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American Panorama

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Children of God. By Vardis Fisher. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Christ in Concrete. By Pietro di Donate Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.50. Tommy Gallagher’s Crusade, By James T. Farrell. New York: The Vangard Press. $1.00. Night of the Poor. By Frederic Prokosch. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

The subject of popular American novels is found today almost entirely in the American scene either in the past or the present. For Vardis Fisher the story of the Mormon people is the theme of “Children of God” but he treats it less in the spirit of the historical novel than in that of contemporary realism. The novel might easily have been a trilogy. Joseph Smith, the man of visions, is the first center of interest, with Brigham Young an emerging figure until Smith has been killed; afterwards, the man of action is the dominating personality until his death. In the latter part of the book that narrates the fortunes of the “Saints” without a masterful leader there is an anticlimax in material that is responsible for a lag in interest. The nearly eight hundred pages of the novel are thronged with figures that have individuality. The great sweep of the Mormon migration, from the East into Missouri to what is now Utah, gives an epic character to a book that is as much history as fiction. Vardis Fisher, a son of the Mormons, views the people of his narrative sympathetically, but he does not gild them with romance. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are men of destiny but they are not hedged about by divinity. One realizes that here is one of the significant episodes of American history, dramatic and full of interest, as vital in its way as the landing at Plymouth or the conquest of Texas. The variety of human character depicted—good, bad, and indifferent; weak, strong, cruel, or tender—is remarkable both as probable truth and as an example of the resources of the powers of the novelist.

It may be admitted that the reader tires of a continuous reading of a story in which so many minor and often petty figures move, and he returns because his intellectual rather than his imaginative interest has been aroused. The strength of the book is in its realistic integrity. The mind gathers and shapes like molded figures in groups a memorial representation of what has been read. It appears a better and a more powerful novel in retrospect than while the somewhat tawdry episodes are being dramatized by the author’s words. It will have a permanent place in American literature not because it is even relatively a great novel but because it has recorded in fiction better than it is likely ever to be recorded again a vast and important historical drama.

“Children of God” illustrates the nature of the amalgam of which the American nation has been made and the migratory character of most of our history. Much of contemporary fiction owes its origin to the same two characteristics of our life, heightened today by the clash of national temperaments and the solvent influences of depression. “Christ in Concrete,” by Pietro di Donato, is as American in locale as it is Italian in spirit. The distinguishing trait of the book is a spiritual quality that makes poetry out of bricks and trowels and minor tragedies. Mr. di Donato uses plain and ugly words as naturally as Italian workmen do at their play and at their work. His episodes include the sweat, the dirt, the blood, and the lusty humor and love of his people. His own innocence and richness of human understanding keep the book itself from ever suffering. There is a delicacy of feeling perceptible that is cleansing. The passionate devotion of the lad, whose father has been immolated in the stuff of his own workmanship and who must conquer life or be destroyed with his mother’s family, is hymned like a lyric strain throughout the book, which is almost as well classified as poetry as it is as prose narrative. The author has found for himself a thick, overpacked style that is at times contorted. It has a gnarled beauty, a savory suggestiveness, and always is free from quaintness. The honesty, the freshness of diction, the earth-rooted vitality, and the poetic insight of “Christ in Concrete” are all incitements to hope for the literature of a land that must see its future in terms of mingled bloods.

James T. Farrell has written an editorial rather than a novel under the title “Tommy Gallagher’s Crusade.” It is a brief series of episodes presenting the activities of a young Irish-American who sells “Father Moylan’s Christian Justice” on Brooklyn curbs and comforts his misery with the thought, “Hitler had known days like this, tool” The portrait is real enough but Tommy is not a Studs Lonigan and his story lacks the racy coarse vigor of the Lonigan trilogy. Tommy is merely a vacuum with a voice, and human nature abhors a vacuum. Mr. Farrell’s book will give vicarious satisfaction to readers who would enjoy seeing the beating-up of the Tommy Gallaghers who shout for Father Coughlin and Hitler. In this sense it may be successful propaganda but it will scarcely win converts. From a critical view a futile sorehead like Tommy has a place less at the center than as a minor character in a novel.

The Tom of Frederic Prokosch’s “Night of the Poor” is without identity: he is the anonymous eyes and sensibilities of youth wandering from Wisconsin to Texas, crossing on his way Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Louisiana. The waifs of the road are his comrades and his eyes roam with tender sensuousness and poetic perception over the scenes through which he passes. He never enters into the inner circles, the integrated communities. He is going from one home lost to another that awaits him, and as he drifts southward he passes through a drifting world. “They were the stray and unexplored, the ones who’d never crystallized. , . . The unfulfilled, a whole continent of them, groping through the chronic forgetfulness of their minds and the pointless fever of their hearts.” This is an army as numerous as that army moving across a part of the continent in “The Grapes of Wrath.” But neither this book nor the army, which is no army but only countless creatures, has a driving purpose. Mr. Prokosch writes as the poet rather than the propagandist. The poetic beauty of his language and his vision—that and the sensuous fascination for him of the naked human body—are all that this book has in common with his earlier “The Asiatics” and “The Seven Who Fled.” Yet here is the “Night of the Poor”; here, too, is the American panorama in terms as real as those of Mr. Farrell’s pictures of futility or Mr. di Donato’s of victory through lust for life; and as definitely in terms of today as Mr. Fisher’s “Children of God” is a “chronicle of American life” in a dated past. Mr. Prokosch in turning from Asia to America for his scene has yielded to the prevailing interest in the American novel. It is concerned with the American scene. An “American epic,” a “chronicle of American life,” a “new American phenomenon” in “the contemporary scene” are the phrases used by the publishers to describe two of the novels reviewed here. “Christ in Concrete” is represented as evolving “the whole panorama of existence in a city slum” and “Night of the Poor” as presenting through a boy’s mind and heart a “panorama of his native land.” Meanwhile, though the “contemporary scene” is being richly documented, the Novel suffers a lack of structure, of memorable scenes, of universal characterization, of philosophic insight—in short, of high creative art.


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