A curious phenomenon has appeared in our literary landscape, the full significance of which has not been appreciated, but it has not gone unnoted from the watchtowers. Reviewers and critics are saying, and I am in complete agreement, that Ellen Glasgow and John P. Marquand are not only two of the most civilized of our novelists, but two of the best of this or any other time. Within the year, Miss Glasgow has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The Saturday Review of Literature, and her position as the most distinguished of our women writers of fiction is no longer called into question. Mr. Marquand’s three novels have earned him an almost equally high place among our men novelists, and one of them, “The Late George Apley,” received the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, a recognition as yet withheld from Miss Glasgow for reasons known only to the committee on awards. (The peak of this literary mystery was reached the year “The Sheltered Life” was passed by for T. S. Stribling’s “The Store.”) Along with almost unanimous critical approbation, Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand have had the pleasure of making their appearances regularly on the best-seller lists, where they occupy cheerfully lofty positions just now with “In This Our Life” and “H. M. Pulham, Esquire.”
Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand belong to and write about the two oldest and most traditional parts of the United States, Virginia and Massachusetts, and they confine their attention to the “old stock.” Mr. Marquand, as it happened, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, but his family on both sides is New England to the bone—a brother of Margaret Fuller was an ancestor—and he still spends his summers at Newburyport, where he grew up and which he left to go to Harvard. Both he and Miss Glasgow write of their own kind and of their own parts of the world with a nice blend of ironical detachment and affectionate understanding. Mr, Marquand achieves a kind of geographical detachment by living in New York City in the winters—exactly the right distance from Boston, as he has demonstrated in his books— while Miss Glasgow achieves her detachment by viewing her Richmond-Queenborough from her own artistic Olympus, the actual site of which is right in Richmond. The effect is much the same in both cases: aloofness and perspective achieved without loss of sympathy and with no trace of condescension.
Exactly how much importance is to be given to the traditional background of Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand is not a matter to be taken into the handiest laboratory for scientific measurement. The most obvious fact is that above and beyond everything else they both have exceptional talent, and talent still strikes where it will. The sparkling wit of Miss Glasgow has been famous ever since she began to write some forty years ago. Her ability to make even her tragedies run like the “divine things” of Nietszche, “on light feet,” together with her unfailing skill at epigram-making and her polished style, has helped to make her one of the most consistently entertaining of all contemporary fiction writers. In her graver and more realistic novels, such as “Barren Ground,” her own favorite, or “Vein of Iron,” or “In This Our Life,” she has never once forgotten that a novelist can afford to be anything except dull, and in her “social comedies,” such as “The Romantic Comedians” and “They Stooped to Folly,” the pages fairly scintillate. Mr. Mar-quand’s long years as one of the most successful of all the writers of “escapist literature” for the popular magazines, where one must be entertaining above all else, may have helped him to learn how to make the reader of his serious works keep on reading, although one suspects that his appeal lies deeper, and originates in the simple fact that he, like Miss Glasgow, is the possessor of a keen, original, and’ attractive mind.
It would be hard to deny, however, that the work of both novelists has been influenced by their environment and by their own inherently well-bred attitude toward life. (Well-bred is a term in disuse or disfavor in connection with the practice of letters, but the success of our two novelists may restore it to its former estate. As the Spaniards say, God grant it.) It has been pointed out that Mr. Marquand writes of a dying class, which might be said with equal truth of Miss Glasgow. Some critics would add, perhaps, that neither, their characters nor what happened to them was of any consequence at such a time as this in the world’s affairs; but is it not highly interesting that in the right hands the death struggles of older Virginians and New Englanders have been made into such excellent and popular fiction? Plainly, dying classes in which the process of decay and mummification are beginning to be unmistakable are well suited to satire, which is Mr. Marquand’s strong point. Miss Glasgow uses them quite as well for her ironical purpose, not only because they belong to her by the laws of time and space, but because they have, these older Virginians, a dignity that makes their foibles at once amusing and touching. Without this dignity the irony of the conflict between pretense and practice would be missing, and the whole spectacle, like so much of modern life, would degenerate from comedy into meaningless farce.
Aside from their geographical relationship as typical representatives of an older America, Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand have a good many other points in common, along with certain quite obvious differences. Perhaps the most striking of their resemblances is that they have shattered completely one of the sadder traditions of American fiction, which has deprived us of the body of mature writing we have badly needed as a balance to our undeniable freshness and vigor and our incessant willingness to try new things. Both have done their best work at a time of life when most of our novelists have been forced to fall back in silence on their earlier reputations, or into mere repetition, or into embarrassing public declines. The ordinarily dangerous middle years found Miss Glasgow doing some of her best work, and she has grown steadily better since, while Mr. Marquand was beginning his own distinguished career at the point where other novelists have found theirs at a standstill. Since about 1900, Miss Glasgow’s place among our better novelists has been recognized, and her achievement of a social-moral history of Virginia in her fiction is one of the most notable accomplishments in the whole history of our literature. Mr. Marquand, of course, still has to prove his staying powers; but the facts are, so far as they have been established, that Miss Glasgow’s “In This Our Life” shows no dimming of her distinguished qualities, but rather a deeper and stronger maturity, and that Mr. Marquand’s “H. M. Pulham, Esquire,” is a distinct advance over its two predecessors.
It is reasonable to assume that the Virginia-Massachusetts backgrounds of the two novelists may account for another noteworthy point of resemblance in their work: the complete conservatism of their methods. This is most remarkable because their devotion to convention has been unshaken in a period that has seen everything tried in fiction, at least once, and which has been filled with the howls and breast-beatings of the medicine men, declaring they had discovered the one and only way to write novels. The past decade has been a strange period in American fiction, which has reflected the unrest of the times as fiction usually does, being the art that lies closest to life. It has witnessed almost every conceivable eccentricity of typography, such as printing the word “strike” in letters large enough to fill an entire page, which did not make the novel any more interesting; it has witnessed the freest possible borrowings from the movies in the way of flash-backs, and so on, making it almost imperative for re4
viewers to have at least a brief course in Hollywood., It has witnessed the inclusion of complete and vivid descriptions of every known kind of violence or manifestation of degeneracy, every imaginable physical act, in novels designed for general consumption. We have been told repeatedly that the novel had no reason for its existence except as a medium of propaganda. We have had it explained that the so-called “stream-of-consciousness” method of telling a story was ideal, when it soon became evident that even in the hands of a dazzling expert like Virginia Woolf it had its severe limitations. We have even been told more than once that the novel was definitely doomed.
There is an old saying, though, that when everybody shouts, a whisper may be heard. Or to put it differently, when everybody is busy being eccentric, normal conduct, by contrast, makes itself noticeable. So when Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand, ignoring the howling of all the banshees who thought they were time-spirits, and turning neither to the right nor to the left, continued to tell their tales in well-bred tones, people stopped to listen. By doing no more fundamentally than to hold fast to the ancient tradition that a novel ought to be a story about people and what happens to them, a story about live characters moving in credible situations, they found a public satiated with experiments de-lighted to be safely home again. Their victory is a triumph for conservatism, and much more of a return to abiding truth than a reaction or backward step. Neither, it is also worth noting, has once described a scene so as to invoke even a slight qualm of nausea, which has sometimes seemed the single purpose of whole schools of our novelists, and while both have written freely enough about sex and the prominent part it plays in human affairs, neither has discussed it in ; terms that could have offended the late Queen Victoria. Both have written scenes involving the human emotions that will be remembered, I am sure, long after the last rape, arson, and murder have faded from the jaded memory, for the faint sound of heartbreak has always lingered longer than the noise of physical violence.
Howard Mumford Jones has said that both Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand plainly understand what Fielding meant when he called the novel “a comic epic in prose.” And Henry Seidel Canby has said that the essential Marquand appeal lies in his recognition of the fact that “the novel was invented as a study of manners.” He added that the “best novels were still studies in manners,” or to put it as simply as possible, “how real people act and make characters for themselves in everyday life.”
Not only has Mr. Marquand blissfully ignored the very
existence of the whole experimental school, but it is worthy of note that in two of his three books he has gone back to one of the earliest types of the novel, the biographical. Two of his titles follow noticeably in the tradition of “Robinson Crusoe,” “Pamela,” “Joseph Andrews,” “Tristram Shandy,” and shoals of others, except, of course, that the satirical quality of his own novels is shadowed forth in the slight play on words in the titles. “The Late George Apley” is subtitled “A Novel in the Form of a Memoir,” an obvious spoof of George Santayana’s subtitle for “The Last Puritan,” which was “A Memoir in the Form of a Novel.” “H. M. Pulham, Esquire” has the same tongue-in-the-cheek quality as a title. Both books follow the biographical pattern, one from birth to death, the other a circular course, beginning and ending with the twenty-fifth reunion of a class at Harvard, which is a kind of death. Miss Glasgow generally prefers the symbolic phrase, often with ironical implications, as in “The Romantic Comedians,” “They Stooped to Folly,” “The Sheltered Life.”
There may be readers of this article who will insist upon knowing whether or not the works of Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand have “social significance.” I once heard Mr.
Marquand quizzed on this subject, and he replied—with reason, I thought—that he could not imagine a serious novel which did not by implication have social significance. I also once heard him grouped with John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and James T. Farrell as a revolutionary novelist because, said the young, the very young man who did the grouping, he expressed so clearly and sharply in “The Late George Apley” and “Wickford Point” the degenerate state of the capitalist classes, and must therefore, as an intelligent man, wish them destroyed and replaced by something better. Now the satirist may make all the fun he likes of the follies of men under capitalism without, I am sure, assuming for a moment that a change of system would necessarily make men better, wiser, or happier, and I recall that Mr. Marquand was quite surprised to find himself in the revolutionary galley, a member of a very strange quartet indeed. As for Miss Glasgow’s social significance, her novels are full of it, but while she sees clearly the faults of her Queenborough, a place where people do not all get exactly what they wish, there seems little reason to suppose that anyone with her depth of wisdom about human affairs would lend herself to any known plan of destruction and reconstruction under the naive assumption that the fundamentals of life and the relations of people could be changed by merely altering externals. On this point, a quotation from John Welch, a character in “The Sheltered Life,” seems apropos:
The trouble is we imagine we can change ourselves by changing our scenery. I feel that way, though I ought to have learned better. I’d like to go away and be free, and I know perfectly well the kind of freedom I am looking for has not yet been invented. After all, Queenborough is only a small patch in the world. It is the same everywhere. People who have tradition are oppressed by tradition, and people who are without it are oppressed by the lack of it—or by whatever else they have put in its place. You want to go to New York and pretend to be unconventional, but nothing is more cramping than the effort to be unconventional when you weren’t born so.
The most striking difference between the careers of Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand has already been hinted at. It is that Miss Glasgow reached her present high position by a lifetime of devotion to the art of the serious novel. (Her novels are invariably serious in purpose, if not in manner, for she has been saying from the first, to quote J. Donald Adams, one of her warmest admirers, that “the only triumph possible in life is the refusal to accept defeat.”) Mr. Marquand, by contrast, made a single—and unique—leap from the “slicks” to the ranks of our better writers of fiction. Miss Glasgow has talked briefly of her own writing in the series of prefaces she has written for the Old Dominion edition of her collected works, but her novels are too tightly dramatic in structure to permit any asides on how the thing is done. In “Wickford Point,” however, which is an informal, leisurely sort of story, Mr. Marquand speaks, we may assume, very nearly in propria persona through the lips of Jim Calder, one of three novelists who are characters in the book, and he has some quite interesting things to say concerning magazine fiction. Since nobody in our times has been more uniformly successful in this field, or has kept to a higher level of honest workmanship, he is worth quoting on the subject:
This escapist literature for a hopeless but always hopeful people possessed a quality of artisanship that demanded high technique. We both took a pride in our product, not the wild free pride of an artist, but the solid pride of a craftsman. . . . Those rather bloodless people we created were all compelled to fall into a formulated pattern. Their manners and appetites were curbed by the prejudices of uneducated minds. They could not use bad language. It was very, very dangerous for them to practice adultery or seduction. After their moment of conflict, they must receive a definite and just reward, a reward to be ratified by the hopes of tired subway-and-commuting juries. When one was weary, one thought of this artisanship of popular fiction as slight, a somewhat ghastly parody on life. But then again, perhaps it was not, for was not all human intercourse governed by arbitrary laws of its own? All life was a story, uglier and less perfect than the ones we wrote, but with its own grim scheme.
The novelist of manners who follows Fielding’s dictum of the comic epic necessarily narrows his range for the sake of intensifying his focus. Hence anyone who tries to find in Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand, with their profound and most exceptional knowledge of their own sections, all the answers to the old question of the differences between Southerners and New Englanders, will be disappointed. Much of the comment in their novels on Boston and on Richmond-Queenborough may throw light on the subject, but it is incidental and often more confusing than clarifying. This is a problem that has teased the minds of all of us who know both sections, and there have been times when it seemed to reduce itself to the simple fact that New Englanders have held on to their money better than Southerners, and therefore give more thought to financial matters. Mr. Apley, for example, spends most of his life looking after the family fortune, hoarding and conserving, while none of the three principal male characters in “The Romantic Comedians,” “They Stooped to Folly,” or “The Sheltered Life”—all lawyers, by the way—spend even a small part of their time worrying over money because their minds are so much taken up with romance, or the lack of it.
As for the reputed Puritanism of New England, it is also well known in the South. Miss Glasgow sums up the situation neatly in one of her choicer epigrams, which she puts into the mouth of Edmonia Bredalbane, the outrageous and delightful twin sister of Judge Gamaliel Bland Honeywell of “The Romantic Comedians”: “You Episcopalians may have made most of the history and all the mint juleps in Virginia; but you have left your politics and your laws to the Meth-, odists and Baptists, and pleasure-baiting has always been the favourite sport of those earnest Christians.” In orthodoxy Virginia has never had to make any concessions to Massachusetts, and some of Miss Glasgow’s witty sayings need only a word or two changed to suit one state as well as the other. For example, this from the same Judge Honeywell: “His father, one of the last of the old school, had remarked at the close of his life: ‘If there is anything wrong with the Episcopal Church or the Democratic Party, I would rather die without knowing it.’” On the question of snobbery, often raised by outsiders in connection with both Richmond and Boston, Mr. Apley declares that Bostonians are not snobbish at all, but merely so much more congenial than other people they are perfectly satisfied with their own company. But his Uncle Horatio explains it this way: “As a matter of fact, I am quite convinced, and you will be convinced in time, that our own culture and our own morals are a good deal better and finer than those of most people around here. Find a Bostonian and you will find a citizen of the world.” Some Virginians might boast of the superiority of the morals of their women rather than of their own in general, although they would most likely be found discussing the good looks of the female population, never discussing aesthetics in the abstract. Miss Glasgow contributes a rapier thrust at the famous Virginia pride of ancestry, making it come from Virginius Curie Littlepage of “They Stooped to Folly”: “Moreover, prudence warned him that no American stock is common enough to be plebeian to its descendants.”
On the important subject of literature as a part of the life of cultured people, Mr. Marquand and Miss Glasgow are almost equally pessimistic so far as the tastes of their characters are concerned. In this respect, Mr. Marquand, in order to keep within the limitations of his chosen people, has to be unfair to Boston generally, which remains a remarkable book-town in the best book-section of the country, whereas the South is the worst. Mr. Apley, commenting upon literary matters, recalls that his father was “particularly amused and delighted with the vagaries of Thoreau,” and speaking for himself, is unable to understand why poets, ministers, or essayists are allowed to express opinions on economics and politics when they are invariably unsuccessful in banking and business. Harry Pulham spends the whole period of the novel trying to read “The Education of Henry Adams,” getting nowhere, and the only book mentioned by title in three of Miss Glasgow’s novels I have just re-read is “Little Women,” which a child is being paid to read In “They Stooped to Folly,” Mr. Littlepage, a successful lawyer and a pillar of the community, carries on a conversation with his son-in-law, Martin Welding, which gives Miss Glasgow an opportunity to express herself on the Queenborough attitude toward writing and writers: “Mr. Littlepage was an ornament of that exclusive sphere in which literature, like sin, is respected only when it enlivens the worm-eaten pages of history.” To Welding he said: “Well, I shouldn’t put too much faith in literature, if I were you. Without posing as an authority, I may express the opinion that there isn’t much material in Virginia history that hasn’t been already exhausted. . . . I’m afraid there isn’t much to be got out of literature as a profession.” Welding answers: “Not in Queenborough. Why, you haven’t even a library, yet you people pretend to be civilized.” And Miss Glasgow goes on: “It annoyed [Mr. Littlepage] profoundly that this young man of ignoble antecedents should belittle the ancient and honourable culture of Queenborough. All the learning required to make a Southern gentleman was comprised, as every Littlepage knew without being told, in the calf-bound rows of classic authors and the Prayer-Book of the Protestant Episcopal Church.”
There are other comments on Richmond-Queenborough and on Boston which may throw some light on the communities and their characteristics. Mr. Apley remarks, for example, “It helped me to see that Boston is a sort of Groton. Lord knows there are peculiar enough eccentric types, but even these conform to a definite pattern of eccentricity.” Or this other delicious bit from Apley, who considered Rome definitely inferior to Boston: “It seems to me that Mrs.
Gardner has brought back to us all that is really best of Rome and Italy and considerately left the rest behind.” And Judge Honeywell muses of Queenborough: “Where on earth could people know so little and yet know it so fluently?” Or, “Paris, a city that was regarded in Queenborough as little better than an asylum for determined profligates of both sexes.” Or this from the gay Edmonia Bredalbane, for whom Miss Glasgow plainly has a special affection: “That is the trouble with all of you in Queenborough, especially the women. You look as if you all had lived on duty, and it hadn’t agreed with you.” (Of course, Edmonia would have said worse than this about Boston if she had lived there.) Or this from Mr. Littlepage, concerning his father: “A Virginia gentleman of Georgian morals, but Victorian manners, who found it less embarrassing to commit adultery than to pronounce the word in the presence of a lady.”
“Wickford Point” shows Mr. Marquand to have a versatility that promises well for his future. It touches upon and reveals an aspect of New England life altogether different from the other two novels, and does it with as much deep understanding as humor. It is plain in “Wickford Point” that Mr. Marquand is not merely making fun of his New Englanders, a point that cannot be overemphasized in considering his work. At the same time that he is putting the Brills on exhibition and allowing them to be laughed at, he is busy trying to explain them to the reader. The internal evidence in this direction is convincing, because Jim Calder is profoundly vexed by the attempts of Allen Southby, Harvard-cum-Minnesota, to make picturesque material of Wickford Point and its family, without in the least grasping their significance. Calder’s caustic comment on Southby’s synthetic and amateurish novel about the Wickford Pointers, is, I think, the answer to some New Englanders who have felt that he was too hard on his own people:
His pages resembled the efforts of visiting writers, who had spent their summers in Maine and on Cape Cod, to depict the New England scene. The effect was the same as when some Northern writer attempted an epic of the South, and could see nothing but nigger mammies and old plantations and colonels drinking juleps. These others, when they faced New England, saw only white houses, church spires, lilacs and picket hedges, gingham hypocrisy and psychoses and intolerance, . . . There was something which they did not see, an inexorable sort of gentleness, a vanity of effort, a sadness of predestined failure.
I recall, in this connection, a conversation at a dinner in New England, which took place not long after “Wickford Point” had appeared. The daughter of an old Boston family was told that I had read and liked the novel, and at once assumed a defensive attitude. She said: “I hope you are not taking for granted that Mr. Marquand has drawn anything like an accurate picture of a New England family or household. I can assure you that ‘Wickford Point’ is not in any way typical of this section of the country, and to have been at all true, should have been laid in Charleston or Natchez.” This links North and South, since “Wickford Point,” typical or not, is completely accurate, although it might truthfully have been laid in Charleston or Natchez, or even in Miss Glasgow’s Queenborough, since there are characteristic American backwaters in all the older parts of the country.
Those who wish to have a fair measure of what I have tried to say about the resemblances and differences between the work of Miss Glasgow and Mr. Marquand without reading all their books, although this would be one of the happiest tasks imaginable to any lover of good fiction, may find it, I think, in “H. M. Pulham, Esquire” and “The Sheltered Life,” one of Miss Glasgow’s earlier novels which is still my own favorite for many reasons. Both show what may be accomplished by following old and sound traditions, if the talent and unstinting labor are present. These two novelists are a credit to us all, not only to their ancient commonwealths.