Dodsworth. By Sinclair Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Victim and Victor. By John R. Oliver. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $2.50. Hunky. By Thames Williamson. New York: Coward McCatm, $2.50. The Unlit Lamp. By Radclyffe Hall. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $3.00. The Wave. By Evelyn Scott. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50. Wolf Solent. By John Cowper Powys. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster. $5.00.
There was a good tradition in medieval times, which gave to stories their clear outlines, their simple emotional language, and their freedom from what we called later “sensibility.” That tradition was the anonymous author, who, up to about the time of Marie de France, never let his shadow fall across the pages of his narrative.
With the known author came the obtrusive author, of whose kind we have plenty to-day, having forgot, in our zeal for “publicity,” “returns,” and “advertising,” that it is spiritually right to be humble. The author, as we approach the “modern technique” in novel writing, takes the stage, crowds his characters into the wings—or fashions a dramatic character who is merely another self — and makes of story telling an egotistic opportunity for a public exhibition. Such subjectifying of fiction comes under various names; the present term is “stream of consciousness” in which the real stream is that of the author’s mind, and in which the inactive world of reflection and an introvert’s self-explorations are substitutes for a comprehensive understanding of one’s fellows. Fiction is steadily being impaled upon the pikes of analytic psychology; one of these days our decadent self-interpretation is going to be the last illness of the modern novel, just as hypochondria is a symptom of physical disintegration. We may, talk “new treatment” as we will; our fiction is steadily going to pieces, and for vitality we have substituted fever.
The hopes of the novel in the future will lie probably with those authors who are not talked about in the most extravagantly advanced reviews, authors who are to-day writing new stories in much the same way that Richardson did, and Hardy, and Jane Austen—authors like Francis Brett Young, Sheila Kaye-Smith, C. E. Montague, Willa Cather, and others, whose respect for the people around them has not yet given way to a re-interpretation of the universe into the pattern of their own highly valued mental kinks, but whose health and sanity allow them an interest in observed character, normal and full of philosophy, as are most men’s lives, if you watch them. It is a commonplace that the subjective novel is just now a representation of what Wells called “The Secret Places of the Heart,” where men keep hidden those sulphurous monsters of lust and erotic ambition which grow dangerous if one pays attention to them.
Sinclair Lewis, fortunate in his wrathy spirit which focuses his hot intelligence upon the more stupid or silly of his fellow Americans, has, because of his social warfare (a guerrilla warfare, be it said, with one thin nervous bandit sniping from behind convenient bridge tables, medical laboratories, and outhouses), kept himself in the background, his characters to the front, and has always written stories which are alive, objectively comprehensible, and usually to the point. He has created characters: there is Babbitt, childish and rich, with his safety razor slot in the bath room; Carol, good looking and loaded with ivy-grown college ideals, about to rebuild the eternally secure Zenith; Martin Arrowsmith, fierce in his dealings with microbes and boards of health, and his loyal weary wife, slangy, red headed, plucky eternally without cause; and there is always the Great American Public, with its tortoise glasses, radios, filling stations, democratic colleges, popular mis-education, its tawdry infidelities, its mob cruelty, its “air-mindedness,” its commercialized religion, its Bruce Bartons and Eddie Guests. Last of all, there is Sam Dodsworth, born decent, eager to know about things, willing to see places (not the “right” places of his pitiful little snob wife, but any interesting places). He is full of slangy humanity—to hide his reverence for experience and his delight in music, books, and all lovely things he finds it possible to like. And there he is, down-trodden by a small-spirited woman who ruins his honest desire to educate himself, until he finally takes the morally necessary step of leaving her, flatly and forever. Lewis has too often been tolerated as a mere social critic whose medium is narrative. That is mean criticism. It does not make any difference what impels a man to write a novel; what counts is the fact that he can create character and tell a story which keeps alive. Such a man is an artist, no matter what started his literary faculty.
I do not see how anyone who knows American men — business men who occasionally, show signs of sensitivity— can question the solid achievement in “Dodsworth.” The test is on the truth of what Mr. Lewis has to say, on what he reports about American life, and on the people he understands. His mind is not fixed on himself . . . he drops out of the picture. Where the book fails—as it does for many pages—is just where Lewis remembers his own prejudices and social theories and writes in moral sermons and long-winded conversations which play with the favorite topics of Sinclair Lewis. The book suffers from polemic, and it is dull because it is too long, but all in all, it has a fine vitality of its own.
“Victim and Victor,” by J. R. Oliver, himself a confessed member of the dangerous profession of psychiatrists—dangerous in a literary fashion, as I have shown above—writes no rabidly conceived series of scientific cases of mental aberration, as any presumptuous critic might guess. He, too, like Sinclair Lewis, takes his own experience, his own sort of knowledge of the American scene, and makes of it a spiritually moving character study of the unfrocked priest, Michael Mann. Again, the impression of the book is not soon forgotten; the reality of the priest and his powerful mystic force, his sympathy, for underdogs and unhappy people have an idealism, a meaning behind them that is a new note in modern fiction—new because it is old—because the man of God has been the butt of obscene jokes in most recent stories, because our journalistic matter-of-fact aridity has for long swept from our minds any chances to contemplate the unscientific realities of the world. Here, in a novel which is effective because the reminiscent mood of the narrator is so mellow and because the English is so pure, we have what the Victorians used to hope for, a union of science and faith, of psychiatry and spirituality that is justifiable even by the most scientific of tests. Of the new books, “Victim and Victor” is solid and satisfying beyond most, and its emotional integrity and literary quality are not to be debated, even though your Georgian cynicism may urge you to deny your faith.
“Hunky” belongs to a genre which has almost parodied itself; the world is so full of a number of things, of which at present some are peasant novels about strong stupid ox-like heroes and sluttish cow-like heroines who live in mean holes in our big cities or small towns; their emotional capacities are ample but primitive; the women are promiscuous, they have babies most casually; the large meek heroes humbly marry the girls and pledge eternal care to their wives’ babies; the streets are mean, the shops are stuffy; strikes and brutality abound; and the intellectual capacities of the characters never rise above the grade of a first-rate kindergarten. To make fiction of such stuff is to put demands upon your every skill as a novelist, for an intelligent reader has a right to ask of his stories that they have intellectual complexity, meaning, overtones and undertones far above and below the characters’ comprehension. A world in which no mature minds exist is a hard one to believe in—Hardy does the job by superimposing a philosophy upon his Wessex people. “Hunky” is a good piece of work, for its author keeps himself out. The story moves smoothly and surely, with characters outlined and developed consistently, and its pity over its people is not sentimentalized or exaggerated. Its difficulty is that its style has already aged before it appeared; and it tends to date itself by its animal-like pictures of the American peasantry.
Although the Radclyffe Hall of “The Well of Loneliness” is more widely known than the Miss Hall of “Adam’s Breed,” yet any means by which the world at large may, become acquainted with her work deserves our gratitude, for she is a novelist who always—no matter what the theme — has much to say and creates men and women who live lives of their own, independent of the author’s study table. Her books, too, are free of that reportorial dry rot which afflicts new fiction—her realism is strongly romantic. Gian Luca, and all his waiter friends of Compton Street, how they come back to one, even after one’s weary trudging through thousands of uninspired pages since “Adam’s Breed” appeared! That was a novel 1 And it is to Miss Hall’s eternal artistic credit that, even in dealing with so sensational material as that of Lesbianism, she can keep her good taste, and can write with restrained emotion and no maudlin pity, and— certainly—no vulgarly realistic odds and ends. Her “The Unlit Lamp,” published now in America as a sort of treader-of-the-heels of “The Well of Loneliness,” has Miss Hall’s same fine traits of clean prose and sharp pictures, of understanding her characters so that they have individuality, in every movement and episode, and of finding a theme or center for her story which has its own value, judged as important human experience. Here we have the old tale of the selfish mother keeping Joan, the daughter, bound to her and to her futile existence by bonds of filial duty and self-evoked helplessness. Here, too, is the struggle of the mother with that young tutor, Elizabeth, for the affection of Joan, the unlit lamp—Joan, the bright student, the eager minded youngster whose growth would save her soul from its virginal decay into barren-minded spinsterhood. There is the suggestion of a sort of sub-plot of Lesbianism, faintly hinted at, but no attention is given to it, compared to the attention paid to the mother and daughter struggle. The background for the story is very lovely; the little town, the sea, the ship house, the small shops, the village eccentrics, and the sly humor of Miss Hall in characterizing the stupid, overbearing father are pleasant in themselves. Cape and Smith do us a service by this American printing of a suave tale.
Perhaps our debt to the Civil War will lie, eventually, in the amount of unfailing historical and literary-historical material which it contributes to our prose fiction—ever since the days of “The Red Badge of Courage”—and even to our poetry, in things like “John Brown’s Body.” Certainly, Evelyn Scott needs to be grateful that her impetus towards objective story telling came from the War and that she recovered from the self-exposition of such early palpitations as “Escapade.” Upon the Civil War background she has built a remarkable piece of prose fiction, or rather, remarkable pieces of fiction, all of which—there seem to be hundreds of short pictures, as you read—join to show how the great wave of war rose and fell, carrying with it all kinds of people and types, raising them on a swell of ecstasy and dropping them down again where they were before. Here is a giant, cumulative impression of war as it affects men and women: cowards, haters, religious fanatics, prostitutes, the ambitious, the greedy, the youthfully romantic, the senile old women for whom war is a pageant, the covetous, the grafters, the thieves, the heroes and martyrs, the President, the generals, the sailors, the soldiers, and all the rest. . . . Guess at a type, and you will find the individual in “The Wave.”
The view is objective. The author keeps out, presenting, interpreting, arranging, but never entering herself as a center for attention. The dullness of the book, despite its excellence, comes from two things: first, the objectivity is one toned; the style, despite the kinds of people, never varies, and whatever thinking the characters do is done, primarily, in one style, in one sentence rhythm; and, second, the pictures are too many for the great length of the book: it needs to be pruned; five pictures, at times, instead of twenty would heighten the effect and offer satisfactory compression for the sake of unity. Miss Scott’s method is possible where the pace is rapid and the intensity cumulative, by, reason of the way the author selects her scenes. In “The Wave,” Miss Scott makes a grand attempt at an intellectually gigantic task, and she gets a splendid result. Its weakness lies in its length: the book gives, somehow, the impression of being endless. Rut that is the difficulty of material with no sequential plot; there seems to be an artistic economy which demands plot in narrative, if what is told is to have movement, and charm, and unfailing interest.
In “Wolf Solent,” that strange two volume erotic picture of John Cowper Powys’ world of the ancient sex mystery, the strength and weakness of the story lie in the entrance of the author into the central characterization, that author with his tendency towards philosophical catch-words, towards ecstasy and excited clairvoyance, towards pictures of the natural world as something alive with personality, with an almost human beauty and sensitivity, and with a strong slant towards mystical speculation, most of at formless, aimless, and futile. Without the author, there would certainly be no book, and we must be grateful for this strange, perverse novelist whose morbidly sensitive intelligence and whose nervous intensity and searching mind form the basis for “Wolf Solent.”
Here is an English “Winesburg, Ohio.” Here is the land, in “Wolf Solent,” of the sexually repressed, the frustrated dreamers of the English countryside. Here dwell the sane old farmers and the country-women, red, grey, and stupid; and here, too, dwell the uneasy lost souls of such a district, the eager, young, the viciously depraved, the repressed dreamers, the malignantly indecent. Into this world comes Wolf Solent, to edit a volume of Dorset obscenities, in the form of a history, written for a lewd-minded squire with a dark past. Solent rights a bitter battle between Good and Evil, arguing for the flesh against the spirit, submerging himself in abstractions and unreality and reflection — his “mythology,” his chief defense against unpleasant experience. Here the natural world around him and the people he meets are potent arguments towards animality, towards an almost phallic interpretation of every experience. His mind runs on wildly; he tastes every idea that flits through his brain. The book is full of tag-ends of philosophy, “dualism, monadism.” It overwhelms you with its scope, its erotic suggestion, its murky emotional glow, and the weight of undigested formless sentimental talk. The state of the reader can be connoted by the following mental picture, left after a serious reading:
“Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus . . . they found him in a ditch eating frog spawn. . . . This disease of life . . . how much space between old Smith’s face and the coffin lid . . . his father’s skull . . . two skulls on a pillow . . . her young body with the supple thighs . . . the smells from the pig stye . . . pluralism . . . dualism . . . his ecstasy of desire . . . stark mad . . . naked maternity . . . Mukalog . . . clipping and cuddling my Gerda . . . the face of the man on the Waterloo steps . . . sinking into one’s own soul . . . an ecstasy of well being . . . quiescent . . . valiant bodies of beasts and birds and fishes . . . each liquid flute-note went sailing away upon the wind as if it had been a separate pearl-clear bubble of some immortal dew . . . fish eyes in the cold grey deep . . . nympholepts.”
Such prose material, despite its beautiful English, has about it something essentially sophomoric and immature. Its ecstatic ranting needs cooling, compression, selection, generous cutting to give it intelligence and philosophic importance. The scope of the book cannot be too highly commended; what it attempts is truly Faust-like. But it needs the wisdom and broad view, the reflective calm and maturity of another Goethe to save it from the inevitable doom of emotional insecurity.