Remembering the 50’s

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 28-30. Used by permission.


External graces seem to have guided young Dan Wakefield on his path from Indianapolis to a remarkably creative community in New York in the ‘50s.

Pass it on. Dan Wakefield is one of us. His autobiography Returning: A Spiritual Journey gave it away, but secular critics, always nervous with anything that smacks of the "spiritual," prefer to think of Wakefield as either an evocative novelist with a special talent for describing the struggles of a midwestern kid who made it big in New York City and Hollywood or as a talented essayist who understands the ambiguities of modern culture. But Wakefield belongs in the same category as Bill Moyers, Garrison Keillor, Robert Coles, Garry Wills and novelists like Sue Miller, Reynolds Price and John Updike: they are authors who have gained an audience in the secular world without sacrificing their religious sensibilities.

Wakefield’s best-known novel is Starting Over, a fictionalized autobiography which was made into a successful motion picture with Burt Reynolds playing Wakefield. His other novels, which include Selling Out and Home Free, feature candid but gentle portrayals of young men caught between the harsh restrictions of conscience and the joy/pain of sex. Wakefield writes of this conflict with an honesty that earned him some initial criticism in his native Indianapolis. In his fiction Wakefield captures with pathos and humor the dark side of his search for meaning. More recently, in Returning, Wakefield confessed that after a decades-long struggle against the bland piety of his youth, he found that he was unable to find peace until he gave up all the artificial props—alcohol, drugs, psychiatry, aimless sex—and returned to what he had been running away from: a connection with God.

In his New York in the Fifties, a loving remembrance of a circle of political and literary radicals in rebellion against the blandness of the Eisenhower era, Wakefield is still writing his spiritual autobiography, as he confided recently. He seems to believe that the way to spiritual growth is through personal honesty. Thus students who take his increasingly popular seminar on spiritual renewal begin by writing about their own embarrassing moments.

In his earlier work, Wakefield was the quintessential Protestant writer, determined to confront his own experiences. He was handicapped, he thought, by the fact that he could never escape that hound of heaven that traveled with him on an overnight train from Indianapolis to New York City’s Grand Central Station back in 1952. In New York Wakefield absorbed the intellectual excitement of Columbia University by day and plunged into boozy collegiate discussions over numerous pitchers of beer by night. After graduation the nightly sessions continued in a Greenwich Village community that included James Baldwin, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne (Didion’s future husband), Jack Kerouac, Murray Kempton, Nat Hentoff, Gay Talese, Norman Podhoretz and Norman Mailer. Wakefield celebrates this community in New York in the ‘50s, which began as an essay on Baldwin, at whose Village apartment Wakefield met jazz musicians, authors and intellectuals. He expanded the book to include interviews with other friends. When Wakefield returned to the Village to do research for the book, he went back to the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas had his last drink before he died at age 39 in nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital.

"There’s a plaque on the wall now indicating the table where the poet had his last drink, but in the old days it was one of an insider’s privileges to know, and reveal the sacred spot to newcomers," Wakefield writes. Cut off from any traditional sense of the sacred, the White Horse regulars turned to psychiatry for their faith and the tavern for their church. The analyst "became our priest, garbed in his vestments of three-piece dark flannel suit, and his orthodoxy became our religion. Whether one partook of it or not, this communion on the couch was part of a dialogue and texture of our time and place," Wakefield recalls, but adds: "I lay down on the couch of Freudian psychoanalysis in the fifties and rose up six years later in anger and disillusionment."

In his spiritual quest Wakefield encountered several mentors, people who infiltrated his life and whose presence was still with him when he finally decided it was time to give up drinking and "return" to himself. Wakefield identifies Dorothy Day, Norman Eddy and Mark Van Doren as three of those mentors. "What drew me to [Day’s] Catholic Worker movement, first as a journalist and then as a friend and sympathizer," he notes, was "a real mystique that called to young people of the fifties and drew them from all across the country, offering in the midst of the grim poverty of the Bowery something that all the glittering affluence around us lacked—a spirit, a purpose, a way of transcending self through service that those who came still vividly remember."

That same blend of spirituality and practicality was evident in Eddy, a minister "I was prepared not to like." Looking for stories to sell as a free-lancer, Wakefield had heard of the East Harlem Parish on East 100th Street, but he was uneasy about meeting the pastor, who he feared would be "some kind of long-faced missionary who’d warn me darkly of the wages of sin" and worse yet "would try to recruit me for Jesus." He found instead an "open, vital man with an easy laugh and a sense of the ridiculous as well as the divine, and I had to admire him in spite of my prejudice against preachers, especially Protestants, because he wasn’t preaching his message so much as living it."

The practical commitment of Day and Eddy helped Wakefield bridge the gap between his negative feeling toward his Indiana piety and his longing for spiritual meaning. But it was Van Doren who restored to Wakefield a critical dimension in his spiritual search. In a college course on narrative art, Van Doren introduced his students (or reintroduced in Wakefield’s case) to the New Testament. Wakefield recalls Van Doren’s startling insistence that Jesus "was the most ruthless of men," ruthless in "following his conception of truth and iron in his will." In the context of the popular religion of the ‘SOs, with its "feel good, be successful" motif, Van Doren’s version of Jesus provided the intellectually hungry Wakefield with a spiritual leader he could respect.

Armed with this new understanding, Wakefield wrote "Slick Paper Christianity" for the Nation, a devastating attack on popular Protestantism as exemplified by the Methodist family magazine, Together. He described the now-defunct journal, which had a circulation of 1 million, as something of a Rotarian periodical for a Christian club. (Together, which happened to be edited by a former editor of the Rotarian magazine, annually selected an all-Methodist all-star football team.)

Van Doren was also a mentor for Columbia graduate Thomas Merton, who speaks appreciatively of Van Doren in his celebrated autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. In describing his conversion to the Catholic Church, Merton writes of "how easily and sweetly it had all been done with all the external graces that had been arranged along my path by the kind providence of God." External graces also seem to have guided young Dan Wakefield on his path from Indianapolis to New York City, to Mark Van Doren’s classroom, and to a remarkably creative community in New York in the ‘50s. Pass it on.