Introduction - Post-war Writing • 1945–1970

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Post-war Writing • 1945–1970

In 1945, much of the world was reeling from three decades of turmoil: two cataclysmic world wars, separated by a global Great Depression. In what proved to be a short-lived period of hope, many people struggled to make sense of the destruction and rebuild a better world. But as old empires and powers declined, new ones arose, resulting in the “clash of cultures” between the West and the Communist Eastern bloc. The following decades were dominated by this Cold War, and the ever-present danger of nuclear war.


Aftermath of World War II

Literature in the post-war period was inevitably influenced by experiences of war. Jewish writers, and especially Holocaust survivors such as poet Paul Celan, attempted to come to terms with the horrors of the death camps. German authors, including Günter Grass, tackled the shameful legacy of Nazism. In Japan, a generation of writers examined the social and political changes following the nuclear attack on Hiroshima.

The negative effects were also felt in those countries that had been victorious in war. In England, George Orwell, who was also a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, argued that the defeat of Nazism had not removed the threat of totalitarianism. In Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four he portrayed dystopian societies that darkly satirized Stalin’s Soviet Russia, capturing the pessimistic mood of the Cold War. This mood was also felt keenly in France, where the experience of war and the existential threat of the nuclear bomb manifested itself as nihilism rather than cynicism. Instead of trying to find some sense in life, writers such as Paris-based Irishman Samuel Beckett, in his play Waiting for Godot, pointed out its absurdity, depicted with a grim humour. In addition to this “Theatre of the Absurd”, black humour could be found in US novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

New voices

The unsettled atmosphere of the era after the war also inspired new, postmodern writing techniques which reflected this uncertainty: narratives could be paradoxical, fragmented, or presented out of chronological order, often from multiple perspectives, or that of an unreliable narrator.

These techniques, developed by European writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Günter Grass, were an inspiration to the new generation of South American authors, who were establishing a distinctive style. Among them were Julio Cortázar, whose experimental “antinovel” Hopscotch subverted many literary conventions, and Gabriel García Márquez, who popularized the style known as Magic Realism, inspired by the surreal short stories of Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges.

New literary movements were also emerging elsewhere, as many countries — especially in Africa — achieved national independence from European colonial control. Foremost among these countries was Nigeria, where Chinua Achebe provided an indigenous voice to a people rebuilding their nation.

In the USA, too, writers continued to assert their identity. As the Civil Rights Movement gathered momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, African-American authors such as Ralph Ellison described how black people were marginalized, while Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird looked at race from the perspective of someone from the Deep South. Social issues of all types also provided the subject matter for New Journalism, the blend of fact and fiction pioneered by Lee’s friend Truman Capote.

Youth culture

Perhaps the most vociferous manifestation of post-war culture came with the younger generation, and was most noticeable in the USA. An anti-establishment youth culture emerged as a reaction against the older generation that had taken them into two world wars and had continued on an aggressive path with military involvement in Korea and Vietnam. These young people also reacted to Cold War uncertainties and the nuclear threat with hedonistic dissent. J D Salinger was one of the first to describe teenage angst and rebellion, followed by the writers of the Beat Generation, whose work was inspired by the freedom of modern jazz and the brashness of rock ’n’ roll. Experimental writing by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S Burroughs pushed the boundaries not only of form, but also of content: their sometimes explicitly sexual material resulted in legal action and bans on books in some places, before the more relaxed attitudes of the 1960s.