Nowadays one feels aware of a teeming republic of letters within. The several years of industrial depression, encouraging greater “inwardness,” seem richer in artistic dividends than the immediately preceding years of “prosperity.” We have a hopeful, though not complacent, impression that there is as much happening here as in any other civilized country, especially in the form of prose fiction. Not only are there comparatively youthful novelists who, after a period of earnest imitation of chosen foreign masters, seem to be consolidating their gains; but there are also now really great numbers of young writers drawn to New York (which has become, more and more, a veritable cite litteraire) who, with the most intense awareness, learn from or imitate each other, eagerly absorbing new attitudes, inventions, usages. Yet far from lamenting such a congested, highly competitive condition, one tends to welcome it. One recalls how in fifteenth-century Florence there was quite such an excitement over painting, out of which arose great schools and a golden age of art; one remembers Voltaire’s good-humored complaint of the “ten thousand philosophers” who filled eighteenth-century Paris. Where so many are called, supposedly a few may be chosen: a few of the more resolute votaries who, having perfectly mastered the common craft-spirit, climb over the heads of their fellows, to be remembered forever as geniuses—posterity always forgetting the collective situation in which genius is born. Taking as a convenient point of departure the Great Crash of 1929-30, and scanning the two literary seasons that have elapsed since then, I have thought of discussing, of attempting to appraise, certain personalities among the newer novelists, choosing, of course, those whose talents seemed most solid. These appeared to be William Faulkner, Kenneth Burke, Erskine Caldwell, Kay Boyle, Robert Cantwell, and Katherine Anne Porter; and their work appealed not only to one’s literary taste, but also seemed to have much to say on certain specific questions of tendency over which there has been something like a running debate for several years. Are we to have “nationalism,” regionalism, or artistic expatriation? What of the “pure” or plotless novel, after James Joyce and Gertrude Stein? The novel of economic realism or determinism? Or the “new objectiveness” after Hemingway? And finally, the most “burning” issue of all: is the younger generation still “lost” ? Or is it involved more deeply than ever in the famous (and very gravely debated) revolt against its elders?
The voices of these writers are variously pitched; their attitudes, qualities, differ measurably. Hence the effort to find something like a common denominator for the moral and intellectual overtones in their writings offers inevitable risks: risks of classification and definition. Yet these dangers seem worth running for the chance that, after some analysis, we may distinguish the leit-motif, the “figure in the carpet,” the essentially common temper, commonly conditioned.
A salient effect which “gets through” to us at once is the general spirit of moral experiment, if not indeed of rebellion ; we feel this especially if we recall, by contrast, the complacent atmosphere of the Century Club twenty-five years ago, the sweet cheerfulness of the Saturday Evening Post’s pages in the Charles Dana Gibson era. The new writers, to begin with, recall us once more—indulgence must be asked —to that unlaid ghost, the problem of the younger generation’s so-called “revolt.”
At the risk of renewing an old quarrel, I must make the contention that the older generation in America, long ago, fell most heavily in arrears towards its successors. Probably in no other country have objective social conditions changed so rapidly, while lip-service was still being given to outworn traditions and institutions. Now the strife within the republic of letters is comparable to the oft-mentioned crisis in the modern American family: parents continue to adore their children, to envy their physical youth and beauty, sometimes foolishly pretending even to be youthful themselves and accompanying them as far as night clubs; yet on the whole, they have little time for their offspring, communicate to them no worldly wisdom, no loyalties, no sense of a worthwhile order, and so continue to be heartily despised by them. This sharp division between generations is now to be noted more and more in Europe too, though the pillars of old-world society still seem to endure better.
Discontinuity in cultural development has always been a baffling factor in American history. Ideas of great value are born, but die young; hopeful currents flow for a time, only to become diverted and lost among uncharted tides. One after another, the democratic idea of a Jefferson, the moral independence of an Emerson, the Populism of a Bryan, the liberalism of a Wilson, seemed to perish swiftly without fruit. And each defeat would bring a period of despair. One recalls, in its special significance, the end of President Wilson’s crusade for “This New Freedom”—a slogan which, by the way, before 1919 aptly expressed the Zeitgeist, and in many more senses than those of the political improvements hoped for.
But in the precincts given to culture, ideas always seemed to lag behind events themselves. The social prophet has been defined (somewhere in Mr. Bertrand Russell’s pages) as not so much a good guesser as a good peerer under the surfaces of things. But such prophets as we had here a generation ago, our own gifted academicians, Paul Elmer More, W. C. Brownell, George Edward Woodberry, and Stuart P. Sherman, devoted themselves chiefly to resisting the new emanations, the New Freedom, the new realism or impressionism or psychoanalysis, whenever these modern monsters raised their heads in this country. And at the same time these men were absolutely unable to hand on their own values, such as they were: of sweetness-and-light, or a so-called humanism, or American liberal Protestantism, or Yankee business individualism. In the meantime spectacular enough disasters succeeded themselves in the score of years after 1912, events produced by conditions which these sages tacitly accepted. The Brownells and Woodberrys passed away. Only Sherman expiated a little, and recognized before he died—Theodore Dreiser, the sexagenarian novelist.
When the great moment of This New Freedom was over, few thinkers or critics of integrity had, upon their record, won positions of authority. They were compromised, or grew cynically resigned, or were hounded into silence by Mr. Palmer, or retreated to Europe, or had nervous breakdowns, or abandoned their liberal reviews. Nor in the aesthetic sense were there any personages left of the old school who commanded even the reluctant respect of the young and so might communicate the secrets of their craft, the lessons of their experience. In 1917, Henry James, one of the few great and cultured novelists of his time, died in London, having richly instructed young British, Irish, and even French litterateurs who read English: Marcel Proust, for instance. Here, to be sure, there were certain professors, editors, critics, and columnists—they are still here—, but no one went to them for guidance or ever felt any strong conviction in them. (Those who enjoy literary parlor-games may try examining the enthusiasms, the choices of these journalists in the back-files of ten or even five years ago.) For its nourishment the younger generation was compelled, as always before, to look abroad, to buy tourist tickets, to be international-minded; or, remaining here, to seize upon such scraps, clues, or Meaningful fragments of certain ill-fated Americans as it could find.
Sherwood Anderson was here. Of course, there were others of a similar cast of mind, after the World War; yet I think it would be just to recognize that none exercised a larger influence upon the young than he. Admitting his limitations as an artist, one respects him nevertheless for this seminal power. This power he gained, no doubt, because of the evangelistic fervor with which (like D. H. Lawrence and certain others) he carried on what one laughingly calls the Sexual Revolution,
We have had no social revolution; but in former years a good many battles were fought and won for the Sexual Revolution by those who were not too bored to fight for it. And in those days Sherwood Anderson went about the country a good deal, addressing himself to many sensitive young people, psychoanalyzing them here and there, as I have heard, and on the whole convincing them of his honesty, of the value of his own type of revolt, or “self-fulfillment.” His books, moreover, were very seductive to the young because of their quite romantic urgings to flight from social bonds, hypocritical conventions, suffocating domestic situations.
A young poet of my acquaintance has told me of the first excitement with which he suddenly fell upon a copy of “Winesburg, Ohio.” He was but sixteen or seventeen, and was then a student at a respectable New England preparatory school to which his respectable family had committed him. But now, of course, new vistas opened for him; a “thousand lights” dazzled his eyes; impossible to remain at school. Literally packing a few belongings in a handkerchief, he stole away, one morning, to ride freight-cars, to tramp the open roads with vagrants, to wander with traveling horse-shows—on his way to the great open spaces of the Middle West. His family in the meantime searched frantically for him, eventually gave him up for dead, until he returned one day, hungry and ragged, but with a look of wild, impenitent contentment in his eye.
This passion to evade confining conditions, to “approach life” more closely, to see the world, to test it for themselves, and to live, it might be said in one sense, more extravagantly, more “expansively,” and in another, juster sense, more generously—this impulse certainly seized many of our adolescents as they opened the new books of the post-war and Freudian era, and especially the Wanderlust-ridden books of men like Anderson. And though it may be true that this escapist tendency, as Mr. Irving Babbitt has reminded us, is the latter-day consequence of Rousseau’s doctrines, it by no means follows that such personal uprisings are dishonest, destructive, or unsalutary. Was Goethe turned into a rudderless mind as a result of his wildly careening youth? Or does not such rebellion against ready-made ideas, such exposure and surrender (for a time) to life, such resolve to make renewed, personal tests of human values and institutions, breed in the end a revived sense of the natural world, a truer discipline, a richer and more tolerant wisdom than most academic “humanists” have to show?
In Europe, after Rousseau, the German Goethe, the Swiss Benjamin Constant, and the Frenchmen, Chateaubriand and Hugo, all in turn undertook splendid adolescent pilgrimages —from a detested bourgeois world toward a nobler and more heroic world of their imagination. So our own youth frequently felt the need for being Noble Savages, for taking new paths which, once taken, so their resigned mentors freely assured them, would most certainly destroy their chances of “making money.”
But of course this generation knew that there was little heroism to be essayed; it saw no enduring values it could readily prize or fight for. Astonishingly skeptical and disillusioned, was it truly a “lost generation,” as Hemingway intimated? Was it merely swimming on the post-war currents of unrest, folly, violent transition? To be sure, it hadn’t the tremendous resources of self-pity which a Byron or a Hugo delighted in; it hadn’t the typically romantic conviction of its own angelic superiority to its society and age. But on the other hand, for all the Spenglers, or even Hemingways, it couldn’t go on forever telling itself it was “lost.”
In some of the new writers there is bitterness enough; but it is an informed, a patient bitterness. In the course of time, by dint of much trial and error, and thanks to the new powers of observation, the new objectiveness, a good deal of cancelling out is done, a work of negation is completed— which, we perceive, prepares the way for more positive convictions. It seems most timely to expose the germs of such convictions, the intimations of such belief, wherever they are to be seen in the new writings. Thus, it may be noted that some of the young writers show a declining interest in the accidents of individual (psychoanalytic) liberation, and— after 1929-1930—an increasingly clear consciousness of the whole of the society in which they live.
Frequently enough, in recent years, the “Sad Young Men,” as Scott Fitzgerald calls them, have given us pictures of their life: some of these professed studies of the contemporary enervation and futility have even had an obviously suggestive entertainment character. But save for Ernest Hemingway, who displays high dramatic powers within a quite limited sphere, these cross-sections of modern youth have lacked comprehensiveness. There are ever so many Americans, we recall, who can’t be drinking champagne from morning to night, can’t ever go to Princeton or Montpar-nasse or even Greenwich Village for their finishing process. And the newer writers do begin to show a finer comprehension, in devoting themselves to more universal types, to larger sections of our people. They sing fewer dirges over being “lost”; quitting the formula of the ill-disguised autobiography of the always sensitive-and-frustrated young man, they turn often to consideration of the American folkways, revealing their temper by their treatment of this material. Writers like William Faulkner, George Milburn (in the collection of modern folk-tales, “Oklahoma Town”), and George Davis, have given us their unpitying observations, filled with an implied anger, of folkways in the rural South, the Middle West, or in the metropolis of Chicago. Reading Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” monstrous and dramatic episode out of the life of the agrarian South, we cannot ignore the implicit attack upon the ruling economic order and in behalf of his own region. Questions are raised which our present political-financial leadership must certainly answer some day, if it can; and this is done with the most careful avoidance of mere propaganda.
But beside the group of objective writers who show a fairly direct note of social consciousness, there is another faction whose dissent is more remote; one which sets its own example of sensibility and culture against the crassness of the contemporary society, and utters its own subdued social criticism by making, as it were, a religion of literature. The one school is “nationalistic” in the salutary sense that it plays its observation upon the American scene, the American mores of its own time; it is essentially hopeful in its attitude since it takes the trouble to show anger, even if indirectly. The other school feeds itself upon the soil of literary traditions chiefly, is more subjective and cerebral. Less concerned with the times or the geography, it seems to rest its hope more in retreat than in passionate dissent—retreat from the Philistines toward the shrines of culture, to the proverbial ivory tower which may be set up as easily in New Jersey or Connecticut as in Bloomsbury. (I know my distinctions may seem arbitrary, involving overemphasis; yet they may be useful to our discussion, even though individual writers should grow up to defeat the labels we place upon them.) The one school, then, is pretty well represented at its extreme by William Faulkner; the other is typified, also in extreme degree, by Kenneth Burke, in his highly “rhetorical” and neurotic novel, “Towards a Better Life.”
William Faulkner has done an extraordinary piece of genre painting in “As I Lay Dying,” and much has already been said of this and other books of his. The particular region of which he is a native, its Negroes and poor whites, has never before been pictured for us in such primitive character. We feel for once all the superstition and brutality rampant in these people; and Faulkner does literally try to paint them as raw and violent as possible, perhaps in reaction against the genteel Cables and Pages of earlier days. Rut instead of a photographic realism, he seeks, above all, heroic and powerful effects, such as one finds in the great Russian novels. At times indeed he approaches melodrama, though melodrama may often be truer-to-life than more placid fictions. Faulkner, in short, is a kind of expression-istic poet, using now a Southern vernacular, now a fantastic diction of his own, which is sometimes less than articulate; and too often he writes at the top of his voice. Yet power, Tomantic power, is not commonplace in our prose literature. And for all its localisms, his Odyssey (in “As I Lay Dying”) of a family bearing away upon a mule cart the corpse of the mother to the final resting place she demanded, becomes universal and elemental drama. This he could not have achieved, we feel, if he had ignored the people of his own countryside and used the traditionally literary characters : Hamlet or Pierrot or Don Juan. . . .
A similar “nationalistic” tendency, shown by his fixing upon the native scene and folklore, is also felt in Erskine Caldwell, a younger, perhaps more naturally gifted, though less turbulent writer than Faulkner. Caldwell’s first book of tales and sketches was called, characteristically enough, “American Earth.” Can American earth be made as rich, as picturesque as Tuscan or Sicilian or Alpine earth? Yes, Caldwell would say, if one is poet enough, or has eyes enough. American earth is like no other earth. Here, in brief sketches, for the most part, he gives us the color of life in the far South: instances of domestic manners, or of work on the land, of lynching parties and necking parties. These are drawn, however, with a remarkable restraint, and a careful avoidance of literary affectation which sometimes goes to excesses of simplification. Of brute passions and sudden deaths he writes with a casualness at moments almost sportive; this trait, as well as a certain detachment of view toward cruelty and pain, while not being familiar notes in our literature, is already part of the iconoclasm of the younger generation.
In the last fifty pages of “American Earth,” Caldwell departs from his folk-tale medium, used so much like Chekhov, and gives us a sequence of autobiographical notations or aphorisms, called “The Sacrilege of Alan Kent.” It is the episodic diary of a young American who has gone wandering about his vast country, to see it for himself, to know it at first hand. “I loved my father and mother and I wanted to be with them,” he says, “but I could not stop living with myself.” And so the fictive Alan Kent lives always “with himself,” recording fragments of sunlight, birds, flowers, all mingled with strange voyages upon freight-trains, passional crimes, glimpses of circuses, halts in large cities, faces seen in crowds. The sense of tremendously long foot-journeys—from Chicago to New Orleans!—is suggested, and of the weariness and heat of such wandering. “Once the sun was so hot a bird came down and walked beside me in my shadow.” There are other marvellous images, as well, such as that of the passage of time, during a detention in jail, “with nothing to do but listen to a Mexican file his pointed yellow teeth and feel my growing beard . . .”
These pages, dry, simple, and yet very full of esprit, are taken from the wandering-years of a youth who says regretfully: “I might have been a giant, but thoughts made me weak.” Therefore he flies from all bonds and memories and attempts to lose himself in a quite primitive American landscape.
In his first novel, “Tobacco Road,” which was published last spring, Caldwell fully exploits the talents he has already shown, for fresh and original perception, for direct, economical, and vigorous statement, and for the poetry of horror. Possibly Faulkner’s genre painting of Southern life may have influenced Caldwell; but where Faulkner invokes the tragic muse, Caldwell’s is the ribald, comic muse of a Hogarth. Caldwell, like Faulkner, selects primitive characters in nearly primitive situations; but these he pictures with a grotesque fantasy, piling one barbarity upon another. He is a cool craftsman, thoroughly aware of his materials, imbued with a devastating sense of humor.
The United States are divided into many regions, often bitterly opposed to each other. Yet one may turn from the novel by a native of Georgia to that of a young man from the Pacific coast, at the other extremity of the continent, and find that (by some deep unifying force) he too has steeped himself in Anderson, or Gertrude Stein, or Hemingway. You may find the “behavioristic” style, the cold objective-ness, the same spirit of social nihilism—so much like Russia before the revolution—with, of course, individual variations: in the case of Robert Cantwell, for all his reservations, variations toward a more articulate social conscience.
The world of Robert Cantwell’s first novel, “Laugh and Lie Down” (1932), is that of industry rather than agriculture, witnessed in such an average large town as Tacoma, Washington. It is less elemental, of course, less obviously picturesque, and more familiar; hence more difficult to represent.
Laugh and lie down? There is a note of defeat in the very title of this ambitious novel by a young man of twenty-two, who writes chiefly of his own contemporaries. Yet if there is defeat here there are also in Cantwell powers of clairvoyance equal to analyzing the causes of defeat. In a long introductory passage, which shows a flair for the grand style, as for panoramic effects, he evokes a whole impoverished American environment, within which he fixes a family, then a circle of young people. At the same time, in a melancholy and retrospective tone, he records the slow death of the hero’s father. The dying man, Mr. McArdle, had been a man of principle, a man of intelligence; but leaving his family poor, he carries with him a sense of failure into the grave. The son has already concluded that:
All he could learn from his father’s life was that personal integrity, that kindness, that everything that intervenes with the acquisitive impulse is a stupidity, a luxury for simpletons. . . . Poverty, squalor inevitably drain the mind of every desire but the desire to escape them.
The well-contained bitterness of these phrases is characteristic of the whole book. But more notable still is the painting of an impermanent, fluid environment such as we all know everywhere in our country: that of the massive, de-individualized life of the average industrial city; for the characters here are of the lower middle class, or workers.
The people . . . were always moving. They moved from one house to another, heeding the slightest shifts in the value of real estate, or they moved from a town to a city, and back to a town again. At home, in the life William had known before, there had been no travel except by people who had intended to return, but here, and particularly among the people with whom he worked, he found it was taken for granted that he had come from some other place, and that he would presently move to another. The thought troubled him; he felt himself a unit in the great homeless population that flows endlessly from one section of the country to another in an enormous migration as mysterious and as endless as the flow of currents in the depths of the sea.
These youthful characters, their possible choices, physiological loves, rages, strivings with each other, are all so many ripples and eddies in a great, impersonal tide. The rest of this novel is but the particularization of such movement, seen through the mind of the hero, who is no hero. William McArdle might have been a student or a poet, but becomes a worker in a lumber-mill. Having no regrets, memories, or traditions, he and his friends, logically, by imperceptible stages, pick up the only threads of morality that may be distinguished in these strange mists and tides: those of racketeering, the making of money without working too hard for it. . . . Not all of this development is of equal dramatic value, subsequently; yet the unrelieved drabness too has its meaning, enhancing the critical statement of the book. Perhaps I read too much into him, but in effect the author seems to say of his contemporaries: we do not live in any sense which bespeaks the full enjoyment of life. Automatons, we exist only in a mechanism of days and hours, unaware of the meaning of events, still less of the forces that determine our lives. The affair has gone beyond the salvaging of the individual; it is the species that must be saved, possibly by a collective effort. . . .
The other young writers who must be noticed are as a rule less concerned with regions, economic environments, or questions of immediate social action. Thus they take, perhaps, less risk of “dating,” though neither Dante nor Swift nor Milton nor Dickens “dates” for having embraced the controversial issues of his time.
The stories of Katherine Anne Porter, while exhibiting the most spectacular talents, have reference chiefly to the eternally “human—all-too-human” situations. A certain well-poised worldliness of tone, set off by a contrasting violence of imagery, would of course make it easy to place Miss Porter some forty years after Sarah Orne Jewett. Yet if the group of six stories, published in a limited edition under the title “Flowering Judas,” have an air of completeness, richness, and maturity, it is largely because Miss Porter follows closely the great traditions of literature. She loves words, uses them with reverence, with justice; she discovers character with direct, vigorous strokes, searching always for the most vivid tones of human speech, which, by an effort of selection, may be made as poetic as truthful. But in addition to her highly developed taste, she has a great wit—not in the humoristic sense of this word, but in the older one, of knowledge of the world.
The story called “Flowering Judas” is essentially a portrait, a Gargantuan portrait of a Mexican revolutionary leader, with contrasting smaller figures in the canvas, and especially that of a young American woman. Miss Porter shows an easy familiarity with matters of primitive violence, as also with the violence in civilized relations. But the portrait, at all events, as magically drawn as one by an old Flemish master, becomes a dramatic history, a whole life of physical power and anguish and grossness—though but a moment of tension is caught. Nothing happens but this moment, projected unresolved upon the final tangent of a dream, like a high violin note.
Another polished, sapient, finely trained talent appeals to us in the first two books of Kay Boyle: “Wedding Day,” a collection of short stories, and “Plagued by the Nightingale,” a novel. Miss Boyle, who left these parts some years ago to live and to write in Europe, is no more easily labeled than is Miss Porter. She too is fully conscious of all that is going on in the modern literary laboratories, as well as of the traditional masters; she has freshness and enthusiasm in her perceptions; her sentences are well-drilled. Yet she is, if anything, or has become in recent years, a product of sheer literary culture, and especially of that religion of literature which flourishes in Paris, in London, and now, a good deal, in New York.
The feminine elegance of observation, the displays of extreme sensibility, such as Mrs. Virginia Woolf has lately overdone a little, Miss Boyle takes on apace. Yet in the story called “Wedding Day,” Miss Boyle has, like Miss Porter, written one of the great short tales of this time. It is again a piece of “pure literature”; the glittering overtones carry the reader from one significant impression to the next —the needless or ugly factual detail being suppressed—until the single, desired effect is driven home. Here then is a subtle comedy of manners whose principal actors have always the leisure, in their special world of parlors, cafes, or gardens, to cultivate their sentiments to the most tormenting pitch. But is not all this something like evasion? Like escape into a special world of refinement and sensibility, which closes off the world outside? Surely there have been enough beautiful, wounded, and helpless birds of literature since the 1890’s!
Stretching a point a little, one might say that Miss Boyle has been making almost the same “pilgrimage” as Henry James, the great expatriate of yesterday, into his “rich, deep, dark Old World.” She seems to worship before traditions and shrines which the troubled Europeans of today themselves ignore. Of her own transplanted Americans she says:
. . . They were another race stamping an easy trail through the wilderness of Paris. . . . No one else could by the lifting of the head only be starting life over again. No one else had the same delight, no one else put foot to pavement in such a way. With their yellow heads back they were stamping a new trail, but in such ignorance, for they had no idea of it.
I would not for a moment question the value of foreign travel; but the escape toward the artist’s world of refinement is indeed no “new trail.”
Miss Boyle’s first novel, “Plagued by the Nightingale” (1931), is technically an astonishingly good performance. It is organized after a classical pattern, is lucid and dispassionate, as if written by a modern Jane Austen who had no fear of strong words. But the problem so brilliantly posed here,—that of a young Frenchman who, accompanied by his American wife, returns to the ancient estate and the closed provincial life of his family—this problem points back to that of the author. For Miss Boyle has rendered only too well the suffocating atmosphere, the corroding and deadening effect of this old bourgeoisie, and all its demands upon the young. She herself, then, tells us indirectly that the old Europe is dying and must be replaced by a new civilization; perhaps as materialist, as collective, as rational, as secular as John Dewey has pictured the new Russia. Yet she clings to the culture which is the sick flower of that passing order.
By going to still greater extremes, Kenneth Burke exemplifies perhaps best of all the religion of literature of which I have spoken. Miss Boyle has less of it; Miss Porter still less. In “Towards a Better Life,” he has written really a novel of ideas, for all its misleading title; and it is the product of an impressive, a long accumulated equipment. In his earlier stories, “The White Oxen” (1924), as well as in his critical writings, “Counterstatement” (1931), he had already shown the most intense interest in literary form and a passion for experiment which gained him the compliment of an underground fame and of frequent imitation by still younger writers. His conclusions or claims with regard to “pure literature,” put forth most lucidly in the preface to his novel, help to illuminate the issues that have been raised between the pure and the impure.
The author has resolved, as he declares, to suppress all those minutiae of social reference, daily functions, entrances and exits which, presumably, congest the more conventional novel, and to concentrate at once upon the culminating moments of a human life. These, by Mr. Burke’s philosophy, are the verbal manifestations of experience; and the raisons-d’etre for life itself: “lamentations, rejoicings, beseechments, admonitions, sayings and invectives.” All the rest is stripped away as useless. No plots, no mere suspense; you witness only John Neal’s eloquence, at the moments when experiences have just produced lamentations, rejoicings, etc. You have him being voluble rather than in action; making only epistles or “declamations” out of his life.
But the glaring weakness of such an attitude—if we are to take it seriously—lies in its ignorance of the artistic economies traditional to literature. Good literature has seldom endured the tasteless intrusion of commonplace detail, or reportage, or fabricated suspense, merely for their own sake, as in the parlor-game detective story. Good literature has always made one piece out of elements which may variously be historical, moral, as well as dramatic and rhetorical. Bad literature is something else.
The story of John Neal, “a man of moral absolutism in a world of moral relativity,” was to form a drama of ideas, presumably, reflecting the progress of an inward struggle. But, loving rhetoric passionately, the author has his hero conceal too much from us, since obscurity of motives is so conducive to rhetoric. There is in the first half of this work a dispro-portionateness of verbiage; it is all digression, reflection, aphorism, and paradox, and often enough euphuistic. For “an author may devote his entire energies to rage, purely through a preference for long sentences.” True; but dramatic force is sacrificed, not to speak of sincerity. The love of words for their own sake may lead to much hair-splitting and even misrepresentation. It certainly doesn’t bring John Neal, through his loves, quarrels, or social revulsions—or the reader, for that matter—to a final clarification.
But the author himself, instinctively searching for a dramatic unity, buckles down to his task in the second half of “Toward a Better Life.” Throwing off his tone of mere rhetoric, Mr. Burke develops his themes with a wild and neurotic beauty. There emerges for us at last the stormy novel of a modern man who is the hound of ideas, up in arms against the world around him. But it is not the world we know that he contends with; it is a world created in his own brain of a desperate, hypochondriac litterateur. He courts a mental anarchy, pursues excesses of the imagination, much like Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, with whom, at least one critic has pointed out, John Neal has many points of resemblance. The end must logically be increasing hypochondria, madness, or lotus-eating. But all this, for the sake of having lovely sentences? The sentences, long or short, low-pitched or brazen, are always of a firm and most delicate architecture in Mr. Burke.
Why is John Neal a hypochondriac, we ask? Because the very presence of mankind in general—as for Huysmans’ figure of the 1890’s—afflicts him? Then he is as incurable as Hamlet. There are drugs, and various forms of Christian or non-Christian mysticism. Are his troubles not more precisely traceable to the way in which the bourgeois order consecrates social as well as aesthetic indecency? The sad heroes of Thomas Mann—whom Mr. Burke, incidentally, salutes as a master—were also terribly sensitive souls, oppressed by the circumambient middle-class Schrecklichkeit.
Or, if John Neal (treating his story as a modern parable) is maddened by the want of human signposts, all the “moral relativity,” may not this condition too be attributed to the avaricious and warring nature of modern capitalism? But this regime is now widely believed to be dying, while new social orders announce themselves. One could wish then that Mr. Burke, with his great critical and imaginative gifts, might ponder a little over such change in the real world; and rather than go on distilling eloquence from neurosis, turn to writing a somewhat less “pure” literature. Yet the very title of his novel, “Towards a Better Life,” may be the sign that he has already said farewell to literary neurosis.
No moral signposts? But have not men always made new ones, renewing or exchanging their institutions, their values, if only in order to survive? And is this not the business of the contemporary generation?
Up to quite recently the opportunities for our new writers were somewhat narrow. A middle-class Paradise was to be achieved for all Americans, as everyone hopefully predicted, thanks to the composite mind of Ford and Coolidge. But at heart our intellectual class was never won over by this prospect; it felt no deep loyalties either to skyscrapers or motor cars; and, suffocated, it gave itself over to much personal psychoanalyzing, mental-healing, and libido-urging. But since the middle-class Paradise has foundered, there are large opportunities once more, such as writers and intellectuals have gladly embraced in the past, opportunities to go into battle for a more generous social order. There will be need, then, for an unstinted moral enthusiasm such as the old men no longer engender. There will be need enough for eloquence, and for rhetoric too, as courageous, as efficient as possible.