Monday, July 21, 2008

how truly "neat" could it be?

For the blockbuster special Esquire issue on the 1950s (June 1983), Frank Conroy contributed a piece called "America in a Trance." Here is a passage:

The Beats were just beginning, Kerouac, et al., and we greeted them with a certain amount of suspicion, convinced that art was not that easy. Our standards were rather high, I think. The New Critics had filled us with an almost religious awe of language. We read Leavis, Edmund Wilson, and Eliot as well, taking it all very seriously, worrying over every little point as if Truth and Beauty hung in the balance. The conservatism that colored so much of our experience did not evaporate when we dealt with literature. We defended literary art as if it were a castle under siege, in imminent danger of being destroyed by the vulgarians. In every college or university I knew anything about the most hated course was Social Science, as much a result of the incredibly rotten prose of the text as it was of our disinterest in things social.... We were neat, very neat, and sloppiness of any kind irritated us.

Most of this will strike readers of this blog as unremarkable since so many chroniclers of and generalizers about "the fifties" set alleged Beat easiness against the rigors demanded by New Criticism. And the New Critics' hatred of Social Science seems to have persuaded aspiring young literati to join the crusade against sociological (and social-psychological) interpretation. And yet, when one steps even further back, one sees that the most influential social science - epitomized by Daniel Bell's End of Ideology - formed a great political alliance with New Critical formalism. In the former case, we're talking about conservatives (of Ransom's and Tate's and Donald Davidson's stripe) coming on as centrists; in the latter case - that of sociologists like Bell (shown at right) - we're talking about left-liberals moving rightward to the post-ideological center. In that context (and perhaps only that context) Conroy's recollection of being pro-New Criticism and anti-Social Science seems odd, and only points up the passion (I would say it comes from an exhaustion with political interpretation) with which the young generationally-unselfconscious writers of that day embraced aesthetics. But--again--this embrace was a function of an urge to gain distance from the merge of aesthetics and politics that had gotten so many in an earlier self-conscious generation into trouble.

The result is the advocacy of "neat" and a distrust of "sloppy." Yet "neat" derived from victory after a very sloppy battle defending the castle against vulgarians. Think about how truly neat that could be.