Post-World War II Literature
“For history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.”
-A.M. Schlesinger, Jr.
The history of history books is always that of those in power. The few men and even fewer women who change political boundaries, make breakthroughs in science or introduce new ways of thinking. But the handful of people who make it into the history books pale in comparison to the millions who are affected by the actions of the powerful few. The personal histories of individuals are often forgotten. The actions and accomplishments of everyday people are forgotten, rendered unimportant by those who write the history books. Each and every person has their own history to tell, their own version of what happened and how it affected their life and the things they felt. It may seem that these individual histories are forgotten, rendered unimportant but through literature, the personal histories of individuals are remembered and recorded.
In history books World War II was a global military conflict between the nations that comprised the Allies and those that made up the opposing Axis. For over a decade, the war affected millions of people around the world, causing many to question their political allegiances and their identities as citizens of a nation. In literature the sentiments felt by millions during the decades that followed the war can be examined through the novels of many prominent writers. Four years after the end of the war, Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, a play that highlights the inability for many to realize the American Dream. Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov emigrated to America in the middle of the war, fleeing German troops and in 1955 wrote Lolita, his most famous novel. Lolita examines the corruption of the American Dream in the wake of the war. The Golden Notebook was written in 1962 by Doris Lessing and represents the shattered identities still felt by so many in the unstable political environment. The post-war decades led to novels which portrayed various themes on the deteriorating concept of the American Dream and the sentiment that individuals suffered from broken identities caused by political fractures stemming from war.
Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, a play that examines the falsity behind the American Dream and the inability for so many to bring that dream to realization. In the post-war period, many Americans felt fractured from reality and found themselves struggling to piece together their identities. The proposed national identity was that of prosperity, hope and success but in the years following the war and in the wake of losing so many citizens, many Americans did not see themselves in the same line. Instead they were experiencing hardship, hopelessness and constant struggle to rebuild their lives in a war-torn nation just as the Loman family in the play experience. This attitude is what prevailed in much of the post-war literature along with the various ways in which people sought to recompose themselves.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, examines how one man copes with national detachment in the years during the greatest world war. In his exploitation of Dolores Haze, Humbert Humbert seeks a way to mend his failed attempt at consummating a teenage affair of years past. His obsession and sexual exploitation of Dolores can be seen as a corruption of the American Dream and her death at the end of the novel is equally paralleled to the death of the American spirit at the end of the war. Throughout the novel both Dolores and Humbert constantly seek to form their true identities. Dolores is a young teen who is in the stage of her life of forming her identity which Humbert is an obstacle to. On the other hand, Humbert is a disoriented man who is never able to let go of his sexual failure of his teenage days and who attempts to amend this by exploiting young girls. This exploration of identity and the corruption of the American Dream is explored throughout this novel, again emphasizing the attitude many felt in the post-war decades.
In 1965 Doris Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook, a novel which explores and critiques a woman who is struggling to keep herself together in the wake of World War II and the growing communism stemming from unstable political boundaries. The protagonist Anna Wulf keeps four separate notebooks which she hopes will help her organize her life and keep her from falling apart mentally and emotionally. The notebooks focus on four different aspect of her life: politics, work, emotional being and her past. They represent her already segregated identity which she works to piece together to form a more solid identity. The novel explores the fractured identity of Anna Wulf, only one of millions of women who no doubt also share her feelings during this era.
The post-war decades produced literature that reflected the sentiments that millions felt–an attitude of splintered identities, broken dreams, and corrupted perspectives. In America many questioned the possibility of the American Dream with many speculating that the dream was no longer an option, that the dream had died with the thousands of Americans who had died in a war that many saw as not their war to fight. Americans felt they could no longer attain the success promised by the American Dream and needed to find ways to compromise their identities with that portrayed by the government. This discombobulation was the result of a war that lasted for so long and affected all nations the world over and literature became the history of the masses that were affected by the war.
It is no wonder that literature speaks to each person differently, that a novel can touch a person and move. Literature is the story of the individual, the history that each person lived through. In novels the triumphs and struggles of the weakest and poorest among a society find their voice and discover that their story was also told.
Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking Adult, 1949.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992.