the group. With this publication what had been produced and expressed in the quite exceptional climate of a group of creative talents (which alongside poets such as the aforementioned Duncan and Creeley, sees musicians such as J. Cage or D. Tudor, choreographers such as M. Cunningham, architects like Buckminster Fuller), since the early 1950s, emerged from the semi-clandestine nature of private and limited editions to acquire national weight and reach.
Projective verse, in apparent contrast with the highly refined literary and cultural baggage of its author and his followers, postulated in a provocatively red style the “form as pure extension of the content” and, above all, the technical necessity for the poet to recover – a metric and rhythmic level – “the full power of the human voice”. Olson’s was certainly seminal work, whose influence is not limited to the group that worked with Olson at Black Mountain or to the poets, who were already very different themselves, who joined it from the outside, such as D. Levertov or P. Blackburn, but it extends far beyond motivating a very wide range of formal and stylistic researches.
The same Beat group of J. Kerouac, A. Ginsberg, G. Corso and W. Burroughs that was born in New York and then moved, at first occasionally and then more permanently, to San Francisco, began to publish their versions in the Black Mountain Review of “open style” using the same poetic sources (from Whitman to Williams) and to express the sense of an experience quite distinct from that of Olson and his parents, in which sex, violence and drugs dominate. Indeed, it seems paradoxical that the poet beatUsing obscene and blasphemous language as necessary for his own revolt, he thus recovered the rhetoric he had thought to undress with his choice of poetic diction. In truth, some subsequent mystical or ecological escapes of the beats might have already been able to grasp the ideology of this formal choice. Towards the end of the 1950s the cultural and geographical crossroads of the many forms of “open poetry” thus became, it has been said, San Francisco. The sheets and magazines that are published there, its small publishing houses (City Light Booksm Corinth, Jargon, Tiber, Totem, Auerha, etc.) together with the most well-known and solid publishing houses of the East, such as Grove Press or New Directions,
In a mixture of new bohemia and anti-academic manifesto, what will be called the San Francisco Renaissance develops and takes place. Brother Antoninus will be part of it in his personal and incandescent synthesis of W. Whitman and GM Hopkins, many of the beat poets, and above all R. Duncan and L. Ferlinghetti. The first, associated, as we have seen, with the Black Mountain group, uses a wide range of different cultural experiences, in particular musical (Strawinsky, Schönberg or Satie) and mythical-fable in a poem that, despite the theoretical adhesion in the “projective direction”, it remains extremely controlled, dense and sometimes manneristic. As for the second, it is in his bookshop and around his publishing house (City Light) that the most important poetic phenomena emerge.
Ferlinghetti’s poetry accentuates and enhances those “oral” qualities of poetry that American literature had, sometimes in vain, pursued as a distinctive and autochthonous element in the last twenty years (especially in WC Williams), bending them to the vivid, satirical and vehement expression of a precise political and cultural commitment, of the anger and impotence that sometimes accompanies it. However, the emergence of the attraction pole on the west coast does not completely overshadow the great centers of the East, traditionally the heart of the American artistic avant-garde and, in particular, New York. Three young Harvardians, K. Koch, F. O’Hara and J. Ashbery, will converge in New York to give life to a different experience of “open poetry”, an experience that does not prescind from the surrealist contribution.
Ironic, desecrating, hyper-refined, the poetry of the New York group is consciously placed in a more exquisitely cosmopolitan context and area than those in which the other groups we have mentioned move and with which also contacts and exchanges over the years they have been many.
These are the three groups that best seemed to embody the image of poetry in recent years. Alongside them, some poets who – even in their later works – continue with excellence a tradition of formalism quite close to the experiences of the 1950s. For example, D. Schwartz, editor of Partisan Review, died in 1966, leaving in the American literary world the regret for the disappearance of a great poetic personality that never seemed fully expressed, and the vivid memory of a desperate and disturbing human personality.. In addition to Summer Knowledge of 1959, remains in testimoniarcelo a beautiful anthology of criticism published posthumously, in 1970, Selected Essays of D. Schwartz.
The personality of another poet who died in recent years, R. Jarrell, with his The woman at the Washington zoo in 1960 and The lost world in 1965, is less controversial but still noteworthy. by Jarrell (Complete poems, New York 1970) which very well epitomizes a whole poetic era, precisely the one represented by a famous anthological collection edited by Jarrell himself in the 1950s, with the significant title of Poetry and the age (New York 1953; trans. it., The poetry of an era, Parma 1956).
Finally, in 1963 T. Roethke, poet of the “joyful condition” and “pure desperation”, with a tortured sensitivity, disappears. The difficult and romantic relationship between the self and the world is expressed by Roethke in the form of interior monologues, well inserted in the American tradition, with the help of an elliptical, colloquial diction, full of echoes and verbal associations and cultural and a vivid capacity for irony and humor. The far field, the poetry collection that came out in 1964, well represents the last phase of Roethke’s poetic work.
Finally, and for various reasons, we have left R. Lowell, the most complex and complete, without any doubt and by general acclamation, post-war poetic personality, who passed away, still relatively young, in 1977. In recent years, since 1960 of the beautiful Life studies onwards, Lowell’s “manner” and his own poetic contents change in a rather remarkable form. From the cultured, complexly structured versification of Land of unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s castle(1946), we pass to a flat poetic diction, almost prosastic and yet subtly controlled in its calmness. From the tormented and dark hope of contemporary redemption to the equally tormented conversion to Catholicism, to the both real and metaphorical introduction of the anguish of mental illness in her “confession” poem., An introduction that somehow manages to be itself. calm. Of this same poetic language, which reaches the essentiality of its clarity through a very rare formal elaboration, Lowell will use to face and even groped to organize and emotionally dominate the chaos and the political and moral senselessness of the contemporary, from the Vietnam War. to the tough racial riots in Newark, from the deaths of Che Guevara, ML King, R. Kennedy to the French May. It will be enough to nameFor the union dead (1964), Near the Ocean of 1967, and that Notebook: 1967 – 68 (1969) model of the so-called “confessional poetry” of the sixties and seventies.