Budd Schulberg's The Disenchanted is a complicated story of a previously famous author who has lived past his prime. Forced to subsist on the meagerest of incomes, he finally deems it necessary to go into the dreaded medium of screen-writing - the author's wasteland. His contempt at his own inability to regain the gift that used to flow so easily from his then sharp mind is coupled with the absolute necessity with which he needs this income. The Disenchanted was published in 1950 by Random House Publishing Company. The story, however, is set in the 1930's. Much of the book's most important moments are those in which the main character, Manley Halliday, has vivid flashbacks to his former fast-paced life. These flashbacks revel in the glamour and glitz of the Twenties. Consequently, the book must convince its 1950's audience to travel back in time and appreciate those bygone decades; not with the harsh eye of wiser years, but with the softened lens of a character who has experienced the greatness of that time and lost it.
The popularity of The Disenchanted is a culmination of a plethora of factors. The changes in the popularity of the cinema combined with both the nostalgic look at the Twenties and the reputation for the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald, on whom the book is supposedly based, brought about the large sales that allowed the book to top the best sellers list for eight weeks.
Hollywood in the 1950's was on the decline. Film audiences plummeted - the numbers dropped from 82 million viewers in 1946 to 36 million in 1950 (The Fifties: The Way We Really Were 314). The producer David Selznick said in 1951, "Hollywood's like Egypt, full of crumbling pyramids. It'll never come back. It'll just keep on crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio prop across the sands" (The Fifties: The Way We Really Were 314). The film industry cited labor troubles, higher production costs, adverse court rulings, and highly publicized anticommunist hearings for the backslide. This recent fall in favor by the cinema had widespread repercussions. First and foremost, with Americans spending less time at the movies they had more time for other leisure activities. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that more money was spent on fishing tackle or on bowling than at the cinema in 1950 (The Fifties: The Way We Really Were 315). With the latest developments in television technology, Americans were spending more time at home. Television in 1950 was an established part of American culture, but what television lacked was the famous Hollywood sense of over-the-top glamour. Consequently, with the breakdown of the movies and rise in television watching, Americans were quite possibly hungry to hear news of the captivating Hollywood of the past. With the lapse in attendance at movies came the demise of the old film-making system. There was no longer the Hollywood of big studios, glamorous stars, formalized plots, packaged dreams, or predictable profits (The Fifties: The Way We Really Were 314). One of the most perceptive and popular movies of the 1950's, Sunset Boulevard, illustrated this very clearly. Sunset Boulevard told the story of the death of the Hollywood that America had so admired up until that time. The movie portrayed a faded silent star from the Twenties who lived wholly on past glories and present delusions. Her existence was seeped in decay and corruption (The Fifties: The Way We Really Were 315).
This story models that of Manley Halliday in The Disenchanted almost exactly. The Disenchanted, like Sunset Boulevard, allowed for readers to see once again the lush and extravagant Hollywood of previous years through the various flashbacks Halliday has into the roaring Twenties and the tales of such excess and freedom. One such example of this, as illustrated in The Disenchanted; "Everyone was getting drunk. Accents slipped off. Men's hands moved with practiced stealth under gowns hospitably knee-length. Words bumped into each other and coupled like little box-cars. Mild attractions suddenly flamed to irresistible passions; minor irritations flamed to violent hatreds" (The Disenchanted 228). It was this world, so outside of the 1950's adherence to family values and life in the suburbs that attracted readers. With Hollywood in dissolution and the recent societal pressures to conform to an ever stricter norm, Americans were forced to look into the past to draw on the sensationalism of earlier times. This nostalgia for the Twenties is exemplified when Halliday himself is remembering back to those times, "Hollywood was - a lot crazier then than it is now - more of a factory town now. But in those days it was - it had the quality of a vulgar fairy land. There were wonderful parties that lasted for days and there was a nice sense of sin that's only found in worlds of true innocence" (The Disenchanted 214). Therefore, this sentimentality for the Twenties can perhaps be understood as a significant influence on the success of The Disenchanted. It was not only the decline of Hollywood, however, that provoked the interest of Americans into the Twenties, but many other factors as well.
Most literature written about the Fifties serves to highly contrast the Fifties with the Twenties. The youth of the 1950's no longer had a fear of depression, but rather a fear of war. Hardly any of the youth wanted to go into the Army; there was little enthusiasm for military life and no enthusiasm for war, unlike in the 1920's. The main concern of the 1950's generation was the ability to find a good, steady job (The 1950's: America's Placid Decade 4). In the years following the traumatic experiences of the Depression and World War II, the American Dream was to exercise personal freedom, not necessarily in social and political terms, but rather in economic ones. Eager to be part of the blossoming middle class, young men and women opted for material well-being, particularly if it came with some form of guaranteed employment (The Fifties x). This is consistent with the steady outpouring of people to the suburbs and the persistent myth of the 1950's family. Some people believe the youth of the 1950's were not as outspoken as those of the 1920's because of the very different manners in which the idea of youth was treated with respect to the differing decades. The youth of the 20's were rebelling against the new-found conservatism forced on them by their parents in the aftermath of World War I. The youth of the 1950's, however, were faced with a growing sentimentality of behalf of their parent's generation which tended to idealize youth and tended to place few restrictions on it (Placid 22). The "flaming youth" of the 1920's was denounced by their parents and later generations, but their flashy ways eventually became a source of amusement for those in the 1950's. "To the present [1950's] war-hardened crop their excesses sound as quaint as the stylized indiscretions of Restoration comedy" (Placid 14). With this attitude it is not surprising that a book written in the 1950's, set in the 1930's, about nostalgia for the 1920's was a bestseller. It appealed to the generation of the 1950's because it was so different. Shep Stearns, Halliday's much younger collaborator, laments,
". . . a palace of silver that turns out to be only papier mache covered with tin foil that peels off in the first real storm. Just the same, just the same. To think even for a moment that your house was built of silver. To be able to romanticize, even for a moment, about the wool you pulled even over your own eyes, while at the same time knowing exactly what you were doing and what it was doing to you, to hold it up to the fluoroscope, diagnose it, find it suffering from high stock pressure, hardening of the material arteries, cirrhosis of the spirit - and predict its death. And then to mourn at the bedside like the doctor who has also been the lover, himself fatally infected" (The Disenchanted 386).
This fanciful outlook of the people in the 1920's coupled with the disillusion of the 1950's generation perhaps allowed a wistful remembrance of easier times. The need to find a steady job was not of importance in the 1920's. What was important was parties, glamour, alcohol, and celebration. It is strange, though, that Stearns is also quick to point out how productive the Twenties were in terms of quality literature. He defends the Twenties while simultaneously appearing to criticize their excess. He says,
"What a jolly, irresponsible year 1925 must have been, with stocks going up, gin going down and nothing more serious to worry about than this morning's hangover. And yet, as Halliday had pointed out, it wasn't all glitter, jitter, and right-off-the-boat. There was that serious work, damned hard work and damned good work; strange how the decade that had made a virtue or irresponsibility produced more responsible artists than any American decade before or since" (The Disenchanted 54).
It appears that all of this, both the criticism and the respect for literary works, allows the audience to look back with fond memories towards the earlier times without feeling the guilt that is sometimes associated with irresponsibility. The audience, and the author, consequently attributed some kind of academic value to the seemingly reckless and irresponsible 1920's. The role of women in the 1950's also allowed both reminiscence and critique of other phenomenon of the 1920's, specifically the women of the Twenties.
In an article in Time
in the 1950's, it says,
"There is every evidence that women have not been made happy by their ascent to power. They are dressed to kill in femininity. The bosom is back; hair is longer again; office telephones echo with more cooing voices than St. Mark's Square at pigeon-feeding time. The career girl is not ready to admit that all she want is to get married; but she has generally retreated from the brassy advance post of complete flat-chested emancipation, to the position that she would life, if possible, to have a marriage and a career, both" (Placid 4).
Women in the 1950's were struggling to find their place in society - forced by World War II to become involved in the workplace but then shunned away from positions of responsibility when men returned home, the women of the Fifties were faced with a complicated social role. The aggressive female persona was to be avoided, and women were encouraged to be submissive and obedient. The vibrant Hollywood starts of the Forties, such as Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and others who frequently portrayed strong-willed, career-minded heroines all but disappeared in the Fifties (The Fifties: The Way We Really Were
328). Schulberg's novel appeals to many people who wish to interpret the role of women however they wish. Women can idealize and look up to Jere, Halliday's wife, because to them she represents a care-free, ambitious, individual woman - quite possibly the woman they wish they could be. An instance of Jere's outrageous character is demonstrated in the conversation she has with Manley shortly after they meet,
"She looked at him playfully. 'It's half past five, my lipstick's smeared, my hair's a mess, I'm two-thirds blotto, I feel older than Elsie Janis' mother - and you still want to come up?'
'I'm a very determined young man.'
'Oh, dear, and I'm a very undetermined young woman. That's dangerous.'
She turned her lips to him at last, but almost in a taunting way. It made him want to kiss her brutally, to stop this incessant playing. For a moment their kiss was the only reality.
But as suddenly as she had offered her lips she withdrew them again.
'People who close their eyes when they dance always close their eyes when they kiss.'
Ready for her to go limp in his arms, he was furious" (The Disenchanted 142).
This kind of reckless behavior was appealing to women who might have felt stifled in their new roles in the 1950's. Men could point out, however, that eventually Jere is destroyed by her excessive life-style and is forced to spend the remainder of her days in a mental institution of sorts. Thus, Schulberg allows his novel, by portrayal of the fantastic character of Jere and her subsequent decline, to appeal to a larger audience - those who can regard Jere as a heroine and those who condemn her actions. Jere, however, is not by any means the only character of which there was great interest. Manley Halliday, the subject of the novel, also received quite a bit of press from reviewers and readers alike.
is supposedly the based on the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, although Budd Schulberg firmly denies it. However, it is true that at one time Schulberg and Fitzgerald worked together on a college musical, and this is indeed the plot of the novel. The majority of critics have assumed that the piece is biographical, and in most descriptions of the novel it mentions that it is based on the life of Fitzgerald. This mystery compounded with the respect that the 50's generation held for Fitzgerald could have only helped to bolster sales. Fitzgerald, it is widely agreed, was held in esteem by members of the 1950's generation. He seemed to be able to clarify the various anxieties of the 50's youth, such as draft boards and war; especially in his book Tender is the Night
24). It is interesting to note, however, that Fitzgerald, if placed in the 1950's, would have nothing to write about, since prosperity amongst the young (a favorite subject of his) was then commonplace.
Budd Schulberg's public persona was very high profile. He was born the son of a Hollywood producer, and he often recounts the wild parties his parents had with the Hollywood stars of the time in attendance. Schulberg briefly became a member of the Communist party at the age of 24, but he became disillusioned with the party when they began to criticize his earlier book, What Makes Sammy Run
. In 1951, Schulberg cooperated with the House Un-American Committee, where he named 17 people he had once known in the party. Since this is at the same point in time that The Disenchanted
was riding high on the best-sellers list, one can imagine that the increased publication of Schulberg's name and the simultaneous identification of him as a "true" American led to increased sale of his novel. This helps to explain the success of the novel even though it didn't quite fit the mold of other bestsellers of the 1950's.
For the most part, the bestsellers of the 1950's exemplified middle class and melodrama through plot, character, incident and symbol. A common thread in these bestsellers is the constant triumph of emotion over reason. The reader is always being urged to follow his or her heart rather than his or her head in important matters. This emphasis of emotion is not particular to the 1950's, but because of the history of the time, with the outbreak of anti-intellectual fervor surrounding Senator McCarthy, Americans were ripe for such thinking. Other characteristics of bestsellers of the 1950's include and emphasis on the imposition of problems rather than conditions of the individual. This allows for the problem to be corrected by a great deal of self-examination on behalf of the individual. The final value that is characteristic of 1950's bestsellers is that the ordinary man can become a hero, or at least exhibit extraordinary capacity in a crisis (Necessary American Fiction
3). The Disenchanted
, however, doesn't seem to really embody any of these qualities. However, with the various reasons as explained above, the attraction to Hollywood, the nostalgia for the Twenties, the portrayal of women, and the combination of the famous subject matter and the author, The Disenchanted
seems to have been able to offer a refreshing change from the other bestsellers of the decade. Halliday himself sums up the false convictions behind the typical bestseller,
" ' Too easy,' Manley said. 'Always too easy.' His eyes were almost closed and it hardly seemed possible that he could be concentrating. 'Your high morality on writers, that goes on all the time in America. Y'know why?' He was signaling the waiter for another drink. 'American idea of success. Nothing fails like success. Write one bestseller here, on hit play, Big Success. Do one thing, get rich 'n famous. Writers get caught up in American system. Ballyhoo. Cocktail parties. Bestseller list. Worship of Success' " (The Disenchanted 180).
Thus, even in his own bestselling book Schulberg seems to mock the American ideal of success and presents a book, that in spite of being different from most bestsellers of the decade, rises to the very success which the author himself seems to view as the means to his own demise.
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