- Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the Fifties by Nora Sayre
Rutgers, 464 pp, £27.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 8135 2231 5
Nora Sayre’s account of American intellectual life in the Fifties, part memoir, part documentary record, begins with her writer parents and the people she met in their living room in New York: Edmund Wilson, James Thurber, Walker Evans, James M. Cain, Nunnally Johnson, S.J. Perelman, Dawn Powell, Joseph Mitchell and John O’Hara. Many of these celebrated figures, artists and authors approaching fifty at the start of the decade or only lately past it, grew up in small provincial towns, emigrated to New York in the Jazz Age and worked together in the city rooms of the Herald Tribune and the New York World. Unlike their successors, writers who came or age in the Depression, or World War Two, or, like Sayre herself, in the Eisenhower years, her parents and their friends still lived ‘as though something wonderful would happen in the next twenty minutes’. Elegant, exuberant, unsnobbish (with the memorable exception of O’Hara, her godfather, who never again spoke to her after she admitted a preference for Harvard over Vassar: ‘His arm flew up and his wife Belle moved swiftly to restrain him’), Sayre’s parents and their circle made their children feel ‘colourless in comparison’.
The writers who came of age in the Twenties – certainly those Sayre knew – drank like fish and rutted like goats. Once, at the New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell came across Katharine White and Sayre’s mother, Gertrude Lynahan Sayre, snickering over a passage from Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) in which the narrator referred to his penis as a ‘club’. ‘His club!’ one of them exclaimed. ‘Bunny’s club,’ said the other. This exchange, according to Mitchell, was ‘not unkind’; the women were amused because ‘they knew how unreliable a club could be.’ Adulterous affairs were commonplace well into the middle age of Sayre’s parents’ generation and ‘were supposed to be inconsequential’. Those who kept getting divorced and remarried were called ‘big marriers’. Though prim in print, privately they were often wittily indecorous. When, on a fishing trip with Nathanael West and S.J. Perelman, the writer Edward Paramore, a popular ladies’ man, hooked what Sayre’s father Joel described to her in a letter as an ‘eerie Will-Beebish object’, purplish and fronded, Perelman identified it as ‘a marine vulva’. As for the ‘athletic, activist’ drinking that went on in such circles (with its concomitant scorn for ‘thimble bellies’), Sayre recalls it as celebratory: ‘of the self and of friendship’. She quotes A.J. Liebling: ‘People whose youth did not coincide with the Twenties never had our reverence for strong drink ... It was the only period during which a fellow could be smug and slopped concurrently.’
As long as he wrote. Sayre’s parents and their friends took writing seriously, though not solemnly: it was earning they scorned. To Sayre, they ‘always expected to be paid to do exactly what they wished, and many were’. Though they made exceptions (for Harold Ross, H.L. Mencken, Maxwell Perkins), most of them held editors in contempt, so that the turn to Hollywood (taken, among others, by Sayre’s father, whose credits include Annie Oakley, Gunga Din and, with William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson, The Road to Glory) merely intensified an already entrenched aversion to collaboration, censorship, interference. Only Johnson, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, among the New York circle, flourished as screenwriters; almost everyone else took the money (to write fiction or plays, to pay medical bills) and ran, deriding their employers’ philistinism and ineptitude. Though many ‘lived very comfortably’, luxury was often perceived as a threat. Hence the relative indifference of her parents’ generation to possessions, surroundings, furnishings; even those who were rich ‘retained the outlook of wage-earners’.
Such generalisations emerge from a handful of richly detailed cameos – of Mencken (who gave Sayre’s mother her start in journalism), Edmund Wilson, Walker Evans, James Thurber. Mencken is depicted as the presiding influence over the group, especially over its politics. Like many writers from the Twenties, he thought all politicians fools or worse and derided the idea of social progress; yet as Sayre and others have shown, Mencken’s views were oddly inconsistent. For the writers he influenced, most of whom fit Alfred Kazin’s label ‘liberals by acquiescence’, what stuck was a generalised cynicism about human motives. Hence the absence of political ardency in the Sayre living-room; so strong had been the reaction to postwar ‘normalcy’ (including the corruptions of Warren Harding and Teapot Dome) that all authority seemed, in Walker Evans’s words, ‘almost insulting to a sensitive citizen’. Even in the Thirties politics were peripheral: ‘with the exception of Edmund Wilson, almost none of my parents’ friends had been radicalised by the Depression.’