Ellen Rogers. By James T. Farrell. The Vanguard Press. $2.50. I’ll Never Go There Any More, By Jerome Weidman. Simon and Schuster. $2.50. Days Are As Grass. By Wallace McElroy Kelly. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.75. Years of Illusion. By Harold Sinclair. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.75. Wine of the Country. By Hamilton Basso. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.75. Jacob, By Irving Fineman. Random House. $2.50. The Century Was Young. By Louis Aragon. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $2.75. Salt of the Earth. By Joseph Wittlin. Sheridan House. $2.50.
In these times of high hope and deep despair, of frustration and watery values, and perhaps of revitalization of dead ways of life, books roll on but literature, at least in America, is at a standstill. Entertainment there is in plenty and highly skilled it is too; but of writing at once serious, profound, and beautiful there is none. The heel continues to be the predominant protagonist—he is virtually a national literary hero—and the blood-and-thunder mode of the post-Hemingway period remains as popular as ever. In most cases our authors seem intent on proving to the reading public that each has the hairiest chest. They shun “sensitivity” like mustard gas, or when they attempt it, produce stillborn children with the wizened features of their forefathers —faded imitations of a lush romanticism.
This is not a particularly novel state of affairs. Our important authors have either for the most part been neglected during their lifetimes (Dickinson and Melville), or have died young (Crane and Wolfe), or have expatriated themselves (James and Eliot). The lesser lights, many of them highly talented, have shown a genius for seeking out dead alleys where none seemed to exist and burying themselves in frustration and oblivion. It is unnecessary to list names—they are well known. But one who shall not go unmentioned, because in his case there is great talent and still hope, is James T. Farrell.
One Farrell book is very much like another—there has been little change since “Studs Lonigan.” And “Ellen Rogers” is neither the best nor the worst of the lot, technically speaking; but as far as content goes it is a new low for Farrell. Imagine Studs Lonigan and Danny O’Neill as two characters in a vacuum, going through the motions of their way of life without apparent motivation, without a carefully elaborated documentation of the social forces which created them, and you have a picture of Ed Lanson, chief heel of “Ellen Rogers.” It is as though the moral drive in Farrell, his sense of outrage, has abated and is outdistanced by his literary love of violence and treachery. The book is about a heel (two heels, in fact, since Ellen is quite a heel in her own right). The locale is Chicago, as always, and there is even a reference or two to the Lonigans and O’Neills, but it is dead stuff. Farrell’s Chicago-Irish vein was played out long ago, possibly with the conclusion of “Studs Lonigan.” It is time that Farrell left the experiences of his youth (fascinating because so bitter), took stock, and began to create around his adult life. A most patient and faithful public is showing signs of fatigue.
Compared to Farrell’s plodding St. Bernard, Jerome Weidman’s talent is a flea, parasitical on the body of honest literature and capable of making itself felt only by its sting. The characters of his third novel, “I’ll Never Go There Any More,” are the same unpleasant types of “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” “What’s in It for Me?” and such stories as “Portrait of a Gentleman.” Weidman’s formula is: be tough, be sharp; mix first personal singular (which simplifies the writing angle) with phony dialect, realistic backdrops, tough characters, neat plot, and nine-tenths suspense. In his new novel he is supposed to have left Evil for Good and portrayed the hero as an upstanding college boy from the sticks who walks out on a gang of New York lowlifes. But the hero is as full of wisecracks as Harry Bogen of the earlier books, and just as mean. When his summer pals are in a tough spot he walks out on them; he has had no compunctions, however, about sharing their turbid life, about sleeping indiscriminately with the women and scheming with the men. But the reader is unmoved except by boredom, for characters and setting are obviously phony. And the hero is no hero at all, simply a device to achieve unity, which is destroyed by the “literary” sections in which Weidman attempts to advance beyond the prose poverty of his first two novels, offering chunks of raw writing outlining the histories of his “people.” The prose is as undeviating, as unlightened by variety of tone and pace, as flat, passionless, and completely on the surface as ever—much form and no content, like a hand-tailored sackcloth suit.
Wallace McElroy Kelly’s first novel, “Days Are As Grass,” is full of good intentions, but disappointing as the winner of the Alfred A. Knopf Fellowship in fiction for 1940. It shines with honesty and sincerity and yet the net effect is to make one feel that it is immoral. Such is the perversity of art that the artist with the least moral intentions may create the most moral work. Morality in art depends upon the audience for its effectiveness. If the effect of a work is conducive to spiritual and social rapport, if it strengthens one’s belief in the value of life and at the same time intensifies one’s capacity to enjoy it, then the work may be termed morally good; but if the effect is to make us accept the most significant human events, such as birth and death, with an annoyed shrug of the shoulders, then the work may be termed morally bad. And that is precisely the case with Mr. Kelly’s novel. His people and their activities seem unimportant, their psychology infantile; and the prose is muddy, a fusion of tritenesses with touches of a faded romanticism suggestive of a thrice-emasculated D. H. Lawrence. A sympathetic character, Pick Hayden, a peasant type of pioneer Kentucky stock, is neglected in favor- of Florrie Evans, an insubstantial figure. The novel is neither historical nor regional, though it lays claims to belonging to both categories.
In the same vein, but with a broader canvas and surer detail, is “Years of Illusion,” which concludes the history of Everton, Illinois, begun in “American Years” and continued in “The Years of Growth.” The span of “Years of Illusion” is from 1900 to the beginning of the First World War. Everton is a typical Midwestern town and its history is supposedly the history of the nation. There is little to be said here about Mr. Sinclair’s novels besides that they are competent and sometimes pedestrian.
The same cannot be said of “Wine of the Country”: it is competent and never pedestrian. If anything, it errs on the romantic side. Hamilton Basso is an intelligent novelist and his new book too is intelligent, but it simply doesn’t come off. Tait Ravenwill (rather a repulsive name for the type of intellectual portrayed), the young anthropologist, is not believable as a high type of thinker and individual. His rather commonplace anthropological statements and discussions and his method of attacking his personal problems spoil the portrait. In the latter respect he is hardly wiser than his brother Ned, a murderous sunlit child of nature (full of obsessions about a dead woman named Mary) who hunts Old Red the deer with his hands and who symbolizes for Tait the Southern, sensual way of life as contrasted with the Northern, intellectual way symbolized by Dr. Anthony Prescott, a world-famous New England anthropologist. For a short time Tait gives up the life of the mind for that of the body, finding the former futile in a world of chaos and swift, incomprehensible change. During that time he and his wife Ellen live in the South, the setting for the second half of the book in antithesis to the first, laid in New England. This second half is superior to the first both in drama and description. Writing which in the first half was lush and sodden becomes suddenly hard, spare. The South is evidently Mr. Basso’s homeground.
Perhaps the strangest and most disappointing novel of the entire group is Irving Fineman’s “Jacob.” That it is disappointing is not entirely the author’s fault. Had Thomas Mann never written “Joseph and His Brothers” Mr. Fine-man’s book would be extremely interesting to say the least. But coming so soon after Mann’s magical performance, it is dull by contrast. Obvious autobiography and obvious modernization, such as the implication that Esau was the Hitler type and Jacob the democratic man-of-good-will, and such familiarities as calling Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin “Benny” are annoying after one has been conditioned to Mann’s account. It is difficult to understand why the task was attempted, and what, in the author’s mind, justified the attempt. The novel is keenly written, of course, which is not surprising, coming as it does from the author of “Dr. Addams.”
There are unmistakable signs of a spiritual and artistic reawakening in America, in large part due to the European catastrophe, though the spread of good music and the renascence of painting and etching preceded it. The nation is stirring at its roots, re-examining its folklore and socio-political philosophy. This thing called “democracy” is being looked into—in the interests of national defense and the preservation of civil liberties for the dangerous post-war period. The vicious Hitlerian assault upon the world’s moral way of life is not without its good effects. It has enriched our population with the presence of some of the greatest of the Europeans, whose ideas are finding in America a more fertile ground than ever before. And it has made more clear to us our national and our human destiny. We know now that we cannot shut our eyes and ears to immorality and hope to remain moral in the supposedly antiseptic cloisters of our minds.
In view of this reawakening, is it base optimism to suppose that the future will bring a renascence of American fiction? But for the present we must content ourselves with translation if we wish to read novels of significance, power, and beauty. Such novels are Louis Aragon’s “The Century Was Young” and Joseph Wittlin’s “Salt of the Earth.” Both books deal with aspects of the First World War—Aragon’s with the decadence of French life in the two decades and a half preceding the war, Wittlin’s with the role of the common man, the laborer and peasant, the “Unknown Soldier” of the war. Aragon is a Frenchman and Wittlin a Pole; national differences are clearly marked in their work—Aragon’s book is racy, morbid, brilliant, and citified; while Wittlin’s is somber and of the earth. “The Century Was Young” is one of those cancerous books which are the product of literary genius. Aragon is sometimes erratic and perverse but he is always brilliant. He has exhibited literary precocity since the age of seven, when he composed a novel of fifteen chapters in as many pages. His first volume of poems, “Feu de Joie,” won him critical acclaim at twenty-three. At the close of the War he helped launch the Dadaist movement and became a problem child of contemporary French literature. From Dadaism he made his way boldly to surrealism and after a hectic but essentially unsatisfying period of linguistic and psychological experimentation he emerged, as he himself says, into the real world, the world of hunger and spiritual starvation and multitudinous suffering and above all of great ideals which make the real world worth fighting and dying for. He became the editor of the Popular Front evening paper Ce Soir, and at the same time he engaged in other socially-conscious journalistic pursuits. Finding these were insufficient to his spiritual needs he turned to the novel of social realism, using Balzac and Zola as models, and began writing the epic of his experiences under the title of “The Real World.” It was then that he discovered that he had combined his early literary fervor and ingenuity with the warmth and power which resulted from his almost religious belief in the goodness and justness of his work and life.
“The Century Was Young” follows “The Bells of Basel” and “Residential Quarter” in the series. It opens with the Trocadero Exposition in 1889 and closes with the outbreak of the First World War. In it are contained samples of all classes of French society, from the bloodless aristocrats who play the wheels at Monte Carlo to the whores in the slums of Paris. The central figure is Pierre Mercadier, a frustrated teacher of history in the provinces who walks out on his family one day never to return, taking all his inherited wealth with him. It is not the kind of book that can properly be discussed in a few words, It must be experienced. It is a great book, a world of thought and sensuousness. Compared to “Salt of the Earth” it is raw and undigested, but its rawness is that of genuine power in full play. It is complete in itself, while “Salt of the Earth” must wait until all of “The Saga of the Patient Footsoldier” is published before it can be fairly appraised.
The first Polish edition of “Salt of the Earth” appeared in 1935, the first English edition in 1939, and now at last we have this translation by Pauline de Chary. Much water has flowed under the bridge since the Polish edition, and still more since Wittlin began work in 1925 on this project. “Salt of the Earth” is only the first installment, although it took Mr. Wittlin ten years to write it—ten years of planning, patient research, and careful chiseling of phrase after phrase. So much water has flowed under the bridge, in fact, that one wonders whether Mr. Wittlin’s views upon war have changed in relation to the present conflict, or whether he sees the Second World War with the bitterness and biting irony which characterize his insight into the First. A large proportion of the cynicism, particularly of youth, towards the present conflict stems from a thwarted inherent idealism, from profound disillusionment regarding the nature of man in the dominant socio-economic system. Its foundation lies in the typical post-War education, which is compounded of skeptical and revelatory autobiography, fiction, history, movies, poetry, and painting. The spectacle of international economic competition flowering into systematized mass slaughter, together with the music of the pseudo-patriotic asseverations of the last war, was cause enough for bitterness and the preparation of resistance toward the expected repetition. Mr. Wittlin’s account of the war is full of this bitterness although he does not present it from the point of view of the enlightened but from the eyes of a peasant, Peter Neviadomski, to whom the war is a natural occurrence, something like earthquakes and the plague. The Emperor Franz Joseph, the direct representative of God among God’s children in the Empire, sends Peter a printed notice which Peter is sure is a personal appeal since he cannot read, and Peter hastens to prepare himself for God’s war. There is never a question in his mind of disobedience or deceit. He has much faith in men, particularly in those who are above him through education and power. He has almost as much faith in men as he has in the earth or his beloved dog.
Peter Neviadomski is a wonderful person, someone never to be forgotten. A railway porter in a little Galician town, the most he wants of life is an official railway cap (to permit him to salute people), a cottage with a mouse-trap and cheese and a bride with a dowry.
Wittlin’s irony is Biblical as compared with Thomas Mann’s, for example, which is musical. His irony and quiet fury are those of the idealistic ascetic steeped in the Old Testament and the Odyssey. His compassion for the ignorant and lowly of the earth, breathed into his work, imparts to it a glowing poetic quality and a sublimity of soul that may well be treasured in these troubled times. This first volume takes Peter Neviadomski through the ordeals of mobilization and preparation for the front. It is a volume to be read again and again. It has the satisfying quality of good music.