Masters of American literature

Mark Lawson in The Guardian:

With the death of JD Salinger last week, a remarkable era in US literature came to its end. Mark Lawson reflects on the passing of an unrivalled generation

American-Writer-Norman-Ma-001 January 27 is becoming a black-letter day in American literature. On that day in 2009, John Updike died and, this year, the first ­anniversary of that loss was marked by the news that JD Salinger was dead. It's an artificial coincidence – of a sort that authors as good as Updike and Salinger would have scorned in their stories – but the deaths in close succession of members of the literary generations born in the 1910s, 20s and 30s do have a symbolic significance. If we add the deaths within four months of 2007 of Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut – members with Salinger of the set of major American writers formed by service in the second world war – it's clear that an era in American literature is coming to a close.

There is an obvious temptation to believe that the authors who have recently died form – with others who fought in the war (such as Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal) or were teenagers in America during it (Philip Roth) – the greatest literary generation the country has ever seen or ever will see. This triumphalist but nostalgic position holds that these writers took advantage of their nation's geopolitical power – and a media culture and bookstore customer-base which regarded serious writers ­seriously – to create a superpower of the pen to match the financial and military clout of the US during what became known as the American century.

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