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Elizabeth Madox Roberts


ISSUE:  Winter 1936

The time is ripe, I think, to evaluate the work of Elizabeth Madox Roberts in the novel. Let me say at the outset that I consider her to be a writer of genius, one who at her best has written scenes which stand with the finest in the history of fiction. I draw no qualifications to that—I say the finest and I mean the finest, whether in the Russian, French, or English novel. I think that this occasional mastery of hers has not yet received its due recognition, and I think too that her work as a path-breaker in the art of fiction has not yet been fully understood. At the same time I am equally of the opinion that her shortcomings have not been adequately discussed. She has received high praise which was not high enough; but also, along with some very invalid adverse criticism, there has been insufficient mention of certain weaknesses which have kept Miss Roberts from reaching her potential stature as a creative artist.

The novel today, like the capitalist system, stands in need of a strong injection. Its technique, particularly during the present century, has been variously and intricately elaborated ; yet its development has been too consistently along a single line, the line of the naturalistic method. The novel has now reached the point where it cannot grow further without some radical inner alteration. All that remains otherwise is simply the quest for fresh material. One by one all the barriers by which it was once confined have been beaten down. No longer are there any taboos regulating the selection of a subject; the novelist is free to write about whatsoever he pleases. He has also reached what is probably the ultimate in freedom of expression; the whole vocabulary of English is his to command.

Any new won freedom invariably leads to excesses in its name, and thus we can have a fictional world peopled by degenerates ; we can have the once forbidden word brandished in our faces in much the same way that a small boy thumbs his nose. We have, to put it more specifically, certain manifestations of Mr. William Faulkner and Mr. Erskine Caldwell, or of Mr. Ernest Hemingway or Mr. John O’Hara— writers who cannot or will not make sensible use of the freedoms which have been won for them. I say this not to detract from the several qualities of these writers, whose merits and demerits this is not the occasion to discuss, but merely in reference to some of the current phenomena in the novel.

Miss Roberts, like any other writer who is contemporary-minded in matters pertaining to his craft, has been the beneficiary of these enlarged liberties. There is a wide gap between the Kentuckians of whom she writes in “My Heart and My Flesh,” or, for that matter, in “The Time of Man,” and those sentimentally observed characters who people the novels of the late James Lane Allen. But Miss Roberts has held her balance true. She has not avoided the subject of miscegenation, but has handled it powerfully in “My Heart and My Flesh”; she has not idealized her tenant farmers; she can be plain of speech and walk straight through a situation, not around it, when that is needed. But she does not isolate the unpleasant 3tuff in her material and present it as the whole of a fabric in which it forms a part. She is never melodramatic; never cheap. Her work is sometimes obscure and sometimes too circuitous and tenuous in the expression of her thought, but she never surrenders her integrity.

I have called her a path-breaker in the novel not because she has widened the range of its subject matter or because she has made any declaration of freedom from taboos. In that sense she has merely exercised liberties which were already won. Her contribution to the art of fiction is of another kind. It concerns the novelist’s attitude—his approach to his material.

For some time now, chiefly in reviews of American novels, I have been maintaining that realism of itself is not enough, and that unless fiction goes beyond the simulation of fact and unites with it what for lack of a better word I have called vision, the novel cannot find new growth as a form of art. In objectivity more than one novelist has arrived at technical perfection, and in Joyce the subjective method has been pushed to its ultimate bounds. The standard bearers of a proletarian literature assure us that in their tenets there is fresh lifeblood for the novel, but class consciousness is at its core a sterile stimulus to art; nor can the flight from sentiment of any kind indulged in by the hard-boiled school lead to anything but emptiness.

What I am driving at is the infusion of poetry, in a wide sense, into the art of fiction. I am not thinking of the so-called “poetic novel.” What I have in mind is that illuminating flash by which the novelist, dealing with a given situation, contrives to transcend the immediate concerns of his characters and to give to their speech, their thoughts, their actions, a significance that adds something to our understanding of life. Perhaps I can best make my point by taking in illustration a scene from “The Time of Man.”

It is the scene in which Jonas Prather, Ellen Chesser’s first lover, confesses his visits to the house of Jule Nestor, and voices his fear that he may be the father of her baby, born a few days before. Jonas has been in an agony of self-abasement; Ellen is hurt, bewildered, torn between pity for his disgust with himself and the painful sense of something lost to her:

She arose from the step and went down to the path where she stood until he came to stand beside her. She asked him if he would like to go with her to feed the great white turkeys, for they were a sight to see, like great birds, all their feathers in a flutter. At the pens he kept beside her, even following her closely when she went into the barn on some errand. There was a moment when he leaned over the drinking pans to pour the water out, when she hated his pain and his shame, and her hate spread to his limbs and his back, his bent head and reaching hands. She talked about the white turkeys and the price they would bring Miss Tod, or she had him lift one to guess its weight. Or standing at the bars beside the milking lot, when he came forward down the calf pen, when the turkeys were housed in the barn and the hush of their feathers was settling over the dusk, she gathered Jonas with her eyes and pitied him, and pitied herself and all men and women, and took his hand and walked back across the pasture.

Now this scene, of which I have given only the conclusion, is sharply realistic. The conversation between Jonas and Ellen is completely a simulation of fact. In the hands of a lesser craftsman its truth would stop there, with its verisimilitude, and we would know at the end simply that Jonas was ashamed and Ellen hurt. Miss Roberts goes beyond the fact, and in her hands the scene becomes considerably more than a character-revealing incident in the lives of this man and girl. We get from it a poignant sense of the complex character of all human emotions, of the shifting borderline between love and hate, of the commonalty of human beings, men and women together. It is no longer merely a scene between a man and a girl; it is the human being in relation to life.

This, then, is what I mean by the infusion of poetry into the art of fiction. It is the complete lack of this quality in the work, let us say, of Sinclair Lewis, which keeps a piercingly keen observer of all the outward manifestations of character from ever penetrating below the surface of life. Never does he rise above naturalism; never does he touch profound truth.

I find that Mr. Sean O’Faolain, whose excellent first novel, “A Nest of Simple Folk,” had the quality of which I have been speaking, himself holds much the same theory regarding the present situation in fiction. Mr. O’Faolain goes even further. Writing in these pages a year or so ago, he said in his “Plea for a New Type of Novel”:

One even becomes so weary of the naturalistic method, the photographic reality, that one wishes literature could learn again from Greek tragedy and dispense with character altogether. One wishes for that exaltation of mood in which the merely familiar drops away completely and the characters achieve a certain timelessness that, like a piece of headless sculpture or a formal pious picture, holds one as a symbol holds the devout. For all differentiation drops away at moments of high tragedy, and Hamlet and Laertes are indistinguishable in the moment of their death. Lear has no character at all, in the naturalistic sense, and Lady Macbeth moves us most deeply when she walks in her sleep. . . . The greatest kind of literature, is, surely, epic and folk-song; and towards these two, literature, and in a way, all art, is constantly striving backwards out of the tangle of its own sophistication to a dignity that depends largely on the oneness of man.

For myself, I believe it is possible to keep all that has been gained in the exercise of the naturalistic method, and yet to rely more than any novelist has yet succeeded in doing, on the simplification of which Mr. O’Faolain speaks. His reference to the epic and folk-song is peculiarly apt; the introduction of something of their quality into modern literature is simply the parallel expression of the phenomenon we call “modern” art in painting, which is not really modern, but the occasional reversion, apparent in many periods, to those pristine qualities which centuries of developing technical skill, unaccompanied by any commensurate inward growth, have submerged.

It seems to me that Elizabeth Madox Roberts has been working effectively in this direction. Perhaps because of certain unresolved psychological conflicts within herself, her efforts have not always been clearly made. The obscurity of her last book, “He Sent Forth a Raven,” was especially disturbing to anyone who feels, as I do, that she has within her great potentialities for the deepening and strengthening of the fictional art. This was the more unfortunate because in that book she set herself to cope with a great theme, one that our time cannot escape, and this is the conflict between individualism and communal well-being. Even so, in her handling of it, the problem of building an equitable society, of maintaining a just relationship between each man and his fellows, was given an eternal, ageless aspect, and the conflict within man himself which obstructs the attainment of a better ordered world was made tragically plain. But I am inclined to think that the book’s amorphous quality was in part, at least, due to Miss Roberts’s failure to make more use of the naturalistic method. Time and again her writing grew vaporish and clouded. There was less realization of character in “He Sent Forth a Raven” than in any of her work, save the fantasy, “Jingling in the Wind.”

I have said that Miss Roberts has been the subject of some very invalid criticism—the result, usually, of a complete lack of understanding of what she is about. The other day, on picking up Mr. Granville Hicks’s revised edition of his “The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War,” I came upon, in the Preface, a perfect specimen of the sort of thing I mean. As Mr. Hicks, noting “the absence of achievement in the ranks of the non-revolutionary writers,” comes to Miss Roberts, he remarks: ” ‘He Sent Forth a Raven’ fails, like all of Miss Roberts’s books since ‘The Time of Man,’ to present credible characters or a relevant interpretation of life.” It is a very obtuse observation, and at the same time an excellent commentary on the sort of judgment we may expect from any critic whose head is so crammed with Marxian ideology that his reflexes simply do not function unless they are touched off by one of the shibboleths of Marxian dogma.

To speak of the characters in “My Heart and My Flesh” or in “The Great Meadow” as not being credible is to speak nonsense. I am, as a matter of fact, out of patience with the prevailing acceptance of “The Time of Man” as incomparably the best work Miss Roberts has done. Only a few days ago, in preparation for this article, I read through again “My Heart and My Flesh,” for the first time in the eight years since it was published. It impresses me now as an even better piece of work than I thought it then. Of how many books in our time can one say that? I know I have matured in my own understanding of life since the first reading, I know that my ideas concerning the novel have considerably clarified since then, and I have no doubt that these two factors have much to do with my reinforced opinion of the book. It is a novel which has at times an almost terrifying power; dealing with a somewhat Faulknerian theme, it reduces Faulkner to melodramatic claptrap. If America has produced a novel approaching Dostoevsky in psychological intensity, “My Heart and My Flesh” is that novel.

In the matter of realization of character, glance for a moment at the young men in “My Heart and My Flesh” who come to call upon Theodosia Bell. What could be more revealing, and in the space of a single paragraph, than this picture of Conway Brooke:

Conway was lovely in his approach and in his greetings, always offering a charming promise of some approximation. His soft accents were a blend of Virginia English and negro tones. He was slender and tall, slightly vague as to what he wanted of life and the world, happy in himself, a lover of himself and of life. He liked to sit beside Theodosia and talk of his day, uncommitted to it now it was over. He worked somewhere in the town, but his work stood beside him as a commonplace and was never an object to be attained with sweat and thought. He loved himself anew in the warmth of her presence, that she knew. He would sit idly in his chair, faintly smiling, happy over anything she remembered to tell of her day, and happy over his own memories and vague comments. He made light matters of all the heavy affairs of business, of family, of care of any sort. He wore the cleanness and freshness of his linens as if he yielded these qualities with his easy, careless gestures and uncommitted mood. . . . Once, into the midst of the intoxicating vapor which surrounded her sense of him, her own voice spoke aloud, surprising her with its casual finality:

“He’d follow after the last lovely face offered”—and added: “The trick around the eyes and he’d go.” Or this sharply contrasted picture of Albert Stiles:

Albert would come heavily into the parlor although his feet were agile and his large frame was light to his motions. He filled the parlor with his seriousness and with his ponderous future which circled about his agricultural studies. He would lay his pretexts out, this way and that, making his decisions in her presence, but if Conway were at hand he was more light and less committed, as if only Theodosia had his confidence, as if his approach to Conway were still by way of the college they had attended, of the streets they now walked together, of the ball they sometimes tossed back and forth, the dogs they owned in common. His strong body, rich with blood and bulk, seemed about to burst from its clothing as he sat opposite the light, moving from time to time in his seat in an excess of vitality. If he bent over a printed page, his earnest eyes lowered to their drooping, his mouth caught in its relaxed, searching pose, his studious moment would give him back to his boyhood, even to childhood, and Theodosia would smile faintly beside her eyes, deeply under the flesh, in a moment of tenderness. . . . He was a part of the rich insufficiency that surrounded her. “He looks just like Tramp,” she said one day as she mounted the stairway, and Tramp was a great mongrel, part Dane, part collie, that lived somewhere on the street.

In these two brief passages you have in each case, not only the outer and the inner man, but the effect of each upon Theodosia, drawn with an economy and depth that greater names than Miss Roberts’s might envy.

I should like to quote one more passage from “My Heart and My Flesh” in illustration of the perfection with which Miss Roberts can use the naturalistic method, of the degree to which she can make you present at the scene she is describing. Albert’s attention has been deflected from Theodosia by another girl, and he brings her to call, as a way of letting Theodosia know what has happened. As they go out Albert runs back through the doorway and says:

“You see how it is with me, Theodosia?” “Yes.” “I brought her here so’s you’d see. For yourself.” “I see.”

“She’s out at the gate to wait for me.” There was a quiet space while she drew at the string, her ear deaf to the tone, but her fingers tinkering knowingly. “Good-bye,” he said.

She had no reply for this. Her words were caught in her stiff throat, whatever they might have been. He began to walk toward the door, going slowly, on tiptoe, whispering something. He went toward the door aimlessly, moving uncertainly, bent forward under some burden or pain. Then he said, whispering from the doorway:

“Good-bye.

“Good-bye, Theodosia,” still whispering. “Why, good-bye,” she said aloud, smiling toward him. “Good-bye, Albert. Good-bye.”

But there are scenes in “My Heart and My Flesh” which do not stop on this naturalistic perfection, which throw off that same illuminating flare as the one between Jonas Prather and Ellen Chesser. Theodosia, nursing the withered body of her grandfather and pondering the mystery of human personality, somewhere resident in his decrepit frame, or coming back from the verge of madness and detachment from life to a renewed sense of participation in it—these would be peaks of creative power and insight in novelists of the first magnitude. So too would that all but final scene in “The Time of Man” in which Ellen goes out to brave the whips of the masked men who have dragged her husband from his bed and beaten him into unconsciousness.

There are fewer passages of such intense power in “The Great Meadow,” the novel in which Miss Roberts celebrated the heroic story of the opening up of Kentucky. The final scene in that book is to my mind, however, a magnificent projection of her inner theme, which is the power of mind and will over the material world. For in addition to a remarkably fresh and adept psychological handling of the Enoch Arden story—Berk Jarvis returning from his captivity among the Indians to find Diony believing him dead, and married to another man—we have the philosophical undertone of the narrative brought out finally in a great crescendo.

I have just now consciously employed a musical term, because there is evident in all these novels (it is least apparent in “He Sent Forth a Raven”) a distinctly symphonic structure. I do not know any other novelist who has employed such a technique as consciously, or as effectively, as Miss Roberts. In “The Time of Man,” in “My Heart and My Flesh,” and in “The Great Meadow” it is very easily traced. The use of a recurrent and interwoven theme, the rise to a high emotional pitch, followed by closing chords of conflict finally resolved into peace and hope, is characteristic of her major work.

The final paragraph of “My Heart and My Flesh,” for example, uses language to induce the same calm and serenity that is produced by the final, movement of a symphony in which tumult and conflict are eventually resolved:

The leaves of the poplar tree lifted and turned, swayed outward and all quivered together, holding the night cool* ness. The steps returned to the pasture, going unevenly and stopping, going again, restless. They went across the hollow place and came back again toward the rise where the cows lay. They walked among the sleeping cows, but these did not stir for it was a tread they knew.

I have tried to make clear what I consider to be the chief values in Miss Roberts’s work, and its importance in relation to the future development of the novel. I have not meant to suggest that she stands alone in the effort to deepen the channels of fiction; Mary Webb and Virginia Woolf in England have performed a comparable service; our own Ellen Glasgow, whose true stature is only now beginning to be realized, is another novelist who penetrates beyond the fact and brings to fiction the poet’s vision and that tragic sense of life which no artist can fail to possess in some measure if he is to draw any meaning from man’s relation to his world. It is only in work of comparable depth and integrity that the novel car be saved from coming to a dead end. There must be this union of fact with vision, there must be this cutting away of unessentials, and an end of dependence upon pictorial reality, if the art of fiction is to advance.

The “Ulysses” of Joyce is a monumental book, but there is no need to do again what was done there. I am certain that its influence upon the future course of fiction will be very slight. It leads nowhere because it stands on the edge of disintegration and looks down into the black deeps of man’s unconscious self. Only as man knows himself can he live; only so can he express himself in his art. You cannot break man up into his component parts and leave him so, and still give meaning to his actions, his aspirations, and his fate.

I said there was need for more mention of those qualities in Miss Roberts’s work which are impeding her development. They are in part the product, it seems to me, of a too great turning inward—an ever present danger to the mystically inclined mind, The very habits of thought which give depth and power to her work are also those which obscure it. The effect is apparent not only in the general structure of her last novel, but in her language as well. Her style, as everyone who knows her work is aware, is extraordinarily perceptive, rich in the power of suggestion, and sustained by subtle and very beautiful rhythms. But it is sometimes, and, I think, increasingly, indirect and tenuous. Even her very pronounced sensitivity to the shapes and forms of things results as often in coming between the reader and her thought as it does in giving dimension to the thing described.

If she can achieve a greater measure of simplification and directness without sacrifice of depth and power—and I believe that is possible—if she can isolate herself less, her work to come would find a wider acceptance. Art has a social as well as an individual value, and in an age that needs spiritual quickening and deepening more than it needs anything else, the artist who has the qualities to meet that need should reach not the few, but the many.

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