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Each generation revises literary history and this is nowhere more evident than in the post-Second World War period. This 2011 Companion offers a comprehensive, authoritative and accessible overview of the diversity of American fiction since the Second World War. Essays by nineteen distinguished scholars provide critical insights into the significant genres, historical contexts, cultural diversity and major authors during a period of enormous American global political and cultural power. This power is overshadowed, nevertheless, by national anxieties growing out of events ranging from the Civil Rights Movement to the rise of feminism; from the Cold War and its fear of Communism and nuclear warfare to the Age of Terror and its different yet related fears of the 'Other'. American fiction since 1945 has faithfully chronicled these anxieties. An essential reference guide, this Companion provides a chronology of the period, as well as guides to further reading.
This may well be the last volume ever to survey American fiction from 1945 to the present. That is not because scholarship on this body of narrative is waning. Far from it. There is a more pragmatic reason for my prediction: the period is getting a little long in the tooth. The Victorian Era will never exceed sixty-four years. Modernism is often dated from 1890 to 1945 (a solid fifty-six-year run), but the post-1945 period (which until recently we simply called “postmodernism”), if a person, could now be collecting Social Security. It is only a matter of time before the profession decides that, if for nothing more than curricular reasons (after all, there is only so much one can teach in a semester), we need to close off the postwar period in some definitive fashion. Certainly, no one in 2045 will be teaching a course in contemporary American fiction from 1945 to the present.
Not surprisingly, because the postwar period has been left openended for so long, there have been generational shifts, so that post-1945 fiction looks quite different now than for earlier critics. One of the earliest attempts to make sense of American fiction following World War II occurs in John Aldridge's After the Lost Generation (1951), which saw contemporary novelists falling short of the achievement of American modernist writers.
In the last decade, American fiction has articulated important political, aesthetic, and psychological contexts for understanding the wounds of September 11, 2001. This body of work does so in one of two ways: by directly representing the terrorist attacks or by displacing the attacks historically, allegorically, or metafictionally. This chapter first examines the former representational method before taking up the latter narrative strategy.
Fiction that directly addresses 9/11 and its aftermath focuses almost exclusively on the attack on the World Trade Center. The symbolic impact of the Twin Towers' destruction, televised as it was around the world, has made New York City the nexus of the 9/11 imagination for many novelists as they depict the lives of New Yorkers who were the victims, the survivors, or the witnesses of the devastation. These narratives of individual trauma and loss, however, have been deemed a failure on a number of fronts. Indian author Pankaj Mishra expresses disappointment that American novelists have retreated “to the domestic life” and have struggled “to define cultural otherness” of Islam. Richard Gray notes that much of the American fiction about the terrorist attacks emphasizes “the preliminary stages of trauma.” His assessment, however, echoes Mishra's: American fiction that directly engages 9/11 “adds next to nothing to our understanding of the trauma at the heart of the action. In fact, it evades that trauma” by its focus on domestic issues and personal lives, rather than “facing the [Islamic] other.”