Different voices, similar destinies

Ian McEwan's Enduring Love - J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye - Richard Wright's Native Son
August 17, 2007

All three of these Routledge guides dealing with famously unreliable narrators and ambivalent central figures follow the same basic pattern, dividing their attention between biographical sketches; cultural, historical and literary historical contexts; and up-to-date critical analyses informed by different theoretical approaches.

Despite this uniformity, the individual authors/editors leave a personal stamp on their organisation of the material, particularly Andrew Warnes, whose relationship with his chosen text, Richard Wright's Native Son , is clearly long-lived and deeply felt.

The most revealing aspects of these studies spring from their review of specific historical pressures on composition and reception, although there is sometimes a surplus of general historical background information. Sarah Graham concentrates on the major shift in the way that subjectivity is modelled in the immediate post-war milieu in which The Catcher in the Rye is conceived and elaborated. Andrew Warnes characterises the text of Native Son in terms of its production of different "voices" derived from a range of social and cultural influences: listening to the blues, reading Russian fiction, studying communist doctrine, sharing the way of life that engenders a certain black nationalist rhetoric. Peter Childs's contextualising of McEwan's Enduring Love is focused much more narrowly on literary and intellectual history, although this makes sense given the much broader social impact of Salinger's and Wright's texts, both published for the first time more than 50 years ago.

All three volumes allow their authors to establish their individual critical and intellectual styles in introductory chapters, before giving way to lengthy sections in which their role is chiefly editorial. These brief anthologies of critical comment are not so much compressed versions of the critical heritage as samplings of the state of the art. Even where the critic has established himself or herself at an earlier stage in the history of reception, he or she is included here on the basis of contributing new material. This is signally the case with Kiernan Ryan, who published the first book on McEwan in 1994 but who is represented here with a new essay on Enduring Love that deals with the way the novel uses the narrative archetypes of folk tale as well as the ethical implications of its allusions to Genesis.

The other contributors to the McEwan volume consider the episode in which six men fail to hold down a balloon carrying a child passenger to resolve questions of "survival and sacrifice, self-preservation and co-operation", questions that Childs relates to the concerns of evolutionary biology; or they organise their readings around the challenge mounted by a first-person narration that struggles with the dangers of solipsism - its own as well as that of other characters. Childs's own treatment of the novel's place in literary history provides a useful review of the importance of children in McEwan's oeuvre, an emphasis that underlines the thematic importance to this writer of the responsibilities of one generation towards another.

This theme is also, of course, implied in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and in the way it has been read. Sarah Graham registers the importance of Holden Caulfield's adolescent condition, involving protective feelings towards younger siblings while at the same time shrinking from the conventional demands of adulthood. Her two contributors, Sally Robinson and Clive Baldwin, discuss the changes overtaking the "performance" of masculinity in post-war America, measuring the impact on young males like Holden of the replacement of earlier emphases on self-reliant individualism by the growing influence of corporate models of identity, stressing conformity and de-emphasising independence. This general shift in the perception of appropriate masculine behaviour is complicated hugely for the homosexual adolescent of the period; Pia Livia Hekanaho considers the possibility of reading Holden as a repressed gay adolescent in an era when same-sex relationships were inadmissible.

The Salinger volume as a whole is weighted towards an approach through masculinity studies, although there are also essays dependent on trauma theory and critical whiteness studies.

In one way, the Wright volume departs quite decisively from the template observed for the other two authors. It begins its selection of critical essays with a text that is very far from representing the latest in critical or cultural theory; this is one of the two attacks on Native Son launched by the redoubtable James Baldwin at an early stage in the book's reception. Warnes' decision to include this polemical classic is vindicated by the way his other contributors use it as a counterfoil. Baldwin's objections to Wright's knowing use of racial stereotypes are contextualised by Hazel Rowley's study of textual variants; she illustrates the extent to which early editions altered authorial intention by excising references to white female desire. Clare Eby provides a revealing account of Wright's deliberate satirical augmentation of racial stereotypes by exploring the popular representation of black identity in the racist films of D. W. Griffith and the distasteful fiction of Thomas Dixon. Meanwhile, Anthony Dawahare provides an analysis of the "deep psychology" of black nationalism that gauges the extent to which interwar race relations were dominated by Oedipal models of subordination and rivalry.

What emerges clearly from these three volumes is the extent to which the Routledge guides demonstrate the value of historicised readings, without burdening the first-time reader with too great an emphasis on the material reality with which the featured authors engage.

Rod Mengham is reader in modern English literature at Cambridge University.

Ian McEwan's Enduring Love

Author - Peter Childs
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 148
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9780415345590

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