Malcolm Bradbury’s gravestone is engraved with words the author used to describe one of his own characters: ‘Warm and generous, famous and friendly, witty and wise’. It’s an apt description of a man who during his career became one of the friendliest giants on the British literary scene, pouring his prodigious energies not only into his novels, screenplays, criticism and reviews but also into his teaching. Together with Angus Wilson, he founded the UEA’s Creative Writing MA course, whose alumni include such luminaries as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Bradbury’s own novels, however, with the notable exception of The History Man, are somewhat overshadowed by the work of these famous progeny. I think Stepping Westward from 1965, a novel as ‘witty and wise’ as its author, is one of those most deserving of a dust-off and a second go in the limelight. The novel’s unlikely hero is James Walker, an Angry Young Man and writer desperate to escape the colourless confines of provincial England in the early sixties: ‘Only literacy and indignation kept him alive; the books he wrote in the silent flat were harsh, desperate messages of his impulse to marry with the world’. Offered a writing fellowship at a plush American arts college in the promisingly-named town of Party, Walker promptly bids his long-suffering wife goodbye and says hello to America, reinvigorated by the prospect of meeting with some progressive American minds… and bodies.
In many ways, Walker finds the brave new world he hopes for: this is the era in which, as Bradbury put it, ‘Britain was losing an Empire and gaining a washing machine, and America was where, it seemed, everything that was best came from’. Even so, when Walker is confronted with an employment contract that demands his loyalty to the US government, we are reminded that this is the country of McCarthyism as well as Marilyn Monroe. Walker will need to rethink more than his haircut if he truly wants to become an American.
The culture clash of Old World meets New has been staged through the campus novel before and since Bradbury’s contribution, but Stepping Westward’s portrait of a particularly interesting chapter in American history, combined with its author’s keen eye for the ridiculous in those from both sides of the pond, makes this a superior example of the genre. Bradbury’s novel is one of sharp social and political observation tempered by descents into delightful farce and silliness—both a delightful snapshot of its time, and a timeless delight.