Reading in an Age of Catastrophe


George Hutchinson’s Facing the Abyss has bracing and revelatory things to say about American culture in the 1940s; also, by contrast and implication, about American culture today. The book brings into focus intellectual and emotional realities of the decade during and after World War II that current historical memory largely occludes behind heroicizing or condescending stereotypes. On the one hand, popular media serve up nostalgia for a “Greatest Generation.” On the other hand, academic dogma rebukes the decade’s aspirations for “universality,” for an inclusive sense of what it means to be human, portraying those hopes as imperialist cudgels designed to impose Western values on a postcolonial world. Hutchinson’s demolitions of these and other recent fantasies typically begin with phrases like “On the contrary” or “This was not the case.”

Beinecke Library, Yale University/Van Vechten Trust
Ann Petry, 1948; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

His first chapter, “When Literature Mattered,” summarizes a brief era unlike any other, when Americans of all classes and backgrounds turned hungrily to novels, plays, and poems, provoked by a “need to recapture the meaning of personal experience.” Soldiers who had never picked up a book now read free Armed Services Editions paperbacks—more than a hundred million came off the presses from 1943 to 1947—first for relief from wartime tedium, then because the books offered them new ways to understand their relationships and inner lives. Educated readers, meanwhile, grew impatient with both the collectivist ethos and the formalist aesthetics that had governed intellectual life a few years earlier. Later, after the 1940s ended, literature lost its importance in general culture—it no longer mattered—partly because, as Hutchinson writes, “other media drew leisure-time attention,” but also because it “became increasingly (but not exclusively) a professional specialization supported by universities.”

Hutchinson’s central theme is that literature mattered in the 1940s because it focused on experiences that happened to everyone and because it made sense of them, not by abstracting or generalizing, but by recognizing that those common experiences came to everyone in a unique way:

When Richard Wright narrates episodes of his youth in Black Boy (1945), he doesn’t mean to say that the fear, shame, and hatred that haunted his childhood can only be true for him, nor are they only relevant to other African Americans. He writes as an embodied human being to other human beings—who also are afraid, shamed, and hateful for their own reasons—with a faith in the possibility that they will listen and come to a “human” (his term) understanding of his experience and also of themselves, whoever and wherever they are—and that they will be changed by that understanding as he was.

Ann Petry, whose first novel, The Street (1946), about a black woman in Harlem, sold a million copies, wrote her second novel, Country Place (1947), about a white family who experienced what Petry’s African-American family had…

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