Some Modern American Writers (post-1950)


Professor Gavin Cologne-Brookes, Bath Spa University

18 September 2012


The following summary is a greatly expanded version of this talk, with much new material, by Dr Robert Blackburn.  The section on Roth, particularly, is brand new.


“Who would be a man must be a nonconformist.” R.W. Emerson

“Reading is a form of friendship.” Marcel Proust

“We do not go, we are driven.” Montaigne; On the Inconstancy of our Actions

“I am nobody. Who is you?” Emily Dickinson

"We are a different person for each person that we meet." William James

This talk was originally planned for the American Perspectives series of early 2011. Gavin’s private title for it, more recently, was ‘Some American Writers: A Personal Journey’. The three writers he concentrated on were: William Styron (1925-2006) on whom he has written, Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938) and Philip Roth (b. 1933), with a sidelong glance at Toni Morrison (b. 1931). All of these are, by any reckoning major figures in modern American literature. It should be stated at the outset that Gavin was at art school before studying English at Loughborough University, and going on to complete a Ph.D. at Nottingham University. He is also a remarkable painter, whose skill as a portraitist is outstanding. Gavin has exhibited recently at Corsham Court, Bath Spa University’s Centre for Graduate Studies. He has made portraits of, among many others, William Styron (at the age of 63), Joyce Carol Oates, and Arthur Miller (aged 74) all of which were shown on screen during his talk. As background to his discussion of the four main writers, Gavin spoke at length about the psychology of identity, the fluidity and instability of what we like to call ‘the self’. Each of these writers is preoccupied by the question of identity. He drew attention to the idea of ‘books for youth’ and ‘books for later life’ that we have all encountered. In the ‘books for youth’ category, he mentioned J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, Thoreau’s Walden, Kerouac’s On the Road, and Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, well-thumbed copies of which remain in his library to this day. Some of the ‘books for later life’ clearly covered works by the four writers he talked about this evening. They would undoubtedly include Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Sophie’s Choice, Joyce Carol Oates American Appetites, We Were the Mulvaneys, and Mudwoman, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the late ‘American Trilogy’ of Philip Roth.


William Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia, in the historic Hilton Village district. His father was a shipyard engineer, and his mother died of breast cancer in 1939, when William was 14. Unlike many other American novelists, Styron achieved with ease what he had probably always felt was his due socially; he married well, and was able to hold large house parties, and spend freely in the way that very few other writers of imaginative fiction could aspire to.  He was able, therefore, to play successfully what might be called ‘the insider game’, and caused resentment among his rivals for his ability to do so.  Styron met Rose Burgunder at a graduate seminar at Johns Hopkins University. She was the daughter of a Baltimore couple who owned a department store, and was therefore a woman of means. The marriage held to the end, in spite of many problems and disagreements, including Styron’s longstanding depressive tendencies. Reviewing the Selected Letters of William Styron (ed. Rose Styron and R. Blakeslee Gilpin), Random House, 2012, in the NYRB of 24 January 2013, James Wolcott says this, in relation to the long rivalry between Styron and Norman Mailer: ‘…Mailer would find himself batting out magazine assignments for money, and pulling a wagon train of alimony payments, unable to afford Styron’s luxury of discreet pauses between novels, lasting for years at a time.’

As a novelist from the south, Styron became steeped in the work of William Faulkner, and made his name initially with Lie Down in Darkness (1951), a novel about a dysfunctional Virginia family. Though his next two books were not well received in the USA, The Confessions of Nat Turner, of 1967 (Nat Turner was an African-American slave) first created bitter controversy being severely criticised by black American writers and critics, yet winning the 1968 Pulitzer Prize. Sophie’s Choice (1979) portrayed a non-Jewish Holocaust victim (a Polish roman Catholic woman who survived Auschwitz) and her Jewish love Nathan, together with her Southern admirer Stingo. This won the 1980 National Book Award, and was made into a distinguished film version starring Meryl Streep in 1982. More recently it was turned into an opera by the English composer Nicholas Maw (1934-2011). A non-fiction work, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990) gave an account of Styron’s descent into depression in 1985, which he described as ‘…an unbelievable torment’, with ‘…slowed down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately the body is affected, and feels sapped, drained.’  By a special irony, Darkness Visible was Styron’s best-selling book in the USA. He wrote little after 1990, and died aged 81 at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in November 2006.

Lie Down in Darkness, influenced by James Joyce as well as Faulkner, is a ‘…brilliant, original and disturbing first novel’ in which Styron skilfully uses a complex ‘architecture’ to disguise his youth. The Confessions of Nat Turner is the first piece of American writing in which the author dares to adopt the perspective of a person of another race. Styron’s bold move, trying to imagine the mind of the historical figure of Nat Turner, a slave insurrectionist who died in 1831, was in part the result of his friend James Baldwin’s direct influence and encouragement. Sophie’s Choice is, in Gavin’s view (and the view of many others, though not everyone) ‘…one of the great works of modern American fiction’. Styron takes many risks, but the work is powerful and moving. It is poignant to see his scrawled statement across a page of the holograph: ‘NOT silence, but curiously enough, (the) only thing worth RISKING a word.’  Gavin Cologne-Brookes’ new book Re-reading William Styron: A Memoir, is published in 2013.


Toni Morrison was referred to by Gavin, though not in such detail as Styron, Oates or Roth. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, in Lorain, Ohio, in February 1931, the second of four children of a black working-class family. She read ‘fervently’ as a child, and precociously too – Tolstoy and Jane Austen were among her favourite authors. Toni was at Howard University (1949-53) and Cornell (1953-55) and became a staff member first in Houston, then Howard University. Marriage followed, to a Jamaican architect and fellow Howard faculty member Harold Morrison, in 1958, but they divorced in 1964. Her earlier novels are: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987); this last won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. Beloved became a celebrated film in 1998.  Five years earlier, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1996 the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American letters. From 1989 until retirement in 2006, Toni Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University. She has received numerous other awards and honorary degrees apart from those just mentioned.

Morrison’s later novels are: Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (12003) A Mercy (2008) and Home (2012). Her non-fiction includes: The Black Book (1974), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality (ed 1992), Birth of a Nationhood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case (co-editor, 1997), Remember: The Journey to School Integration (20040, What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (2008) and Burn This Book: essay Anthology (2009).

Referring to Beloved, Morrison’s most famous book, Gavin said that he sees it very much in painterly terms. It is full of colours and patterns, and is deliberately opaque. He compares it with the pictures of Marc Rothko and Joseph Albers.


Joyce Carol Oates, the next chosen writer, was born in New York State in 1938, a much loved eldest child of three; the brother was born in 1943, and her severely autistic sister not until 1956.  In contrast to Styron, Oates is an extremely (some would say excessively) prolific novelist, and is still writing, publishing and reviewing at the age of 74. Brought up as a Catholic, she is now an atheist. Joyce carol Oates taught at Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, before moving to Princeton, N.J., in 1978, where she is still professor of Creative Writing. When Gavin visited her parents’ house in upstate New York, he found that the only books in the house were all by Joyce Carol Oates herself.

Taking her output over fifty years from 1963, Oates as published 42 novels under her own name, eight novels as ‘Rosamund Smith’, three as ‘Lauren Kelly’, eight novellas, eight volumes of plays (some 35 in all), ten volumes of poetry, six volumes of ‘young adult’ fiction, three books of children’s fiction, and 41 volumes of essays and memoirs. This is a staggering total, by any standards one can think of. She writes longhand, and does not use a computer.

Joyce Carol Oates sees the artist as the perpetual antagonist of what is ‘fixed’ and ‘known’, what is ‘moral’, ‘ethical’ and ‘good’. As in one of her finest novels, We Were The Mulvaneys, (1996), Oates says that what seems to be stable and solid is actually always shifting and changing. This, together with the harshness and prevailing sadness of so many of her stories, makes her a deeply unsettling figure for many people.

Oates sees identity as ‘THE American theme’. Her novels reflect this abundantly. She says that art has nothing to do with ego. She believes that it is ‘an obvious fact’ that ‘the individual is irrelevant to art’. Nor does she believe that there is such a thing as a ‘woman writer’. Art for Oates is not something separate from life itself. ‘The composing of fiction is not antithetical to experience’, she insists. ‘It is certainly not an escape from experience; it IS experience.’ For Gavin, her achievement as a writer lies in harnessing the American tradition of individualism, rebelliousness and refusal to conform.

Where should one start with a writer as prolific as Oates has been, if one has never come across her fiction? One source suggests: Wonderland (1972), Black Water (1992) Blonde (2001) and I’ll Take You There (2002). To these I would add: What I lived For (1995), Unholy Loves (1979), You Must Remember This (1987), American Appetites (1989) and Middle Age: A Romance (2001) based on my own reading.


With Philip Roth, born in March 1933, we come to the novelist who, along with the very different figures of John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, has had perhaps the greatest impact among modern American writers outside the USA itself. He is, beyond question, the most widely honoured American novelist of our time, and his works are now in the prestigious Library of America Definitive Editions series, a rare thing for a living writer. Roth is one of a long list of modern Jewish-American writers to have made their mark; they include Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Potok and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Four of Roth’s novels and short stories have been adapted for the screen. They are: Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain and The Dying Animal (filmed as Elegy). The ‘American Trilogy’ of novels published at the end of the 20th century were, in order, American Pastoral (1970), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).  These mark, by common agreement, the high spot in Roth’s distinguished oeuvre, in which the quality of the writing is matched by the quality of his imagination and empathy.

It is a characteristic of Joyce Carol Oates’ work that she is not shy of darkness, or of ‘refusal to conform’. The same thing is true of Philip Roth. He upsets and he offends. Roth re-imagines history, for example, in The Plot Against America (2004) a counterfactual novel based on the notion of Charles A. Lindbergh becoming President of the USA, of America as pro-Fascist, not, as we think we know, anti-fascist in the 1930s and 1940s. The Plot Against America was written in the middle of the G.W. Bush era, and clearly reflects the stresses and polarities of that time. In this late novel, which was admittedly not like by everyone, he observes that ‘…history is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark.

Roth as a writer is obsessive, opinionated and sometimes solipsistic. As a narrative device, he structures at least six of his novels around his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who is, and is not, Philip Roth. His late novel Exit Ghost (2007), though quite short, reveals this in abundance, with the 71 year old narrator (Nathan Zuckerman) afflicted with a severe prostate problem, and in the grip of an entirely unsuitable and doomed infatuation with a woman less than half his age, Jamie, and unable or unwilling to move one way or the other. As a counterpoint, the narrative includes a figure from his youth, Amy Bellette, once a great beauty, and companion to a former mysterious forgotten literary lion E.I. Lonoff but now struggling with age, illness and physical decline. The sexual obsession so evident in the early Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which radically broke many taboos in its day, takes on wider, more complex, satirical implications in The Breast (1972) and in the much later Sabbath’s Theatre (1995). In this frequently disturbing, but also often very funny novel, Roth, in the words of Debra Shostak, portrays the ‘…indiscriminate and immoderate desires’ of Mickey Sabbath, ‘…his objectification of women, his flippant tyrannies and uncensored expressions’ which nevertheless end, inevitably, with an enforced confrontation with the realities of ageing, and the clear, implacable limitations of the human body.

In his piece about Roth and ethnic identity in The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth (2007), Timothy Parrish quotes Roth as addressing an audience in Israel with the statement that ‘I am an American writer who writes about Jews’. For Parrish, who draws attention to the diversity of multicultural American society and the writer’s place within it, the point is central. He observes that ‘Roth’s work has as its premise the knowledge that his historical situation as an American is known to him through the eyes of being a Jew and the descendant of Jews.’  The Zuckerman character is intended to reflect the experience of the middle aged Jewish intellectual male in modern American society. Roth said to the critic and academic Hermione Lee ‘Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift.’ It is worth mentioning that William Styron’s wife Rose Burgunder, discussed briefly earlier, is and was Jewish, and thus their children were half-Jewish. Joyce Carol Oates, brought up a Catholic, discovered in later life that she had Jewish forebears in Eastern Europe.  However, one thing that can be said about Roth is that he is, much more than Styron, Oates or Morrison, a comic writer, though certainly not to the exclusion of his underlying high seriousness and brilliantly organised stylistic narrative virtuosity.

Roth’s interest in other writers and in world writing generally has always been part of his persona, and has grown with time. His eightieth birthday falls in 2013, and one suspects that he has still not quite put down his pen. For those who wish to read a piece of pure autobiography, concentrated and quite short, I would recommend Patrimony: A True Story (1991), a memoir of his father’s last illness and death, and his own heart surgery. For those who would like to see Roth interacting with other writers, I recommend Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (2001). This contains interviews with, among others: Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Ivan Klima, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Milan Kundera, but also Mary McCarthy and Edna O’Brien, and a reflective piece on the novels of Saul Bellow.


Dr Robert Blackburn