Apr/May 2021  •   Miscellany

Cultural Trauma and the Postmodern Voice

by Ted Morrissey

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

[Excerpt from Trauma Theory As an Approach to Analyzing Literary Texts (2021)]

In a writers' symposium on postmodern literature at Brown University in 1989, Robert Coover, in his welcoming remarks, gave the impression the writing style that became known as postmodernism sprang up in the 1950s and '60s almost by sheer coincidence. Among the symposium participants were Leslie Fiedler, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis. Coover noted other writers who certainly would have fit in but were not in attendance, including John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Gunter Grass. Coover said, "[T]his group sought out some form, some means by which to express what seemed to them new realities."1 However, Coover went on to suggest a remarkably thin theory as to why so many writers, all working in relative isolation, began constructing narrative in uncannily similar styles:

We felt we were all alone. No one was reading us, nor was anyone writing remotely like the sort of writing we were doing until, in the little magazines, we began slowly to discover one another. Few of us knew one another at the time we began writing. There was a uniform feeling among writers at that time that something had to change, something had to break, some structure had to go. And that was, I think, what most united us.

Even though the panel was intended to be a debate, and not merely a discussion, not a single writer challenged Coover's explanation for the emergence of postmodern style. At first this assessment may seem startling—that some of the keenest and best-educated minds who were at the forefront of producing and (many) critiquing literary postmodernism accepted the premise that postmodern narrative style more or less just happened; essentially individuals writing in isolation on various continents, including North and South America, and Europe, just all happened to begin writing in the same sorts of ways, all in a narrow time span, from about 1950 to 1965. According to Coover, writers with virtual simultaneity decided to abandon modernist realism for something fragmented, repetitive, largely unrealistic and illogical, and highly intertextual.

Joe David Bellamy, in his preface to The New Fiction (1974), expresses a similar notion as to the origins of postmodern narrative style. Bellamy cites an essay by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., who "described his sense that the most interesting writers (at that hour of the world [mid 1960s]) were in the process of struggling against a 'whole way of using language . . . a whole way of giving order to experience,' which had been imposed on the sensibility of the times by the great writers of the immediate past."2 Again, Bellamy appears to support the idea that postmodern writers simply decided to rebel against modernist literary convention.

A more cogent explanation, I believe, rests with trauma theory. The trauma of the nuclear age, experienced by the entirety of Western culture, affected the psyches of these writers in a way that resulted in postmodern literary style—a style reflecting the traumatized voice. (More on this in a moment.) Historians Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, in Hiroshima in America (1995), make several assertions regarding the 20th-century's zeitgeist as it suddenly evolved after the Second World War. One is the "[s]truggles with the Hiroshima narrative have to do with a sense of meaning in a nuclear age, with our vision of America and our sense of ourselves."3 Another is Americans were deeply and immediately conflicted with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They experienced the "contradictory emotions of approval and fear the bomb evoked, a combination that has continued to disturb and confuse Americans ever since."4 A third assertion is "[or]dinary people [. . .] experienced their own post-Hiroshima entrapment—mixtures of nuclearism and nuclear terror, of weapons advocacy and fearful anticipation of death and extinction." 5 And all of this internal conflict, much of which resides in the unconscious, has contributed to a "sense of the world as deeply absurd and dangerous."6 Similarly, literary critic Ihab Hassan sees a connection between the horrors of the Second World War and postmodernism: "Postmodernism may be a response, direct or oblique, to the Unimaginable that Modernism glimpsed only in its most prophetic moments. Certainly it is not the Dehumanization of the Arts that concerns us now [1987]; it is rather the Denaturalization of the Planet and the End of Man."7

It is quite possible Coover and the other postmodernists at the Brown University symposium experienced the same sort of repression and dissociation individual trauma victims frequently do. We know it is common for people suffering the symptomology of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to have no conscious recollection whatsoever of the traumatizing event, or to have a dissociated recollection, so that trauma can be simultaneously indelible and forgettable. While the symposium participants did not seem to recognize post-nuclear cultural trauma as the source of their collective postmodern style, they inadvertently came near the mark—so much so that reading their comments from here in the 21st century, with our growing understanding of trauma theory, one experiences a sort of dramatic irony. An example is this exchange between Fiedler and Elkin regarding the role of the unconscious in narrative production:

Fiedler: [. . . The writer's] possessed with certain hallucinations that he would like other people to take as real and to weep over and laugh over and shiver over. [. . .] One of the marvelous things about being a writer is many of the things you do you don't know you're doing until you get somebody's response to it.

Elkin: I don't believe that.

Fiedler: You don't believe anything's out of control in a writer?

Elkin: There's plenty out of control, yes. Absolutely. But I don't think there's any such thing as serendipitous meaning.

Fiedler: Well, there's meaning that comes from writers who are gifted, especially in writers who please many and please long—and it comes from levels deep within their unconsciousness.8

I would call attention to Fiedler's use of the word "possessed," as we know trauma tends to possess its victim, distorting reality in numerous ways; and "hallucinations" of course are among the symptomology of the traumatized. Also, while Fiedler and Elkin disagree on specific points, they concur fiction is harvested in large part from the writer's unconscious mind. Moreover, William Gass cited Gertrude Stein's theory of composition and applied it to Elkin's earlier statement where he imagined William Faulkner peering over his shoulder as he composed: "[Stein] wrote, she said, finally, for the human mind, which was the same in some remote, abstract sense. When Stanley [Elkin] says he's writing with Faulkner looking over his shoulder, that's the superego who's telling you that your paragraphs are lousy." 9 Stein's assessment gets at the notion of a collective unconsciousness, where writers and their readers are able to connect because all are tapping into the same neuropsychic substructures. Coover, meanwhile, referenced the nuclear-age zeitgeist of the 1960s:

I also wanted to get involved in telling stories. But we were in that period of time in the 1960s when telling stories was no longer so simple. A lot of people were telling stories, and it was getting us into wars. It didn't seem to stop the growth of nuclear armaments in the world. The stories seemed to be contributing in some way to all those activities.10

Coover also discussed writing as "a kind of therapy." He said, "There are things you have to work your way through. There are issues that have to be confronted[. . . .] So you work that out in fictional forms, and you do feel that Freudian answer, that kind of power over what would otherwise be your impotent life."11 Hence Coover recognized the unsettling cultural climate of post-Hiroshima America and how it contributed to narrative style; also, his view of writing-as-therapy is consistent with trauma theorists who suggest postmodern techniques are akin to victims' struggling to transform traumatic memory into narrative memory. Even the Rubin quote Bellamy cites in The New Fiction—about writers "struggling" to find a "way of giving order to experience"—sounds very much like the difficult transformation from traumatic into narrative memory.


Characteristics of the Traumatized Voice

Before going further, let me take a step back to discuss, in brief, the correspondences between the postmodern narrative voice and the struggles facing the traumatized when trying to articulate the events surrounding their traumatic experience. To avoid the trap of making "postmodernism" into such an enormous net that, when cast into literary history, it ensnares virtually everything, I turn to the work of contemporary trauma theorists and limit, quite definitively, what it means to say a text is postmodern. Cathy Caruth and others have looked to psychoanalysts such as Freud and Lacan to illustrate the close connections between trauma and literature. Caruth writes, "If PTSD must be understood as a pathological symptom, then it is not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history. The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess."12

I want to call particular attention to Caruth's statement that the traumatized "become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess" as it implies a duality. The traumatized usually have a conscious awareness of the causal event, but it also colonizes their subconscious in a way beyond their control and quite possibly even their awareness (a common phenomenon, according to neuropsychologists). As a result of the trauma, points out Anne Whitehead, there are "[u]nsettling temporal structures and disturbing relations between the individual and the world."13 That is, the victim of trauma is unable to perceive time and space normally. And, as psychologists Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart explain, the impediment to processing time and space perceptions normally are not limited to the traumatic event itself (if, indeed, there was a specific and singular event), but rather affect non-traumatic events as well (until such time that the PTSD can be effectively treated).14 Here, too, we must recall the group psyche operates much the same as the individual psyche. Whitehead reiterates, "[Traumatic] crisis extends beyond the individual to affect the ways in which historical experience can be accessed at a cultural level."15 Ronald Granofsky is among critics who have studied the close ties between the traumatic events of the Second World War and the literature that emerged in its aftermath, with Granofsky coining the term "the trauma novel" to refer to the work of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Thomas Pynchon. Moreover, Laura Di Prete explains, "all of these writers tackle the issue of trauma by depicting imagined collective disasters that only indirectly relate to real historical or personal traumas."16

Indeed, the emergence of postmodernism seems a direct reflection of cultural PTSD. Writes Whitehead,

[Postmodernism's] innovative forms and techniques critique the notion of history as grand narratives, and it calls attention to the complexity of memory. Trauma fiction emerges out of postmodernist fiction and shares its tendency to bring conventional narrative techniques to their limit. In testing formal boundaries, trauma fiction seeks to foreground the nature and limitations of narrative and to convey the damaging and distorting impact of the traumatic event.17

Professionals working with victims of trauma in an attempt to help them articulate and come to terms with their traumatizing event(s)—to relocate their "traumatic memory" to "narrative memory"—note the traumatized voice mirrors narrative techniques of postmodern writers. "[T]raumatic knowledge cannot be fully communicated or retrieved without distortion," says Whitehead, who has identified key features of postmodern texts reflecting aspects of the traumatized voice: "intertextuality, repetition and a dispersed or fragmented narrative voice."18 Here, then, is the vehicle for limiting my examination of "postmodern" texts. Or, said differently, the intersection of trauma and postmodern literature is at these key points:

1) intertextuality, that is, the use of various "texts" to create meanings when contextualized together that are somehow different from the meanings of those same texts when read independently

2) repetition, that is, the compulsion to return to images and events, particularly ones that at first blush may seem relatively insignificant but that gain significance(s) with each return, with each echo

3) a dispersed or fragmented narrative voice, that is, a style of narration that employs multiple authorial voices/perspectives, and/or a decidedly nonlinear emplotment (or even a decidedly "non-plotted" emplotment)

Whitehead explicitly names these three aspects of postmodern technique that mirror the traumatized voice, but I would augment the list with a fourth (implied) aspect: a search for language—if you will, for powerful, indeed, almost magical words—that will uncouple the traumatized from the traumatizing event. One significant aspect of this language-power is the act of testimony; in fact, some trauma theorists have dubbed the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st the Age of Testimony. Shoshana Felman writes, "It has been suggested that testimony is the literary—or discursive—mode par excellence of our times, and that our era can precisely be defined as the age of testimony."19 She goes on to compare writing about trauma in a testimonial mode as akin to psychoanalysis, in which patients confide to their therapist.


Development of the Apocalyptic Temper

In his examination of the apocalyptic temper in the American novel, Joseph Dewey theorizes about the literary community's response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he describes as "slow in coming." Citing the work of Paul Boyer, Dewey writes, "[T]he literary conscience of America did not seem ready in the 1940s and even in the 1950s to engage the menace of the mushroom cloud."20 At first, writers, along with the rest of their culture, experienced a "psychic numbing [. . .] in the face of such catastrophe." In the '50s, notes Dewey, "the American literary community pondered the bomb only in tentative ways." He references "a glut of forgettable speculative fiction" that appeared during the decade. In the early '60s, however, "the American novel began to work with the implications of the nuclear age."21 Dewey speculates the Cuban Missile Crisis—"the nuclear High Noon over Cuba"—may have acted as a catalyst for writers in general to "begin to think about the unthinkable." Dewey does not approach his subject in this way, but he seems to be accounting for the dual starting point for American postmodern literary style, which some trace to the mid-1940s and others to the '60s. Nor does Dewey tend to speak in psychological terms, but he seems to be suggesting American writers were by and large repressing the atomic blasts for nearly two decades, until nuclear Armageddon loomed in 1962, which caused the cultural literary psyche to begin to confront the source of its trauma, if only dissociatively. The scenario Dewey suggests corresponds with the way many individuals respond to a traumatic event. As Bessel A. van der Kolk and Alexander C. McFarlane explain,

[p]eople's interpretations of the meaning of the trauma continue to evolve well after the trauma itself has ceased. This is well illustrated by a case of delayed PTSD reported by Kilpatrick et al. (1989): A woman who was raped did not develop PTSD symptoms until some months later, when she learned that her attacker had killed another rape victim. It was only when she received this information that she reinterpreted her rape as a life-threatening attack and developed full-blown PTSD.22

Perhaps the fear of nuclear Apocalypse was part of the American psyche since 1945, but it seemed unreal until 1962's standoff with Cuba and its ally the Soviet Union. It is also useful to recall that groups—entire nations even—can respond to trauma just as individuals do. In fact, Neil J. Smelser, in his work on cultural trauma in particular, notes societies can undergo a delayed response to trauma akin to the Freudian notion of a breakdown in repression, which "only succeeded in incubating, not obliterating the threat"—though he qualifies the analogy as not being perfect. 23


The Fiction of William H. Gass

While evidence of a link between post-Hiroshima trauma and postmodern technique can be found, with greater or lesser conspicuousness, in the work of all writers who occupy the established pantheon of postmodernists, I think the connective tissue is most apparent in the fiction of William H. Gass (1924-2017), one of the writers at the Brown symposium, and, interestingly, the writer Coover called "our real living biographer of the human mind." 24 In his work, which was begun in the late 1940s (when Gass was in his 20s) but did not start to appear in print consistently until the 1960s, Gass often alludes to trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (though not necessarily by these labels), and he cites directly and indirectly the nuclear age as the source of widespread anxiety. It must be stated upfront that Gass's childhood was, by his own description, miserable, raised by an alcoholic mother and an agonistic father; and one could certainly point to these influences for his prose's negativity. As Stanley Fogel writes, "Directly and indirectly, Gass's outrage at his early family life filters into his writing, both fiction and nonfiction."25 Gass also served in the US Navy, an experience he "detested," according to Fogel. There is no question these facts affected Gass's writing, much of which is overtly autobiographical; however, I believe I can show the Cold War zeitgeist had an even greater impact on his storytelling. One might even conjecture the insecurities caused by Gass's childhood made the fear associated with that zeitgeist even more potent. The psychological community has long recognized individuals respond differently to trauma due to a variety of factors, including their mental health when they experience the trauma, and even their genetic predisposition to dealing with traumatic stress. As Smelser puts it, "every individual has a distinctive and preferred pattern of modes in his or her individual armory."26

In any event, a good place to begin is Gass's well-known short story "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," which first appeared in New American Review and then in a collection by the same title in 1968 (though Gass says it was written much earlier, implying the beginning of the decade27). The oddly and disjointedly segmented story features a disillusioned poet-teacher narrator living in a small Indiana town, called simply "B," a town which represents (it has been widely noted and in fact acknowledged by Gass) W. B. Yeats's Byzantium from the poem "Sailing to Byzantium" (1927). The short story has generated a fair amount of critical attention over the past 50 years, and much of that criticism examines the psychological underpinnings of the narrative. In one of the earliest studies, in 1973, Frederick Busch writes, "[Gass's poet-narrator] is caught in the heart of the country, he is fallen. And the country he has come to is his mind. [. . .] This little story is a saga of the mind."28 Similarly, Charlotte Byrd Hadella says the "narrator/poet is miserable, lonely, and lost in a fragmented world, much like the world of Eliot's The Waste Land, because he fails to participate fully in either art or life."29 As such, "the narrator has left one world and entered another—the world of his own imagination." What is more, Hadella claims, "[w]ith the fragmented structure of his story, Gass conveys a subliminal message of isolation, loneliness, and departmentalized perception of his narrator."30 Both critics are unwittingly keying on psychological components of the story mimetic of post-traumatic stress disorder—the unbidden merging of real and unreal worlds, profound feelings of disconnectedness with one's self and others. In another psychoanalytic reading, Bruce Bassoff notes a "narcissistic fear of castration [. . .] everywhere diffused in 'In the Heart of the Heart of the Country'"31—emblematic of a trauma victim's paranoia.

These analyses are useful to be sure, and in fact I want to look at some of the same passages in the story these critics cite, but I believe even more can be gleaned from the story via a trauma-theory paradigm. Given the insightfulness of these critics' observations, I am struck by an omission they and other commentators have committed in their readings of the narrative. No one has paid any attention to a passage I see as key to understanding the narrator's disjointed psyche. In a section subtitled "Politics," the narrator criticizes his fellow townspeople (and Americans in general I would say) by stating, "I have known men [. . .] who for years have voted squarely against their interests. Nor have I ever noticed that their surly Christian views prevented them from urging forward the smithereening, say, of Russia, China, Cuba, or Korea." 32 Here the narrator makes direct reference to using nuclear weapons against Cold War enemies—attacks which would be squarely against American interests (as it would provoke retaliation, including nuclear retaliation) and which contradict the Christian morality the majority of Americans claim to advocate. This atomic-bombing reference does not come out of the blue, so to speak. In an earlier section also subtitled "Politics," the narrator alludes to "the Russians [. . .] launching [. . .] their satellite [Sputnik-1, of course, 1957],"33 and in "Education" he says that at school "children will be taught to read and warned against Communism."34 Taking into account these Cold War references, the narrator's disposition and the townspeople he describes sound very much like the divided, post-Hiroshima psyches Lifton and Mitchell discuss. They say, "By the 1960s, Americans were living a nuclear 'double life': aware that any moment each of us and everything around us could be suddenly annihilated, yet at the same time proceeding with our everyday, nitty-gritty lives and conducting 'business as usual.'"35

Americans, in short, were divided in two, with their measured self (which was interested in making a comfortable and meaningful life) being in constant conflict with their apocalyptic self (which accepted the nuclear end was at hand and therefore every action was irrelevant). Hadella is noting this conflicted duality in the story when she writes, "The narrator's mood is a perpetual winter. The poet/narrator avoids thinking of spring as the season of rebirth and renewal. Thus, even when he does mention spring rain, the rain mentioned is only a memory, and it is not associated with desire or awakening to life."36 It is as if Gass's narrator, with his measured self, desires a future (the coming of spring rains), but will not allow himself to believe it will arrive because of his apocalyptic self, the self envisioning a spring rain that causes "the trees [to] fill with ice."37

This post-Hiroshima futurelessness can also account for the bleak picture of B Gass provides us. He describes, for example, Billy Holsclaw, who "lives alone—how alone it is impossible to fathom."38 He imagines Billy carrying "coal or wood to his fire [an action of his measured self] and clos[ing] his eyes, and there's simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he's as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country [because of our apocalyptic selves]." 39 Moreover, the entire town is colorless: "The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are gray."40 The poet-narrator uses personification in saying the town's "houses are now dying like the bereaved who inhabit them; they are slowly losing their senses—deafness, blindness, forgetfulness, mumbling, an insecure gait, an uncontrollable trembling has overcome them."41 On the surface at least, Gass's narrator is listing symptoms of old age, but given his references to the use of nuclear weapons (smithereening America's enemies) and the threat of Communism (a threat so great schoolchildren are taught only to read and to fear Communism), and given how much propaganda Americans were exposed to regarding nuclear threats and how to respond to them in the 1950s and '60s—one can begin to see the population of B as suffering from nuclear fallout (deafness, blindness, insecure gait, trembling, etc.), just as the Japanese had been since the bombings. And in a psychological sense at least, the citizens of B were suffering from nuclear fallout. To be clear, I am not suggesting this American-Japanese parallel was Gass's conscious choice but rather a manifestation of his unconscious creative mind.

I know this connection may seem tenuous, but there is more. Hadella's careful study is mainly concerned with Gass's use of weather imagery, especially winter. She suggests the references to perpetual winter in the story reflect, among other things, the narrator's inability to move forward with his life, his "finding himself in a dormant winter state."42 She also discusses his blaming the weather for "his barren, loveless predicament," especially the snow he references several times. I think Hadella's reading is on track; as I said before, Hadella is keying on what could be described as the poet-narrator's conflicted psyche, his measured and apocalyptic selves, to use Lifton and Mitchell's terms. In the context I am framing, the winter and its snow become even more psychologically significant as mimetic of a nuclear winter and its radioactive (or dirty) snow. Before looking at winter/snow references in way of support, I want to turn to the "Weather" section, which describes a summer heatwave in B as Gass uses language suggestive, I think, of a nuclear blast. The passage is lengthy but well worth examining:

In the summer light, too, the sky darkens a moment when you open your eyes. The heat is pure distraction. Steeped in our fluids, miserable in the folds of our bodies, we can scarcely think of anything but our sticky parts. Hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust crisscross the country. In many places, given an indifferent push, the wind will still coast for miles, gather resource and edge as it goes, cunning and force. [. . .] Sometimes I think the land is flat because the winds have leveled it, they blow so constantly. In any case, a gale can grow in a field of corn that's as hot as a draft from hell, and to receive it is one of the most dismaying experiences of this life, though the smart of the same wind in winter is more humiliating, and in that sense even worse.43

On the one hand, this is a wonderfully apt description of a Midwestern heatwave, but Gass's language as it relates to a nuclear blast cannot be easily dismissed: melting, even liquefying "bodies"; widespread devastation by "hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust" driven by "cunning and force"; a flattened landscape, "leveled" by "a draft from hell"; a "dismaying" life experience, but the "wind in winter" to follow is in a "sense even worse." Then there is the winter and its snow, so closely linked to death. The narrator says, "I would rather it were the weather that was to blame for what I am and what my friends and neighbors are—we who live here in the heart of the country. Better the weather, the wind, the pale dying snow . . . the snow—why not the snow?"44 Images of winter/snow connected to death continue in this "Weather" section. He says, "Still I suspect the secret's in this snow, the secret of our sickness, if we could only diagnose it, for we are all dying like the elms in Urbana"45 He references the snow, and then dust, covering the country "like our skin," implying of course how thoroughly the snow or dust covered the ground, but also suggestive of the skin's being covered by the snow or dust, and even encouraging an image of the skin itself covering the ground as if it has been shed. The passage ends with the narrator's assertion, "what a desert we could make of ourselves—from Chicago to Cairo, from Hammond to Columbus—what beautiful Death Valleys." Again, viewed through the prism of the Cold War mentality and how the unconscious must have been affected by the sense of impending nuclear doom, it is reasonable to think at some level Gass is describing atomic annihilation and the aftermath for those lucky or unlucky enough to survive the attacks.

An important aspect of the conflicted post-Hiroshima psyche is the sense of responsibility and guilt associated with bombing Japan, combined with pride in American resolve and ingenuity, and an acceptance of the "Hiroshima narrative" propaganda claiming the attack to be necessary, even justified—and Hadella picks up on these vibes in "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" as well. She writes, "Through the narrator's obsessive attention to weather, Gass emphasizes a controlling irony in the story: though the narrator complains about the weather, he is the one who is responsible for the world in which he lives. His complaints suggest that he does not accept this responsibility."46 Hadella's analysis reflects to the letter the psychological turmoil Americans found themselves grappling with, according to the research of historians Lifton and Mitchell. Many commentators have spoken to the story's oddly redundant yet lyrical title. At the most basic level, it makes a geographical reference as the setting is Indiana, in the heart or middle of the country. But country itself is multifaceted. Since B is a small, Midwestern town, country can be synonymous with rural and all of its associations, including honesty, stability, directness, and hardiness—associations which prove ironic in the story. Country also implies nation, that is, the United States; and with sections subtitled "Politics" and with references to other countries (e.g. Russia, Cuba), clearly Gass wants the reader mindful of American culture and ideology. The repetitive part of the title is even richer in nuance. In the heart of the heart suggests a compounded or doubled entry of the country, including a deep examination of American character (rooted in the United States' agrarian beginnings and its continued cultural sense of itself as dependable, independent, hardy, and guileless), and an examination of the American soul (as represented by its political agendas and ideologies). Moreover, I would point out heart and soul have often been associated with the psyche or inner-self. It is this aspect of the title, as a profound examination of the American cultural psyche, that my analysis most fully supports. Busch notes a deep-seated "arrogance" in the narrator "which has caused him to be cast down, to be condemned to suffer in himself."47 He quotes this sentence: "I want to rise so high, I said, that when I shit I won't miss anybody."48 This sentiment could be seen as symbolizing the United States' arrogance in creating nuclear bombs in the first place, unleashing them on non-military targets, then triggering an escalation of atomic armament that threatened (and continues to threaten) the entire planet. But, as has been noted, Americans have suffered from their own ingenuity via the guilt of having developed the weapons and the fear of becoming casualties of the technology themselves.


The Leading Voices of American Postmodernism

There is more to be said regarding "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" and, indeed, the rest of Gass's fiction, but in closing I would like to turn, more broadly, to other postmodern writers who emerged at about the same time as William Gass. As stated earlier, my choice to focus on the fiction of Gass is because of all the postmodernists I have studied, his work most readily and most consistently reveals the connective tissue between cultural trauma and postmodern narrative style. It is worth noting that among the leading voices of American postmodernism, narratives about the Second World War are plentiful. A short list includes Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961). Interestingly, bombs and bombing play pivotal parts in nearly all of these novels: Gravity's Rainbow centers on the rockets Germany is aiming toward the West, and the title itself refers to the parabolic arc of a rocket; the central event of Slaughterhouse-Five is the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, the site of an American POW camp; and Catch-22 focuses on an American bomber squadron stationed in Italy, and the kernel of the narrative returned to again and again happens on a bomber during a mission. So it seems these postmodernists are not only concerned with the events of the Second World War, but they are especially interested in bombs. None of the narratives mentioned deals directly with the bombings of Japan, but it is provocative that in each case Americans are harmed or even killed by the bombs. This indirect engagement of nuclear threat could be a dissociative response. "Avoidance may take many different forms," write van der Kolk and McFarlane, "such as keeping away from reminders [. . .] or utilizing dissociation to keep unpleasant experiences from conscious awareness."49

In addition to these novels, there appeared a second wave of significant postmodern novels dealing with United States nuclearism, Cold War anxiety, and/or profound government mistrust. On that list would be books like Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977), John Barth's Sabbatical (1982), and Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) and Underworld (1997). The Public Burning focuses on the Rosenberg espionage trial of 1951 in which Julius and Ethel Rosenburg were charged with selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Barth's Sabbatical tells the tale of an ex-CIA analyst who has retired from the agency and written a book about government subterfuge, and who also suspects a cover-up of the murder of his brother and other former colleagues at the CIA. Libra, meanwhile, centers on Lee Harvey Oswald and his dealings with the Soviets and Cubans leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and Underworld involves a government nuclear testing facility and focuses in part on one of its employees.

These are of course very cursory plot synopses, but the point is to show still more evidence of a psychic link between postmodern narrative style and the horrors of the Second World War, especially the atomic bombing of Japan, which then quickly evolved into a deep-seated fear of nuclear annihilation combined with paranoia about the US government's motives and nuclear agenda. We recall Lifton and Mitchell's positing the profound government obfuscation that began with the atomic program became a pattern of behavior on the part of high-ranking officials, leading to events like Watergate and Iran-Contra. Perhaps this phenomenon reached its height with the administration of President Donald J. Trump. According to The Washington Post, President Trump made 30,573 "false or misleading claims" during his four years in office50—not to mention his not allowing members of his administration to respond to congressional subpoenas, his refusal to cooperate with state and federal investigators, and his firing and harassment of government whistleblowers (to list but a few examples of his profound government obfuscation).

The year 2020 and the earliest weeks of 2021 have supplied ample opportunities for cultural trauma (the Covid-19 pandemic and its mass deaths, a surge in hate groups and subsequent hate crimes, the takeover of the US Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists, and President Trump's second impeachment, etc.). Based on my research, I anticipate that these events will shape the work of writers, artists, and every sort of creative person for years and even decades to come, in all likelihood compelling a resurgence of a postmodern-esque voice in literature.

I find it intriguing many writers say they have been suffering from writer's block during the pandemic, according to a recent article in The Guardian. In their struggles, they cite myriad specific reasons for their inability to concentrate and put meaningful words on the page. In sum, though, what they seem to be describing are the effects of being traumatized. Perhaps novelist Linda Grant expresses the phenomenon most accurately: "I can't connect with my imagination. I can't connect with any creativity. My whole brain is tied up with processing, processing, processing what's going on in the world. [. . .] My subconscious is just basically screaming: 'Get us out of this' [. . .] I don't have the emotional and intellectual energy to give to these shadowy people to bring them out of the shadows."51

The writer's block so many are suffering makes the current time sound remarkably similar to the time immediately following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the decade or so when American novelists, by and large, only produced a "glut of forgettable speculative fiction," according to Joseph Dewey, theorizing writers experienced a "psychic numbing" until the early 1960s and, specifically, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Once again, only time will tell if literary history is repeating itself.



  1. "'Nothing but Darkness and Talk?': Writer's Symposium on Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction," Critique4 (1990), p. 233.
  2. Joe David Bellamy, ed., Preface, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, U of Illinois P, 1974, pp. ix-x.
  3. Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Grosset/Putnam, 1995, p. xvi.
  4. Ibid., p. 33.
  5. Ibid., p. 306.
  6. Ibid., p. 335.
  7. Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture, The Ohio State UP, 1987, p. 39.
  8. "'Nothing'" pp. 238-39.
  9. Ibid., p. 238.
  10. Ibid., p. 242.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory, The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996, p. 5
  13. Anne Whitehead, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh UP, 2004, p. 5.
  14. Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, "The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma," in Caruth, pp. 159-160.
  15. Whitehead, p. 5.
  16. Laura Di Prete, "Foreign Bodies": Trauma, Corporeality, and Textuality in Contemporary American Culture, Routledge, 2006, p. 5.
  17. Whitehead, p. 82.
  18. Ibid., p. 84.
  19. Shoshana Felman, "Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching," in Caruth, 17.
  20. Joseph Dewey, In a Dark Time: The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age, Purdue UP, 1990, p. 8.
  21. Ibid., p. 9.
  22. Bessel A. van der Kolk and Alexander C. McFarlane, "The Black Hole of Trauma," in van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, Guilford, 2007, p. 6.
  23. Neil J. Smelser, "Psychological and Cultural Trauma," in Alexander et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, U of California P., 2004, p. 51.
  24. "'Nothing,'" p. 242.
  25. Stanley Fogel, "William H. Gass," The Review of Contemporary Fiction 2 (2005), p. 14.
  26. Ibid., p. 15.
  27. Smelser, p. 47.
  28. Frederick Busch, "But This Is What It Is to Live in Hell: William Gass's 'In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,'" Modern Fiction Studies 19 (1973), pp. 99-100.
  29. Charlotte Byrd Hadella, "The Winter Wasteland of William Gass's 'In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,'" Critique 1 (1998), p. 49.
  30. Ibid., p. 30.
  31. Bruce Bassoff, "The Sacrificial World of William Gass: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," Critique 1 (1976), p. 49.
  32. William H. Gass, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Nonpareil, 1981, p. 197.
  33. Ibid., p. 186.
  34. Ibid., p. 187.
  35. Lifton and Mitchell, p. 351.
  36. Hadella, p. 51.
  37. "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," p. 181.
  38. Ibid., p. 179.
  39. Ibid., p. 180.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid., p. 181.
  42. Hadella, p. 51.
  43. "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," pp. 180-81.
  44. Ibid., p. 191.
  45. Ibid., p. 192.
  46. Hadella, p. 51.
  47. Busch, pp. 104-105.
  48. "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," p. 189.
  49. van der Kolk and McFarlane, p. 12.
  50. Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, "Trump's false or misleading claims total 30,573 over 4 years,' The Washington Post, 24 Jan. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/24/trumps-false-or-misleading-claims-total-30573-over-four-years/.
  51. Alison Flood, "Writer's Blockdown: after a year inside, novelists are struggling to write," The Guardian, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/feb/19/writers-blockdown-after-a-year-inside-novelists-are-struggling-to-write.