A great deal of fuss is being made over the discovery, in England, of a group of angry young men. The title, thank heavens, is not a self-designation; it is a free gift of the week-end reviewers. Even the New York Times has presented us with a column of quotes from the angriest of the young men, out of all context, of course, and apropos of nothing, but indicating fairly clearly that anger is thought interesting these days, perhaps a trifle piquant, and above all, newsworthy.
It is curious that the group has been discussed so much more in the political than in the literary journals, for their novels, plays and poems really represent the first burst of cultural energy in post-war England. But we shall see that anger in contemporary society has immediate political significance wherever it is expressed. Some intuition of this must account for the reception given the young rebels. Yet no one seems to have any clear idea what they are angry about, and this stems largely from not having any clear idea what there is that it is possible to be angry about.
A sort of mild and increasingly invisible indignation has been established as the proper attitude for proper young men; it is the ritualized discontent which continues to echo from our twenty-year-old past, clothed now in the overcoat and galoshes of responsibility. After all, we are told, the Welfare State is established, prosperity has endured the dangerous post-war decade, Russia has shown us what happens when people get too enthusiastic, and we ought at last to be content to pursue modestly our slight careers in a world where social ideals and social reality “more or less coincide.” And when the angry young men stand before us with their hilarious rage and mock this “coincidence,” they are allowed their joke but not their purpose. Our common condition becomes their personal tragedy—and they are made “rebels without a Cause.” But, we are warned quietly, they are really not rebels at all, but deserters from the true cause of all earnest, patient men. How many quietly outraged liberals agree—but dare not agree in public—with the middle-aged Englishman who announced with stupid tort’ bluntness: What these young men need is a good kick in the pants.
The point, of course, is that the traditional political responses of the earnest, patient men have suddenly become outmoded. And the angry young men, in their search for a new response, have been forced into paths which are apparently not political at all. To explain this we must glance at contemporary England.