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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

14. Becoming Visible

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
- Glossary
- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
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•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
In the folk memory of the twenty-first century, the 1950s are recalled as a decade of bland conservatism and imaginative complacency in the United States. Television came of age in the 1950s, and it proclaimed that suburban ranch houses, station wagons, "Father Knows Best," and "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" were the icons and obsessions of postwar America. An investigation of newspapers, however, or a sampling of the literary and intellectual life of the 1950s will demonstrate that there was no shortage of vitality, independent thought, and moral uncertainty during this time in American history. As the severe housing shortage after World War II gave way to suburban sprawl and interstate highways, the dynamics of ordinary life were radically reinvented. Women who had worked in the defense industries and who remembered the scarcity and hardship of the 1930s and 1940s now faced the heady challenges of prosperity and conflicting social values. Propelled by the G.I. Bill, the vast expansion of the American college and university system brought higher education to millions of people from ordinary backgrounds-yet life after college did not always reflect the possibilities that had opened up to these bright and hopeful undergraduates. Women with college degrees, for instance, still faced an economic and social system that regarded them as aspiring housewives.

The G.I. Bill also changed the bloodlines of American thought. By the mid-1950s, the dominion of the New England Ivy League Brahmin with an Anglo-Saxon pedigree had ended, and the arts and intellectual life were energized by people with names and faces that Henry Adams and T. S. Eliot would have thought strange indeed. Many of the emerging authors, including Lionel Trilling, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Gwendolyn Brooks, Delmore Schwartz, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Paule Marshall, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, did not come from families that would have made the "Blue Book" of any prewar American social hierarchy.

Unit 14, "Becoming Visible," provides background and classroom materials on Baldwin, Bel-low, Ellison, Arthur Miller, Roth, Paley, Malamud, Marshall, N. Scott Momaday, Richard Wright, and Brooks. The video for Unit 14 focuses on three of these authors and explores how writers from this period responded to the challenge of being American in a decade of Cold War, material comfort, moral anxiety, and deep concern about the place of independent thinkers and ethnic minorities within the United States. Ellison, Roth, and Momaday are known for their "novels of identity," works that relate a long adventure of growing up and achieving a self. Their heroes and journeys are sometimes emblematic of the aspirations and crises of people who had not previously figured so powerfully in the American imagination. Bellow, Malamud, and Miller also became famous as contributors to this expanded American mythology.

The video and curriculum materials for Unit 14 pay special attention to the mingling of American traditions in the works under discussion. Invisible Man draws heavily on jazz, blues, and African American culture, as well as on the literary traditions of James Joyce, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann. In Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth echoes the Anglo-Saxon nostalgia of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, as well as the exuberance of yiddishkeit, the folk culture of Eastern European Jews. N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn is experimental in its use of collage, recalling moments in the works of William Faulkner, as well as the Kiowa oral tradition. Unit 14 also explores how these ethnic American writers won the attention of readers and critics beyond the reach of their own communities. What aspects of these works resonated for Americans living lives very different from the protagonists in these narratives? Unit 14 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions about how to connect these writers to other writers of the era, to their cultural context, and to other units in the series.

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate writers of this generation with reference to several key issues of their day: (1) the rise of suburbs and the intensification of the conflict between individuality and conformity; (2) the migration to urban centers by ethnic minorities; (3) baseball as a symbol of national identity, and the consequent importance of desegregation in the sport; (4) anxiety over the threat of nuclear annihilation; (5) the plight of veterans returning to civilian life and seeking to be accepted as Americans, regardless of ethnicity; (6) the influence of jazz on American literature and style; and (7) the continuing impact of World War II on American social life.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how students might connect the readings from this unit to those of other units in the series: How do the lives and work of Jewish American women differ from era to era? How does Ellison's protagonist compare with Dave Saunders in Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"? Similarly, students are encouraged to compare the rhetorical strategies used by Ellison and other African American writers of the 1950s and 1960s to those used by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs in Unit 7. Roth's emphasis on combat experience and ethnicity in imagining American manhood is compared to the construction of American masculinity discussed in Unit 5. Unit 14 is also designed to get students thinking about postmodernism and post-World War II American culture, topics that will be explored in Units 15 and 16. Why were the writers discussed in Unit 14 sometimes attacked by members of their own ethnic groups? How do the writers discussed in Units 15 and 16 respond to similar attacks and accusations?

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