They've nearly all gone, the American literary giants who bestrode the 20th century, colossi as much in their own minds as in ours. Mailer, Vonnegut and Updike have departed, while Roth, Vidal and Wolfe are winding down. Mark Lawson's eight-part series Capturing America began with the generation that was just old enough to fight for its country.
Thus did the Second World War add to its credit column the provision of raw material for budding writers (assisted by the GI Bill, which gave them a college education otherwise beyond their means). Norman Mailer – who ended hostilities as an army cook but saw enough to fill his debut novel The Naked and the Dead – expressed thanks that he served in the Philippines, where warfare was a simple business, mano a mano with the Japanese, rather than in confusing old Europe, where there were too many political systems and excessively varied scenery. (A writer being put off by too much scenery must be unique.)
Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was also inspired by his experiences when it came to writing Slaughterhouse Five, though it happened in a roundabout way. He was planning a movie script with a wartime pal, the usual comic hokum. When his friend's wife shot it down in flames, he realised that what he should really be doing was telling the truth.
They were a pugnacious lot, even the ones who were too young to be called up, and their spats could have made a jolly programme on their own. Tom Wolfe vs John Irving is one ongoing feud. "To say, as I have, that his sentences are badly written is a kindness compared to what I could have written," said Irving, which seemed a bit yah-boo-sucks from a supposed literary behemoth.
There was better trash-talking in the Gore Vidal-John Updike contretemps. "I can't stand him," Vidal spat. "He comes on like the workers, like a modern-day D H Lawrence, when he's just another little boring middle-class boy hustling his way to the top."
Attaboy. While Capturing America is essentially an archive-trawling exercise, there's enough good stuff, much of it from Lawson's own Front Row stash of interviews, to make the next seven parts an appealing prospect.
Equally enticing are the three further instalments of Richard Hawley's The Ocean, a four-parter about Britain's relationship with its surrounding waters. He started by looking at the sea as a people-trafficker, his gaze ranging from the diaspora that left Britain via Plymouth when the Cornish copper mines ran out to the timber ships sailing to the Americas using emigrants as human ballast, via the shocking tale of extraordinary renditions in 1700s Aberdeen, when magistrates and merchants colluded to kidnap hundreds of children, transporting them to the Caribbean to be sold as indentured servants.
It was graced by some haunting songs, one of them sung by Norma Waterson in her living room over tea and biscuits. Hawley, the singer-songwriter from land-locked Sheffield, is thoughtful, soulful and a radio natural.Reuse content