Original images, from left: Jerome Myers, ‘Old House on 29th St. East of 3rd Ave. N.Y.,’ undated; Adelaide Morris, ‘3:00 a.m.,’ undated; John R. Grabach, ‘The Lone House (The Empty House),’ circa 1929; Richard Sargent, ‘Red House,’ undatedSMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

An American Antidote to Rage

The most urgent writers of today are Ralph Ellison, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, and Elizabeth Bishop

David Mikics
July 27, 2022
Original images, from left: Jerome Myers, ‘Old House on 29th St. East of 3rd Ave. N.Y.,’ undated; Adelaide Morris, ‘3:00 a.m.,’ undated; John R. Grabach, ‘The Lone House (The Empty House),’ circa 1929; Richard Sargent, ‘Red House,’ undatedSMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM

“The information isn’t frozen, you are,” Michael Herr said in Dispatches, maybe the best book about the Vietnam War. Fifty years later, information keeps streaming through us, at a higher and higher velocity, and we are frozen. Our best writers can unfreeze us. They override the notion that we’re helpless, and sometimes they do it paradoxically, by depicting people who are paralyzed and stuck. In this final installment of my American literature series, I will focus on a few post-World War II writers who tell us about our information-addled, alienated selves, and assess the chances of finding refuge: Ralph Ellison, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, and Elizabeth Bishop.

The harbinger novel of post-World War II America is Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952. Riffing on the familiar Balzacian story of a young man from the provinces who arrives in Paris to find his fortune, Ellison brings his nameless hero from the Deep South to New York, where he is thrown into the cauldron of left-wing politics: Ellison’s Brotherhood was a dead-on satire of the Communist Party, to which he had been briefly sympathetic.

Every reader notices Ellison’s relish for jazz, African American folklore, and preacherly rhetoric, but these aspects of Black life are not sufficient to lend the invisible man substance. Both white and Black people project onto him whatever they want, and so he remains unseen. He ducks down a manhole to avoid a Harlem race riot spurred by a fire-breathing radical named Ras the Exhorter, and secures a basement lair illuminated by 1,369 electric lightbulbs (the number is the square of 37, Ellison’s age when he wrote the novel).

Unlike his precursors—Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, and Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas—the invisible man is never cruel. Starting out as a naive youth, he learns a secretive cunning that is barely noticed by his adversaries. Jack the Bear, he calls himself, down in the brightly lit basement, as he smokes reefer and listens to Louis Armstrong. The famous last line of Invisible Man suggests that Ellison’s hero has an ineluctable meaning for white as well as Black Americans: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Soon, Ellison implied, we will all be underground, attuned and wary in our Kafkaesque burrow.

Four years before the publication of Invisible Man, in an essay called “Harlem is Nowhere,” Ellison wrote, “Significantly, in Harlem the reply to the greeting, ‘How are you?’ is often, ‘Oh, man, I’m nowhere.’” Ellison added, “Calm in the face of the unreality of Negro life has become increasingly difficult.” With Invisible Man Ellison depicted a hero who is nowhere, adrift in a world where authority is meaningless.

Like Ellison, and like Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, her equals as reporter-prophets of the ’60s, Joan Didion was a chronicler of alienation and the loss of social bonds. In her prime—her first two essay collections, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album—Didion was a sensitive-antennaed student of anomie. Didion’s acerbic restraint later became mannered and her early skepticism toward all political pieties mutated into a dutiful recital of left-leaning platitudes. But that doesn’t matter. Her books from the ’60s are still definitive.

Conservative by nature, Didion was hard on her era—witness her devastating piece on Haight Ashbury, where she interviews a 5-year-old who is being fed LSD. Didion said of the hippies, “They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.” The dropout culture, Didion judged, was a dangerous limbo devoid of morals or insight.

The road back from the aimless ’60s vortex, Didion thought, required self-respect, that old-fashioned virtue: “People with self-respect display a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character.” “They may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds,” she added. Yet it was impossible in the end for Didion to tell the difference between the self-respecting tough guy she aspired to be and the seemingly crazy isolato she feared she was. Her early novel Play It as It Lays, whose title carries along her favorite gambling metaphor, features a lone woman who drives the freeway aimlessly, shellshocked by the abortion a man has pressured her into:

She bought a silver vinyl dress, and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it.

Play It as it Lays is one of the signal postwar American books about alienation, along with John Barth’s The End of the Road, Don DeLillo’s The Names, John Cheever’s Falconer, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—and, in theater, Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, and David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo. All these differ from the French existential novel, since their heroes are neither brave nor despairing, just blank, and they are guilty of all the damage they do to others.

The alienated hero is a different species from the person to whom attention must be paid. The latter is usually a man out of his time, clinging to old-fashioned decency and threatened by youthful havoc. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, our last great novelists of personality, specialized in such characters—people who stand for something, defying their era’s vulgarity and its scorn for the staid virtues. Nabokov in Lolita gave this clash of generations an acid-sharp spin. His hero, Humbert Humbert, is a monstrous rapist who yet elicits our sympathy, letting us enjoy his gibes at youth cult ’50s America, embodied in the 12-year-old girl who has—so he laments—destroyed him. Nabokov dared to seduce and repulse the reader at the same time, a feat unequaled in any other American novel.

Unlike Roth and Bellow, Thomas Pynchon has never made a case for the privileges of decency, except in that amiable buck and wing act, Mason & Dixon, his fond pastoral tribute to 18th-century America. Pynchon is cold and savage in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the paranoid epic that cemented his fame. The novel largely revolves around the American serviceman Tyrone Slothrop, who is less a character than a focal point for Them, the myriad-tentacled intelligence agencies that exploit him relentlessly when they discover that his erections during the London Blitz align precisely with the trajectories of the Nazis’ V-2 rockets. This is Pynchon’s joke, but also a serious reflection on the Faustian spirit, the demon of information-as-power transmitted from Europe to America, whose tendrils are advancing faster than ever in the age of Zuckerberg, making Gravity’s Rainbow seem alarmingly up to date.

Slothrop, like his creator Pynchon, descends from a colonial-era Puritan theologian who wrote a heretical pamphlet about salvation. Pynchon speaks of “a Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia, filtering in.” We anxiously overread signs to see whether we are damned or saved, the difference between the two states being more marginal the more paranoid we become.

Recalling his church-going New England past—before he went to Harvard, where he was a classmate of “that Jack Kennedy,” and bought rubbers from Red Little, later Malcolm X, in a Roxbury men’s room—Slothrop pictures the “slender church steeples poised all up and down these autumn hillsides” like “white rockets about to fire, only seconds of countdown away, rose windows taking in Sunday light, elevating and washing the faces above the pulpits defining grace, swearing this is how it does happen—yes the great bright hand reaching out of the cloud ...

Pynchon’s dorm room stoner humor can wear thin, and Gravity’s Rainbow sometimes feels tiresome rather than magnificent, with the author flogging one roll-your-own vaudeville number after another. Pynchon’s epic differs from Ulysses, its most obvious model, because there is no one for the reader to identify with, no rumpled and appealing Leopold Bloom. But in its most stunning moments it overwhelms you like Melville’s inexorable sea, or like one of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, often alluded to by Pynchon. “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich,” Rilke wrote—every angel is terrifying. Pynchon, as Laurie Anderson put it, is gravity’s angel.

Pynchon took evil seriously, seeing it writ large in the systems that manipulate all of us. Flannery O’Connor, a fervent Catholic, detected evil in the corrupt heart of humanity—the stubborn spiteful impetus that makes us destroy one another, which she often plays for laughs in her stories, sneakily hiding the urgency of this spiritual matter beneath the rapacious pleasures of her satire.

The devil himself makes a cameo appearance in O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away. The 14-year-old Tarwater, one of O’Connor’s bitter, futile rebels, drowns a mentally disabled child as a sort of antinomian baptism. Tarwater tells the truck driver who picks him up hitchhiking that he drowned a boy, and the truck driver responds, reasonably enough, “Just one?” He then hitches his next ride from the devil, a thin-lipped man with violet eyes and a Panama hat, who proceeds to rape poor Tarwater. O’Connor’s young hero sets out for the city at the novel’s end, intent on preaching his grand refusal of everything pious:

His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.

Possibly Tarwater will be martyred by an angry mob, but more likely he will drop into some lonely hell, ignored by all. Having no hideout like the invisible man’s, and neither showing nor receiving any mercy, he is forever exposed, a raving child in the desert, “that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.”

The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who is teasing, direct and cryptic all at once, dares to hope for shelter against the destructive elements that surround us. About “The Unbeliever,” she writes, “He sleeps at the top of a mast / with his eyes fast closed.” (Melville noted that atop a whaler’s masthead, a hundred feet above the deck, “everything resolves you into languor.”) 

In “The End of March” Bishop describes a walk she took with friends on a cold New England beach. Her goal is a decrepit cabin:

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
My crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
Set up on pilings, shingled green ...
I’d like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

This ramshackle dream house offers a perfect loneliness fit for Robinson Crusoe (the subject of her “Crusoe in England”), but she cannot live there. The prospect remains faraway and unreal. Bishop pictures herself in the house lighting her nightly grog, making “a diaphanous blue flame,” but then admits she has created a mere fantasy: “A light to read by—perfect! But—impossible.”

Bishop wrestled with alcoholism and with the death by suicide of her companion Lota Macedo de Soares. She composed her poems slowly—one short lyric might take years—because every nuance counted.

By the 1970s everyone knew Bishop was a gay woman, but she laughed derisively when students asked her if she was a feminist. She did, though, ruthlessly attack male bravado in her “Roosters,” composed during the Battle of Britain:

the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries

“Cruel” becomes a two-syllable word in Bishop’s meter: CRU-el, a steel-hard condemnation of the masculine ethos that rides high in her mindless, intransigent roosters.

Bishop refused to let her poems appear in women-only anthologies, but she wrote one of the most telling poems ever about gender identity, “In the Waiting Room.” The 7-year-old autobiographical protagonist, glancing at the “awful hanging breasts” of tribal women in National Geographic, realizes with shock that “you are an I, / You are an Elizabeth, / You are one of them.” Growing up is a quiet horror story in Bishop, and so she often imagines a dreamlike space where she might escape adult pressures, a secretive private island.

Bishop was our best poet after modernism, the one whose verse was designed to last forever, whose lines haunt the mind and reward endless rereading. She keeps building her dream houses, even while knowing how precarious they are, like the solitary perch on top of a mast.

If literature can teach anything, it is patience and conviction. We mostly have neither. We lash out violently, apocalyptic and urgent, with our enemies’ lists in hand. The days of rage have returned, both on the right and the left. To weather these tantrums, we should turn back to the writers who oppose the infantile fervor of groupthink—who acknowledge the lostness of the self in the world, the first step to declaring independence.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.