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The Novel and the Simple Soul

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

It may be that an apocalyptic last analysis of souls will find all of them simple; but for present earthly purposes it seems reasonable to assume that souls, being closely related to the personalities of their possessors, are not merely simple but complex and betwixt and between. At any rate the novelists observe this useful distinction and do not resent being told that they deal with souls as well as with personalities. To what is generally called the simple soul they gave some measure of romantic attention during the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries; they did well by the betwixt-and-between in the realism of the nineteenth century; and in the early twentieth century many deep-delving novelists suffered a veritable complexity complex and saw all men through this obsession.

In the recent American novel considerable use has been made of the simple soul—the soul that is devoid of personal complexity and that is usually the possession of some one engaged in manual labor or the less intricate type of mental work. The reasons for this interest in human simplicity are, of course, largely economic and social; but there is also the fact that the ever-growing frankness of realistic fiction enables authors to do the rougher and readier simple soul to the very life as never before. In sheer vigor of depiction he has profited more of late than his complex brother, the study of whose peculiarities has often made him but a vague enigma.

This new vividness, however, has not changed the values of the simple soul in fiction; he remains interesting for his large significance rather than for his striking personality.

That he is a man of his own villages, hills, and valleys, is still noted by the regionalist. That simple souls have been shaped by factory and city is the insistence of the so-called proletarian novelist. These two views unite in according the simple soul representative value, as of old. There is, of course, another equally time-honored value, the idealistic, which appears when the simple soul becomes the type of unadulterate human excellence. However, this idealization of simplicity has not fared well in the novel since anthropology and realism slew the Noble Savage. Our writers are cautious now about glorification, the regionalist being even more circumspect than the proletarian, who, after his own rather sociological way, finds in the simple soul an agency for something millennial.

Yet the times do change apace, and our two chief por-trayers of simplicity both face difficulty in doing as they list. The regionalist sees all that rejoices him disappearing in the uncertainties and certainties of spreading industrialism. The proletarian, especially the one who has taken to heart recent criticism showing him the error of his way, may well perceive that his enthusiasms, fed by the excitements of the day, can blind him to important elements in the material to which he has laid claim. These possibilities justify some thought upon types of the simple soul and their adaptation to the novel. Certain of the more difficult questions that such thinking will raise, not to be disposed of offhand but not to be ignored, are less connected with the treatment of folk than of “folks” (there is a real difference) and “workers.” Here, for example, comes the query whether the novelist should recognize folks or proletariat as the more permanent social class in America; or, to put it another way, whether the proletariat is not after all largely composed of folks, or whether—but there is no end to its guises.

Relatively little of the far-reaching historical and sociological implication in that query attaches itself to thought about the folk as material for fiction. Folk are, one may say, literary property. Men of letters discovered the folk in Europe during the upswing of the Romantic Movement and acclaimed them for their naive poetry and for what seemed their dazzling pristinity. Subsequently they were loved for their preservation of immemorial custom and tradition and for their quaintness. Science took up the folk with gusto; but it is literature and not science that has given the word “folk” its aura, an emanation rising not at all from the squalor of life in backward communities. To be sure, lowland or highland, here and there, dwell picturesque and disturbingly unfortunate people, hill billies and crackers and the like, whom fiction should very properly present as a social problem somewhat reeking of pig sties and sour mash. Yet these persons have been and still are folk, invested with a “folkness” that is not derived from pig sties and sour mash, and that only literature can record.

Folkness commends itself to makers of literature for its own sake and its power to sustain artistry. It can be misused after the manner of Westernness in the pulp monthlies; but it differs from that distressed quality because it is more deeply rooted in life and letters and is less histrionic, having given us no Buffalo Bills and such, who loved to dress their parts and whose parts were soon played out. Folkness as a literary entity is more comparable to the pastoral element in poetic narrative, though sturdier. It bears study. Such inspection shows that its essentials are two: there is, first, its antiquity, not to say primitivity, preserved and intensified by extreme isolation; second, there is its connection with our European past. Thus we readily accept the Negroes as folk largely because they served in jdace of a peasantry during our most serious try at estate life; and the Mexicans of our Southwest are folk because they seem more Spanish than Indian. About the folkness of our pure-blooded Indians we are still dubious, in spite of scientific endorsements thereof.

The charm of folkness is in the echoes that declare it a living anachronism, echoes that chime faintly the romance of things long gone by and long hallowed by tradition and the uses of art. There is also its magical but obviously doomed aloofness from modern life. It is appealing because its production cannot permanently continue in American literature, and in the future much of its present effectiveness will be lost. There is little zest in an anachronism that has itself become part of antiquity.

While the folk survive or while their memory is green, artistic folkness will be welcome. And its artistry need not preclude an infusion of bitterness and complaint upon the times. Folk primitivity too will now and then appear as anything but idyllic. Yet penury and innate savagery can be so played up as to obliterate folkness, and this should not happen too often. The folk writer should not surrender too easily to the evils of his day. No one will deny a place to share-cropper fiction in the Caldwell vein; but even so we need the folk stories of Elizabeth Madox Roberts and such like-minded persons as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins and Caroline Miller.

These writers are acceptable realists who know the hardships of the renter and small farmer upon sterile soil, but they are more noteworthy as workers in folkness who understand its nature. They are aware that it must have marked localness; but they also perceive that local color should be chosen and mixed and laid on with care. The potency of dialect they recognize, but they understand that not every word spoken by the folk can have or need have folk value. Thanks to the great subjective developments in fiction since the days of Edward Eggleston and Charles Egbert Craddock, folk thought too is now used in much the idiom and rhythm of folk speech, and not merely for character portrayal but for purposes of toning and unification. A narrative so written will often have the quality of something recollected by the communal, the ideal, folk mind.

This is a device that has its dangers, as the occasional labored simplicities and Ossianisms of Elizabeth Madox Roberts will testify; but that it has beauty and marked suitability to the subject, her work will also demonstrate. Folk speech has given our writers one of their best and most dangerous opportunities.

All in all, folkness has thriven well in the fiction of recent years, well enough and perhaps amply enough. Writing largely devoted to it is not easily given the intellectual scope and penetration and the forthright vigor that other contemporary materials permit. Folkness has its limitations as well as its charms, and when it is no longer available for art it should not be handed over to artifice.

Folks, in general, though closely akin to the folk, offer a wider opportunity for enduring and significant realism. Folks are less anachronistic than the folk. They are often quaint and old-fashioned; their ways and their speech, like those of the folk, often set echoes going; but the reminiscence is not so much of our European origins as of our American past. And in folks the sterner sort of primitiv-ity is little nearer the surface than in more sophisticated groups. Folks have their literary aura, their “folksness,” but they are by no means the creation of literature; daily experience will vouch for them and testify to their numerical importance. They are the product of neighborliness and a generation or more of family permanence at something above the mere subsistence level. They may not always be aloof from the world but they are not its citizens. Their home is Old Chester or, if you will, Zenith and the adjacent countrysides. Their center of life is the household and family and the labor that maintains them. They are, despite all attestation to the contrary, more interested in owning and using things than in acquiring them. They fortify themselves by handling familiar objects and by speaking of familiar interests in language usually commonplace and always a bit out of date. They differ, according to times and places, as Deephaven or Old Chester differ from Zenith and Medicine Bow; but everywhere they are as recognizable as an army with banners.

Our fiction has treated folks from almost every possible point of view, but constantly there has been the implication that folks, like the folk, are passing away. This has given a gentle pensiveness to many regional narratives, deepening recently to alarm. And it is true that folks are hard beset these days. Fear came home to them during the depression as never before, and the novelists rightly echo that anxiety.

Yet the novelists’ record also gives some reassurance to those who regard folks highly. Such authors as Gladys Hasty Carroll and Dorothy Thomas are positive about the vitality and permanence of folks. Others, such as Martha Gelhorn in “The Trouble I’ve Seen,” are less comforting; but they do show that folks are not inclined to surrender their identity easily to the evil of the times. Miss Gelhorn’s Mrs. Madison, for example, pathetic old body, home-maker, family-defender, treasurer of things owned and of the respectabilities of ownership among respectable neighbors, is the very type of folksness unsmothered by destitution and the cheap slackness of a younger generation.

Mrs. Madison’s advanced age, by the way, calls attention to the fact that folks in present-day novels are usually old or of elderly habit, and the younger persons are often not much of anything socially definable. Here and there are implications, however, that these youngsters are not permanently lost to the folks if they but have a chance to run true to their type. The more representative folks have always been the more mature members of the community. Folks are most folks when they have “settled down” and taken on family responsibilities. And vaguely the old pattern repeats itself even in the modern city. A man marries, grows weary of moving from flat to flat, becomes part of a neighborhood, reverts more and more to his father’s view of life and perhaps to his father’s very forms of speech, has much the same feeling for his rented quarters and his job that his father had for farm and small business, and regards the higher control of the corporation that employs him somewhat as both he and his father have always regarded the national government, relatively indifferent to it save when it goes wrong or when some outsider attacks it.

All this may not represent the highest ideal of great simplicity, but it is a pattern into which the average possessor of the uncomplicated soul prefers to fit. Whether he may everywhere soon be forced into another no one can say—or for that matter, whether he will long be content with that new mold. At any rate, the discerning novelist cannot fail now to find folks a-plenty in our cities, and not always at the point of extinction. He will find them islanded about certain urban churches or small parks, or filling the less pretentious of those numerous suburbs that stoutly refuse to be anything but a nominal part of the adjacent Greater City. The metropolitan position of these folks is scarcely more anomalous among entrepreneurs and their henchmen than was that of pioneering folks among savages and frontiersmen. It is true that they are not rural and do not delight the regionalist. “Wall” and “Do tell” and one-hoss buggies and even 1920 Fords are not for urban folks; but folks they will be though buried to the eyes in the gadgets of modernity, and hence not without some trace of quaint-ness.

No more important duty rests upon the American novelist than that of recording folks neither elegiacally nor critically but realistically, without bias but with understanding.

The writer thus engaged must encounter not merely the despondency of the regionalist as folks slip from his hands, but also the antipathy of the proletarian novelist. With the latter he comes into conflict because he finds abundant folks, or would-be folks, among the workers; and the proletarian writer denies that the workers are, or wish to be, as pettily bourgeois as folks. This rivalry has to do chiefly with a kind of toiler who only in recent years entered American fiction abundantly and with marked actuality. He is young or permanently immature. He may be married and even have a family, but he has not been able to establish a fixed home. He is not part of a locality; he is found in crowds, noise, and full-tilt industrialism, less urbanized varieties of him appearing on ranches and construction jobs and in lumber camps. Untroubled, he is a genial, profane, roughly joshing person, sometimes jocosely cynical. On picket lines he can be violent, but often largely for the grand excitement of a big scrap; and, like most of humankind, he wants short hours and long pay. He or his elder brother gave the army its tone in the World War. He is often the son of foreign-born parents; he may be one generation from the farm. He is always thoroughly American, and he is also one of America’s greatest problems. Call him, merely for convenience, the roughneck.

To the believer in an American proletariat, the roughneck is not a problem but a portent and an opportune agency; for he is to furnish the youthful energy in a benevolent dictatorship that will rouse mankind to a comradeship and hu-manitarianism never before approached. This view of him, like any other serious literary interpretation of facts, may be instinct with poetry; it may also be sincere but mistaken prophecy or merely propaganda. What seems the more realistic view of the roughneck in recent fiction is less sure about his mission. It indicates that he himself has no Messianic notions or intentions, whatever may be the enthusiasms of those who are ready to lead him. Indeed, he appears to have folksward leanings.

For example, Thomas Bell states frankly that the young bridegroom in “All Brides Are Beautiful,” though dutifully communistic, had “. . . no zeal to change the world or to preach to it or to rule it. All he wanted was to be let alone, to have a home, a little security, a chance to raise a healthy family and do the work he liked.” A more typically roughneck and more pathetic embodiment of like desires appears in Pete of “The Trouble I’ve Seen.” His simple-souled agony when his home is destroyed and he belongs nowhere is one of the most moving things in recent fiction, and, in its particular connection, one of the most significant. For a lower stratum of labor, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” carries the same significance. The power of the book is not merely in the relationship of the two ranch hands, the moronic Lennie and the hardboiled tender George, but in the broken dream of a little “place,” where life can have independence and permanence. And even the alternately pathetic and despicable Studs Lonigan, James Farrell’s persistently juvenile delinquent, dies trying to go respectable and achieve a home despite the childish vainglory and the lack of mature stamina that have made him the ready victim of every agency which unfits city people to be folks.

This aspect of the roughneck is, of course, not the whole of him, but it is important, as any observation of men on the job, in barracks, or elsewhere will establish. The recognition of it makes for good realism; for there is sound truth in the commonplace that a man is not only what he has become but also what he wants to be. An insistence upon this might, indeed, be helpful to those contemplating prophecy; for what enough of any nation wants long enough and hard enough it usually gets and keeps.

In any event, whatever the larger interpretation of the roughneck, books that are devoted to him offer invariably the same problem to all who desire that literature be art as well as a statement of truth or a stimulus to controversy. The superabundant vitality of the roughneck, the vividness with which he can now appear before us on the page, is a strong virtue with its own defects. We view him intimately at bench and board and in his bed. We see him, hear him, and smell him. Above all, we hear him; for his speech is no longer carefully edited and paraphrased, though even yet it cannot be reproduced literally. It alone, however, can make the roughneck seem wellnigh a fresh literary discovery. All this is excellent, but it offers a privilege that can be abused. It tempts into literary transgression laborious transcribers of life, or virile men who know little of the uses of art and feebler ones who do but like to write themselves strong. Too many “godambastards” per page and too many hotly pursued “broads” per chapter produce at last only a weary air of authenticity and not the illusion of actuality, which is the simplest and most fundamental of effects in artistic narrative.

Another difficulty is that the matrix in which it is best to set the rougher kind of simplicity is less easily determined than that suitable to folks and the folk. The roughneck is yet without any literary aura at all, and even a slight literariness in his presentation will show up uncomfortably. Perhaps the most readily available method so far used is the Dos Passos well-calculated hurry and flurry, in which anything seems appropriate; however, it does little for the deeper values of simplicity. The Farrell method in the Lonigan trilogy, in which your roughneck acts out, talks out, and thinks out the story, is more promising, but it does lead to the heaping up of actualities. There is yet another possibility, presaged by Ernest Hemingway, especially in “The Green Hills of Africa.” The kidding, the sonofa-bitching, the naive comment on life, the locker-room, smoking-room, almost veterans’-reunion tone characteristic of that book might be refined and, as it were, solemnized into a vaguely yet potently communal medium for the portrayal of roughnecks, somewhat after the manner in which the recent novel has dealt with the folk. To effect it, however, calls for the combined powers of a Hemingway, a Sandburg, and a Lardner.

But this is nothing more than speculation about method; and thought that concerns the simple soul in fiction must not linger on how he is to be treated but on what is to be made of him. It will come back inevitably, then, to the fact that a communal view of him, although it reveals his limitations as a social being, is the one which indicates his deepest value to the artist; as a personality his interest is soon exhausted. This is to say not merely that the simple soul in fiction must be allowed to stand for his locality and his class and that the identifying and engaging qualities of the folk and folks and the roughneck must be retained. With these chiefly representative values there is possible a wider commonality and an impartial idealism that only art can convey.

This is not to be had by any dwelling upon the number of simple souls or by any trumpeting of their exceeding probity, intuitive wisdom, industry, or fortitude, or by insisting upon them as an opportune device for the saving of the modern world. It will not do to assert that the simple soul is superior to his complex brother, for that is not the truth. Indeed, for the uses of literature, the simple soul is most deeply valuable not because he differs from the complex soul but because he can serve readily as an Everyman, a living symbol of stark humanness.

This epical, this universal value of the simple soul, must come to us obviously with an epical gravity or solemnity, but not necessarily with the solemnity of high tragedy. As Aristotle first brought to mind in the matter-of-fact way of his “Poetics,” high tragedy is not only a treatment of fundamental issues but a treatment in terms of personalities who are “our betters,” whose minds are equipped for noteworthy conflict with what has been ordained by the subtle powers that be. Even so, the simple soul cannot be denied a vast pathos, especially when he is beset with complexities that are beyond him. Then his bewilderment, his inability to know what is destroying him or to express what he suffers, can search the depths of pity. In such circumstances, his lack of striking personality, his vanishing without any impress upon his world, augments the whole effect until it links itself with what we see in the eyes of suffering animals and what we often seem to read in the stars of a possibly dying universe.

It may be that this epic pathos is the most potent literary value in the simple soul. There is, however, another value that seems equally large and more comfortable. If the demands upon him are not too great for his simplicity, if he must achieve only subsistence, accord with his fellows, and a not too rarefied happiness, the simple soul can assume an air of epic adequacy and lift within us a sense of man’s ability to make a place for himself under a sun that gives life to an earth that will sustain it till life has fulfilled its cosmic mission.

To require such great effects often or from any but a great writer is, of course, absurd; for they mark the point where the totality of a prose narrative takes on the totality of an epic in verse. Yet such a thing is possible; and a knowledge of it should fortify novelists dealing with the simple soul if they set themselves to attain a dynamism beyond the charms of literariness, the glamor of romantic idealization, the vividness of actuality, the intriguements of propaganda, the fervors of prophecy, or even the satisfaction of telling the immediate social truth.


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