If you were left wanting for a more comprehensive, personal vision of post-war American literature than was provided by the Norton anthology in your college survey class, James Campbell's Syncopations would not be a bad place to start. Syncopations gives the reader a broader insight into notable authors such as John Updike, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, while also exploring the work of less profiled writers like Robert Creeley, J.P. Donleavy and Edmund White. Lastly, Syncopations gives one an excellent insight into James Campbell, the reader and critic, and how he happened upon the authors included and where he places them in his larger conception of American letters. The critiques in the collection are generously expanded with author profiles and autobiographical passages.
Presented in three segments, the collection chronicles the diverse stylistic tendencies that have captivated Campbell: the society of writers nourished by The New Yorker magazine, the African American writers predating the civil rights movement, and the group of poets that grew out of the rebellious Beat and Black Mountain schools.
For a critic with such diverse interests, there does not appear to be any concerted effort to tie these different groups of writers into a concise narration on the literary scene of the period. Without a doubt, the groups that Campbell probes—cosmopolitan socialites, oppressed minorities and modern bohemians—all experienced the twentieth century in unique ways. However, they did all experience the same society, during roughly the same period of time, coming from the same literary tradition. One may look for just a little more of this shared social and historical context than is provided by the author's mix of biographical sketches and textual examination. Despite this lack of grand narration, Campbell possesses a capable eye for close reading and is a definite master of the personal profile; drawing on instances where life and art meet, he is able to give real insight into the creative process.
One major theme that gets thoroughly developed in Syncopations is that of censorship: both legal censorship (and the threat of it), and also the softer type applied by publishers, media outlets and often the authors themselves. Campbell seems fascinated by the tension between the creative urges of his subjects and the internal and external forces that work to restrict them. One way to read Syncopations is as a series of case studies on how writers react to different types of creative restraint; the spectrum of examples provided demonstrate that the farther from the center of society a writer works, the more unlikely the odds are that he will find a way to reconcile what he wishes to express with what he ends up publishing. The barriers of self expression erected by cultural taste monitors like The New Yorker and Oprah or John Updike, Art Spiegelman and Johnathan Franzen are often found to be nourishing challenges in the artists' careers. Similarly, the vulgarities of Ginsberg and Trocchi harness their shock power from their unquestionable social stigma.
Unfortunately, Campbell's essays on the black writers of the era prove that the ‘artist as outsider’ never works out as well for those already relegated to the position of outsider. From expatriates Richard Wright and James Baldwin to radicals Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison, Campbell’s portraits always come back to talent shaped and restricted by circumstance. For other African American writers, while tension with society seems to fuel creativity and breed literary drama, the question of race always seems to dominate and often disturb their talents. In his profiles of these writers, Campbell finds their talent often pigeonholed by circumstance:
"An aftertaste of bitter paradox lingers from the work of writers such as Baldwin, Wright, and others who followed: desiring to be released from their core subject―race―they inevitably recognize that the topic is their raison d'etre as artists. Meanwhile, writers who stick to “blackness” as source risk becoming imprisoned in a cage, the cage of “race” which, as Amiri Baraka of all people said to me, does not exist."
From his analysis, one can better see how the promise of many talented writers of the past century was severely restricted by their forced focus on this singular issue.
The title section, Syncopations, rounds out the collection. The first three essays deal with the challenge to orthodox poetry offered by the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Robert Creely. These essays are the best examples of criticism in the book: working with textual quotes and within canonical context, Campbell crafts an argument for the legitimacy of these authors that even structural formalists will have to respect. For their attempts to meet twentieth century America with a ''gradual and personal adaptation to a new world order” he offers a most convincing claim for legitimatizing the poets' stylistic experimentations as the heirs to the American free verse movement of William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman. Campbell takes his defense of the experimental poets and expands it to include a number of twentieth century authors who share with the poets what may be one of his favorite maxims, the “personal as the political.” In the closing pieces, he expands on this idea and demonstrates how it was fully developed by a wide range of authors in the second half of the century including J.P. Donleavy, Edmund White, and Alexander Trocchi. By the last pages, Campbell has illustrated how an author's ability to make personal experience reflect clearly on society as a whole is the ultimate aspiration for an artist of letters.