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Careers at Crossroads

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

The Web and the Rock.
By Thomas Wolfe, New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Adventures of a Young Man. By John Dos Passos. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. New York: The Viking Press. $2.75.

As spring drowsed into summer, three books were being read with unusual interest on both sides of the Atlantic, not only because they were good books, but also because they were signposts in the development of important careers: one at its end, another at a dark and important crossroad, a third at the full bound of its success.

None of these books was anticipated more eagerly, read with greater care, than Thomas Wolfe’s “The Web and the Rock.” It is sad that this new novel and any other posthumous publication of Wolfe must be viewed against the background of what he might have written. It is sad, but it is inevitable. Probably the most exciting novels published in America during the last ten years were “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River.” A great wind roared through these novels as through all of Wolfe’s writing, an unruly but magnificent wind, as American as the wind rushing off the Rockies across the great plains, bending the wheat eastward. Everyone knew that Wolfe, perhaps more than any other man of his generation, had it in him to write the great American novel. The question was, could he learn to control the wind? He was like an automobile with unlimited horsepower, a tiny steering wheel, and no brakes. If he could somehow improve that steering apparatus, build on brakes, he might become one of the greatest novelists of all time. Therefore, when he died last summer at the age of thirty-seven, the first reaction was sadness to see a career so rich in potentiality abruptly ended; the second was curiosity concerning the million words he left behind him. Now a large segment of Thomas Wolfe’s literary estate is before us, in “The Web and the Rock,” and it would be a joy to be able to say, “Here is the evidence! Here is a greater book than Thomas Wolfe has ever written before. Here is the promise that if he had lived he would have written the greatest book anyone expected of him.” But the admirers of Thomas Wolfe, expecting so much of “The Web and the Rock,” will be disappointed.

“This novel, then,” Wolfe wrote in a foreword, “marks not only a turning away from the books I have written in the past, but a genuine spiritual and artistic change . . . the most objective novel I have written.” It is a little less than that. He has abandoned Eugene Gant and put in his place George Webber, and changed the names of some of the places where the protagonist lives, but the story is essentially the same one Wolfe has been writing from the first: “the story of a man’s hunger in his youth.” The first three hundred pages are a briefer parallel to the material in “Look Homeward, Angel.” A 250-word note then sweeps over the entire European experience recounted in “Of Time and the River,” and the remaining four hundred pages of the book tell the story of the protagonist’s first serious love affair. The first three hundred pages contain some of the firmest of Wolfe’s writing; the last four hundred contain all the undisciplined emotion, the ranting and raving and vagueness that became familiar in the earlier books. The whole effect is that of a book as readable as either of the other novels, as brilliant, as uneven, as full of mixed figures, cliches, overwriting, as bright with lightning flashes that seem to cut to the very heart of life, a book with a big voice, a book by one of the greatest writers America has ever had, but by no means the great novel he might have written.

It would be unfair to predict on the basis of this book the career Thomas Wolfe might have had. Probably he had but a single story to tell, and it woidd have been the same story whether told of Eugene Gant or George Webber or Thomas Wolfe. He might have gone on like Walt Whitman, rewriting his story over and over again, and as he grew older the book might have gained in objectivity and artistic form and restraint while it lost some of its freshness and wonder. That is what might have been. What shall be is easier to say. Unless the rest of his posthumous publications are much different, Thomas Wolfe will be remembered for what he could do, rather than for what he did; for his force, rather than for his accomplishment; for the brilliance of small units like the stories “Death, the Proud Brother” and “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” and many passages in the first novel and a few in this last one, rather than for the perfection of any book as a whole. No American writer could do more than Wolfe at his best, but his writing was destined to be the uneven power of a thunderstorm, rather than the sustained sweep of a hurricane.

John Dos Passos’ new novel, “Adventures of a Young Man,” was opened eagerly because it might answer a riddle. Two years ago Dos Passos published an article called “Farewell to Europe,” in which he paid his respects to Kremlin politics behind the Loyalist lines in Spain. Before that time he had been hailed heartily as Communist fellow-traveler and hope of the proletarian novel. Thereafter, he was hailed heartily as Trotskyite, Fascist, capitalist, or merely idiot-depending on how angry the commentator happened to be. But amidst all the critical storm, the trilogy “U. S. A.” stood as the most substantial monument of proletarian literature this country had produced. The riddle was, what did Trot-skyite-Fascist-capitalist-Communist-proletarian novelist Dos Passos really think?

“Adventures of a Young Man” goes a long way toward answering the question. John Dos Passos is a friend of the underdog and a hater of “money culture,” as he always has been. He is not a Stalinite—and probably never was— simply because he fears a heavy centralization of governmental power. This lesson is repeated over and over again in the new novel. It is the story of an American middle-class radical, who becomes a member of the Communist party through intellectual persuasion but is sincere enough to have his head bashed in by company thugs for what he thinks. The more he learns about the plight of the common man, the greater his sympathy; the more he learns about the inner politicking of the party, the greater his disillusionment. The leadership is separated from the masses, he decides. Finally he leaves the leadership, casts his lot with the masses, and goes to fight in Spain. He is soon liquidated—apparently on information furnished by the comrades back in New York.

If this new novel lacks the smashing impact of the “U. S. A.” trilogy it is possibly because Dos Passos has a new hero. In the trilogy his hero was society. The long procession of characters across the stage was used merely to illuminate the problems of the hero. Rut in “Adventures of a Young Man” the hero is an individual, and minute analysis of his development replaces the sweeping panorama of a money culture. Furthermore, it is more thrilling to point out on a grand scale what is wrong with society than to tangle oneself in the red tape consequent upon an attempt to repair society; the New Deal has proved that. But the book is better than it will be said to be by those who consider Dos Passos a fallen comrade. The characters are not great; the action is an occasionally monotonous round of women and meetings; the implication of the book is defeatist rather than magnificent affirmation; but there is about the book a convincing sincerity and penetration. It took courage to write this attack on the Left leadership and to burn so many bridges. It will take more courage to continue on the same path toward the orthodox novel, away from the News Reel and the Camera Eye, away from the hard-hitting dramas of society as a whole. The new book, it is announced, is the “first of a series of contemporary portraits.”

The third book was opened eagerly because it is by the most promising young novelist in America. What Thomas Wolfe was in 1930, John Steinbeck has been for the last several years. Lacking Wolfe’s endless memory for subjective details, Wolfe’s occasional lightning flashes, still he had almost from the beginning qualities Wolfe never attained: objectivity, solidity, and, above all, the ability to lose himself in something greater than himself, the ability to connect his wires to a voltage greater than his own. In Steinbeck’s case this is the problem of the common man. For several years now he has been producing warm, powerful portraits of common men, each book showing some advance over the one preceding, each book showing great power moving toward maturity. “Of Dubious Battle,” stories like “Chrysanthemums” and “The Red Pony,” and “Of Mice and Men” were landmarks that led his readers to expect soon the great novel. “The Grapes of Wrath” will justify their hopes.

It is the story of the Okies, the Oklahoma farmers driven from their land by dust and depression and centralizing economics, driven to seek vainly for asylum in California. The central characters are the Joads, Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle John, Ma and Pa, Tom and Rose of Sharon, Al and the kids. They are so alive that they almost step out of the pages of the book, and when lusty old Grandpa is left in an unmarked grave beside the road because the undertaker wants forty dollars to bury him, the reader feels a sense of personal loss. This ability John Steinbeck has: to breathe life into his characters and to tear at our hearts with their problems and their struggles. Whereas Dos Passos’ social books are built on hate for an economic system, “The Grapes of Wrath” is built on a love for the people bound to that system. It is a significant difference.

The Joads are related to the whole exodus by means of impersonal chapters, a sort of poetic history, which form an interesting parallel to Dos Passos’ News Reels although they occupy far more space than Dos Passos ever gave his device. For this reader they occupy a little too much space; he would be happier if the book leaned a bit more heavily on the Joads’ own story. He would be happier if the material were never overdramatized. Rut these are small cavils. “The Grapes of Wrath” is a book with big shoulders. No American book of our time is more moving; no book is a better indication of what the proletarian novel can be. A comparison with Dickens is inevitable, and yet Steinbeck is not like Dickens except in his fierce sympathy and in the moving quality of his writing. He is not another Dickens or anyone else; he is himself, a force in his own right.

And he is still the most promising novelist in America. The only change in his status is that “The Grapes of Wrath” has given rich fruition to that promise, richer hope of what is to come. There is no sign yet that Steinbeck is at the height of his powers. No other young novelist has such a magnificent arsenal of weapons. The only question now is: How high can Steinbeck go?


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