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The Dandridges and the Gants

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

River House. By Stark Young. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

Look Homeward, Angel. By Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

Stark Young’s “River House” and Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” are both novels about the South written by Southerners. But a foreigner would not readily discover in the two books reflections of the same civilization. “River House” is a backward glance at a dying culture submerged and overwhelmed not merely by America but by its own Americanized youth. “Look Homeward, Angel” is the saga of a human soul, the soul of a boy who happened to grow up in North Carolina.

Many of Mr. Young’s most ardent admirers have doubted whether the novel was his true metier: it has been in his dramatic criticism, his “encaustics,” his vignettes that they, felt most the force of his personality, a personality rich in artistic sincerity, in restraint, in spiritual discretions. But I think that in “River House” Mr. Young has done a valuable piece of work and one that could have been done in no other form. Who else in America is so well fitted to portray the conflict between the older South and its Americanized offspring? And how surely he has placed his finger on the real tragedy of that conflict: not that—as Major Dandridge of River House would have put it—the South was defeated but not beaten, but that Major Dandridge’s daughter-in-law did not know how many years it took to get from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. Mr. Young paints with infinite lovingness the aging inmates of River House: the Major, Aunt Ellen, Aunt Rosa, the horsey Mr. Bobo, the vatic “Cud’n Tom.” The old ladies, particularly, are genuine miniature masterpieces. But Mr. Young knows also the incoherent agony of young John Dandridge’s heart; he knows why the young Southerner finds Southern family life with its garrulous intrusions so extremely oppressive; he knows why John’s wife, who seems to the Major no better than she ought to be, finds the older sexual ethic of the South really obscene. “River House” is not an important novel, but it is filled with understanding.

I should call “Look Homeward, Angel” the work of a genius, but that the word is somewhat overworn of late. In any case I believe it is the South’s first contribution to world literature. I am aware that “Uncle Remus” is read wherever English is spoken and that in our own generation writers like DuBose Heyward and Julia Peterkin have created real literature. But it seems to me extremely significant that generally speaking the Southern writer has had to turn to the negro when he wanted to paint life as it is. The life of the white Southerner has been for political and traditional reasons so compact of legal fictions and dying social shibboleths that it has been difficult to do anything with it unless one sentimentalized. Even “River House” had to be composed in a minor key, perhaps the only key available to a defeated culture. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, has constructed a really tremendous novel out of the mean and sordid life of a North Carolina town. A lesser artist looking on that scene, would have become excitedly denunciatory or triumphantly analytical and would have discovered in it no more than another Zenith City or another Winesburg, Ohio. What Mr. Wolfe beheld was the travail of the human spirit, blind to its own stupidities, its cowardice, its lusts. His novel is of epic proportions, physically and spiritually.

His hero’s father “reeled down across the continent” from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and spawned a family of children as terrifyingly different from each other as most brothers and sisters really are: Helen, with her tempestuous affections and antagonisms and her inherited bibulous tendencies; Luke, with his genius for acquaintance and his incapacity for real feeling; Steve, whining, boasting, and stinking of nicotine; Eugene, about whom this epic really centers; Ben, with his fierce spiritual isolation, perpetually murmuring over his shoulder to his particular angel: “God! Listen to that, won’t you!” Above them all the father, W. O. Gant, towers like the elder Karamazov, screaming profanity and obscenity at his wife and children, reciting eternally from Shakespeare and a dozen other bards, roaring for every one’s pity, drinking himself into cancer, and being hauled out of brothels by his eldest son.

Which of Thomas Wolfe’s particular skills has contributed most to this book’s making? Over and over again his prose slips into sheer poetry. Over and over again one ironic sentence creates a character. But above all his loving pity for all of lost humanity gives his work that religious quality one gets in Dostoevsky.

Does Mr. Wolfe add anything to our comprehension of the South? It is a difficult question to answer. His book is not about the South of Major Dandridge at all. Indeed, that Old South is not very obvious to anybody who ever saw “Altamont,” which is the name Mr. Wolfe gives his native Asheville. The Gants are certainly not typical of the Southern upper class, though neither are they quite what that upper class means by “common.” They are socially un-classifiable. “Look Homeward, Angel” is not concerned with the problem of a surviving Southern culture. When its author mentions the South it is chiefly to speak of “the exquisite summer of the South,” the “opulent South,” or the “fabulous South.” The natural beauty of the land lies deep in his blood but the politico-social problems of its people touch him scarcely, at all.

I do not believe that Mr. Wolfe’s novel has invalidated one iota the significance of whatever the Old South produced of human beauty; and I am certain that Mr. Wolfe himself would feel soiled at being thought of as a “debunker.” But I do think that he is the first novelist of the new dispensation in the Southern States, the first to grow up sufficiently outside of River House to look with a child’s eyes at the life about him. Whenever, as in Poland or Italy or Ireland, the sense of a culture distorted by outside pressure has directed the artist’s eyes to programs like national resurgence, the highest art has been the chief sufferer. The South has labored precisely under that handicap; unable to recapture a social synthesis that Reconstruction had destroyed, it had not the heart, or the stomach either, to adopt frankly the American solution of life. Nor has Mr. Wolfe adopted it, but his conflict is no longer the political conflict of the South and the North but the artistic conflict of his own spirit with the souls about him. With “Look Homeward, Angel” the South has contributed to the literature of the world a novel, strongly provincial in its flavor, universal in its terrible tragedy.


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