Disillusionment of Modern American Culture Through Works of American Literature Essay

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Disillusionment in Postmodern American Literature

The latter half of the twentieth century saw a raft of dramatic changes to American culture and society, bringing with them new forms living and thinking about the world. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing onward, the country saw a deep disillusionment with the suburban trappings of contemporary America, as Cold War anxiety combined with rampant consumerism to instill a sense of moral vacuity, which was reflected in a variety of literature from the time. In particular, John Updike's Rabbit, Run, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Raymond Carver's short story "Neighbors," and Don DeLilo's White Noise all explore how the ramifications of this widespread disillusionment play out in the lives of their characters. The narratives demonstrate the paradoxical nightmare of postmodern America; just as the trappings of the so-called "American Dream" crop up in the form of the suburb, the overwhelming dread of the Cold War fuels rampant consumerism by posing a constant threat to these very same homes and property, so that every purchase and life is simultaneously crucial and disposable. This loss of meaning beyond property and fear precipitates the crises of each of the aforementioned stories, using the characters to enact the larger crisis of identity America was undergoing at the time and in doing so exploring the eroding notions of family and value, which are replaced by empty objects and pharmaceutically-induced contentment.

Before looking at each of the narratives in further detail, it will useful to examine how the social upheavals of the 1960s precipitated a dramatic shift in cultural production, and more specifically, the literature of the subsequent years. In the essay "Revolutions in the Meaning and Study of Politics," author Michael Rothberg sees the 1960s as the site of a revolution "that represent[s a] novel development" in the history of American politics "rather than [a] return to important topics or rescaled geographies" (Rothberg 301). In particular, "the recasting of social or economic relations in political terms, the recognition of the political dimensions of cultural phenomena, [and] the rise of studies of politics in journals of literary criticism since the 1960s" combined together to "fundamentally [reshape] the objects of our attention, causing (or allowing) us to see politics everywhere" (Rothberg 301). Although Rothberg deals with how this change in scholarship during the 1960s affected the interpretation and historicization of the American Revolution, his analysis remains cogent because of what it implies for life in America beginning in the 1960s. The Cold War saw a previously-unseen, or at least unseen so explicitly, conflation of the political, economic, and social hierarchies in America in opposition to communism. In addition to the very real threat of nuclear war, communism as embodied by the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to America the likes of which the country had never encountered before. As Soviet policies embedded themselves in every aspect of Soviet citizens' lives, and communism represented a questioning of not only the visible political constructs of America, but also the economic, religious, and social ones, Americans soon realized that the political actually permeated everything about American society.

The American response to communism was spastic and reactionary, as leaders attempted to rebut the central ideological attacks of communism simply by stepping up their blind devotion to their own in "a period marked by the ascendance of transnational corporations, the upheavals of decolonization, fears of nuclear holocaust, and the partitioning of the globe into ideological spheres" (Adams 250). Thus, rampant consumerism became a way of defending "American principles," the empty religiosity of adding "In God We Trust" to paper currency (conflating the spiritual and economic gods) soothed those predisposed to believe in it in the first place, and the animosity between two polar opposite political ideologies permeated the culture so extensively that the aforementioned attempts at buttressing American imperial capitalism were revealed in all their hollow glory, leading to the widespread disillusionment of postmodern America. The awareness that the (petty) political conflict of the time had so fully permeated American culture, so fully ensnared America's populace into acting out the feverish, vaudevillian performance of opposition to a poorly understood ideology ultimately led to a loss of individual meaning, because if every act is informed by and engages with the false binary of religiously informed American capitalism vs. Soviet communism, then those acts lose any novelty or meaning independent of this binary.

Thus, beginning with Updike's Rabbit, Run in 1960 and continuing all the way to DeLilo's White Noise in 1985, the literature during much of the Cold War contains what Rachel Adams calls "the dark humor; themes of paranoia, skepticism, and conspiracy" which represent "a response to and reaction against what Alan Nadel has called the "containment culture" of Cold War America" (Adams 250). This understanding also helps to explain the notion of the postmodern most relevant to this study, that is, "defining [post-modern] more narrowly as a particularly successful mode of narrative experimentation that declined with the waning of the Cold War," as it "provides an opportunity to consider the distinctive features and historical circumstances of a new chapter in American literary history" (Adams 250). These "distinctive features" can be divided largely into categories of space and identity, because "the unprecedented integration of the world's markets, technologies, and systems of governance; surprising and innovative new forms of cultural fusion; and the mobilization of political coalitions across the lines of race, class, and other identitarian categories" caused a breakdown of previous categories regarding geographic and personal boundaries. Just as "the perceived ubiquity of transnational corporations and increasing commodification of the world's cultures gave rise to fears about the impending demise of literary innovation," so too did these same changes give rise to a demise of meaning more generally (although as the existence of this essay suggests, the fears regarding literary innovation were relatively exaggerated) (Adams 251). Thus, space and the identities which fill it are placed in a state of flux, so that each of the protagonists studied here are, in their own way, searching for some meaning around which to orient themselves, before they are overcome by the crippling void of paranoia or subsumed by the pull of numbing consumerism.

In terms of space, the Cold War precipitated a fundamental reconsideration of the globe, because just as formerly distant countries became reachable via the newest missiles and weapons systems, America itself was becoming further segmented, as the suburbs grew and the individual was relegated an increasingly small portion of space. This in turn creates the ideal conditions for a crisis of identity, as previously constructed identities are challenged in the face of a world and human society whose destructive potential has only recently been revealed. These identity crises take many forms, from the spiritual vacuity explored in John Updike's Rabbit, Run to the darkly comedic jealousy of the protagonists in Raymond Carver's "Neighbors." In the former, the protagonist seeks some unattainable meaning through a variety of interpersonal relationships, while in the latter the protagonist's lives become oriented wholly around that of their neighbors and their apartment, offering two of the myriad responses to the psychological pressures of Cold War America. Bearing in mind the political and sociological pressures informing the literature of the Cold War, it will now be possible to examine a variety of texts in detail, as a means of explicating how the historical forces of the time were interpreted and analyzed via postmodern literature.

John Updike's Rabbit, Run, published in 1960, is the earliest text to be considered here, and offers a basis around which to orient the following discussion of postmodern, Cold War texts, because its narrative exists superliminally, bridging the gap between what can be considered the relative "blissful ignorance" of the decade immediately following World War II and the active, angry, disillusionment of the 1960s and beyond. In "John Updike's Rabbit, Run: A Quest for Spiritual Vocabulary in the Vacuum Left by Modernism," author David Fekete argues that "the protagonist, Harry Angstrom [the titular Rabbit], flounders with feelings of spirituality that his culture cannot sustain" (Fekete 25). Fekete sees this failure to sustain spirituality represented in Rabbit's series of increasingly and decidedly unerotic "erotic" encounters, because "concomitant with the death of God, the Modern Period is also pessimistic in its treatment of eroticism," as "God's death includes the death of the god Eros" (Fekete 31). That Fekete identifies Rabbit, Run as "modern" whereas this essay has chosen to regard it as postmodern is of little concern here, as the arguments Fekete makes informs the discussion of postmodern literature equally as well, and as has been previously stated, Rabbit, Run is a superliminal text, and thus one may recognize that it can easily be located at both the end of the modern and the beginning of the postmodern.

Though Rabbit's erotic couplings are ultimately "successful" in the traditional, biological (and prior to postmodernism, sociological) sense, as any woman he has sex with becomes pregnant, these pregnancies do not bring an accompanying relief or joy, but rather serve to highlight the…

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