EDNOTE. It is, I'm sure, rather difficult for American reaqders under 60 to appreciate the popular literary culture that served as a background for Nabokov's early American work and provided the context for much reader reaction. This volume sounds as it it might help fill in that gap.
I did a rather slapdash article trying to triangulate VN's position in American pop culture of the 60s.
Times Online
Criticism: Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit by David Castronovo
Times Online, UK - 4 hours ago
... Sisyphus, defy an absurd universe. Nabokov comes from overseas, to make high comedy of American absurdity. Castronovo’s view of ...
Times Online
The Sunday Times - Books

February 27, 2005

Criticism: Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit by David Castronovo

BEYOND THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT: Books from the 1950s that Made American Culture
by David Castronovo

Continuum £13 pp207

The thesis of David Castronovo’s catchily titled book is simple, nostalgic and designed not to frighten the reader. What he offers is a “back to the future” take on post-war American writing. The 1950s, he argues, “made” contemporary American culture. More specifically, “the literary 1950s is a third flowering of American talent”. Its flowers are our fruit. You want to know where we are? Look at the way we were half a century ago, when gentlemen wore fedoras and drove big cars with big fins, ladies wore roll-ons and their daughters wore bobbysox, everyone smoked and kids were cute until they got mixed up at 16.

In making his pro-1950s case, Castronovo offers a helix model of literature, made up of interwoven elements. This handful of elements combines and recombines to make a series of complex and enduring structures. To explain it, Castronovo picks on a small sample of what he calls “breakthrough books”.

The base element in the helix is solidly realistic fiction such as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the 1950s bestselling novel and film invoked in Castronovo’s title (hero returns from the war, swaps khaki for gray flannel, sorts out his marital problems, and lives with Mrs Gray Flannel Suit happily ever after). That base realism is still there,underpinning today’s bestsellers by John Grisham, Stephen King and even Dan Brown.

The 1950s yearned for certainty. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s parable of macho grace under pressure, was, Castronovo tells us, “a perfect fit for the part of 1950s taste that craved peace, closure, and clear answers”. Works such as Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s allegory of “Black in (white) America”, or Saul Bellow’s “Jewish in (Gentile) America” novels pose questions rather than offer answers. A rebellious, more acidic strand of the helix emerges with The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road. Paranoia throws in its noir coloration with Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Existentialism enters the scene with Norman Mailer and Nelson Algren, whose heroes, like Camus’s Sisyphus, defy an absurd universe. Nabokov comes from overseas, to make high comedy of American absurdity.

Castronovo’s view of what constitutes literary culture, then and now, is sensible and generous. As Henry James advocated, his house of fiction has many windows. One of the attractive features of Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit is its (very 1950s, very gray-suited) assumption that the best way to read literature is to read closely, nose against the page. “Theory,” Castronovo argues, “has not worked for most readers” — however attractive it is for the virtuosi of the classroom and the international conference. As elsewhere, the 1950s had it right. Keep it simple.

The objection to Castronovo’s method is that it is too easily skewed. Throw in some different texts — say Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (Alan Greenspan’s free-enterprise Bible), Robert A Heinlein’s proto-fascist Starship Troopers (a book that would be, I suspect, much to Donald Rumsfeld’s taste), Lloyd C Douglas’s The Robe (the biggest middlebrow seller of the 1950s, still popular in the “Red” states), or Jacqueline Susann ’s Valley of the Dolls (biggest kitsch bestseller, now a cult gay book) — and the literary sociologist will come up with an entirely different picture of 1950s culture. Characterising a decade that generated half-a-million books and trillions of printed words with 30 “landmark books” is fishing for Leviathan with a pin.

Castronovo is a 30-year classroom veteran, and lived through the decade about which he chauvinistically enthuses. The personality that emerges is warm and friendly. But he is, when all is said and done, a professor. It shows. Anyone who has laboured in the college classroom (me, for example) will recognise the layout of Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit: eight chapters, each with a proclaimed theme (chapter five: The New Observers; chapter six: The Eggheads), each chapter focusing on four exemplary texts. What one has is the classic, semester-long course for English majors. My guess is that Castronovo has taught this book many, many times.

The 1950s liked discipline and uniformity, whether of the khaki or gray-flannel kind. We (or, at least, those of us not enrolled in undergraduate English courses) don’t. Intelligent lay readers in 2005 steer clear of volumes that instruct them how to read books, or what those books “mean”. They want to discover those meanings for themselves, without some pointy-headed academic leaning over their shoulder. Nice professor as he is, one can’t help wishing that some Back to the Future boffin would come along with his DeLorean and transport Castronovo back to the 1950s where he would be really happy.

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