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Fiction Back to Earth

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

The Moon is Down. By John Steinbeck. The Viking Press. $2.00. Islandia, By Austin Tappan Wright. Farrar and Rinehart. $3.00. Man Cannot Tell. By Philip Lightfoot Scruggs. Bobbs Merrill Company. $2.75. Rogue’s Legacy. By Babette Deutsch. Coward-McCann. $2.75. New Hope. By Ruth Suckow. Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50. Cross Creek. By Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

From the ‘twenties on a discouraging monotony has persistently appeared in American and British fiction. In England, stories of “intense” persons tinged by decay and a taste for cruelty, stories like “Those Barren Leaves” and Mr. Swinnerton’s recent work, “The Fortunate Lady,” have been steadily appearing, despite emergence of the newer novel of a changed ideal, like “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Keys of the Kingdom.”

In America, the appeal of novels of critical realism and of strenuous proletarianism have fixed the shape and attitudes, as well as the characters, in stories of drab life, a life which is without taste, grace, or ideals. From “Babbitt” through “Iowa Interiors,” “Alice Adams,” “An American Tragedy,” “Studs Lonigan,” and the fiction of Dos Passos and Caldwell, to the work of Irwin Shaw and John Steinbeck, an America of promise has been conspicuously absent. The disappearance of happy or likeable common people from American fiction is not owing to their disappearance from American life—although life had much to do with our unhappy fiction, as during the depression. Whatever the reason, the “art” novel became the fashion. Fiction about good Americans was worn thin by the hands of second-rate feminine novelists, and novels of idealism contained the obvious moralizing or stale types of character found in the more unfortunate work of Lloyd Douglas.

In the last few years, American fiction has been less arbitrarily bound to critical realism. A change has made itself felt, and there has emerged an America of power and beauty and of characters toughly capable. The “lovable rascal” has given way to the hard-working farmer; the inescapable poor folks who lead lives of misery have given way to the poor who are often clean, happy, or even arrogantly in charge of their own destinies, like the people in Mr. Saroyan’s work, The war has had little to do with this change; it is owing rather to a revulsion against the monotony of the older type of fiction and also to a desire on the part of the novelists to achieve a realism of greater richness. These six novels are an index: two are historical, Babette Deutsch’s “Rogue’s Legacy” and Philip Lightfoot Scruggs’s “Man Cannot Tell”; one is Utopian, Austin Tappan Wright’s “Islandia”; one is a philosophical allegory on the conquest of evil, John Steinbeck’s “The Moon is Down”; and two, Ruth Suckow’s “New Hope” and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s “Cross Creek,” are stories of American locality, where are found beauty, everyday good people, and an appreciation of the richness of a home soil. The old monotony is gone; varied tones and moods suggest more maturity of art and mind.

“The Moon is Down” has been curiously misinterpreted by certain of its critics, who seem to be unnecessarily fearful concerning its possible social effects. Yet it is one story of the present war that seems to me possible reading five or ten years after the war. Deliberately free from “intense” realism, and trying to picture what power there is in captive good in the face of potent evil, the novel belongs to that group of ethical tracts in which we might find “Candide” or “Rasselas,” Shaw’s story of “The Little Black Girl,” Wells’s “The Croquet Player,” and even “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” “The Moon is Down” has been attacked on the grounds of sentimental defeatism, in what is said to be its lesson that the German conquerors of Norway grow weak under passive resistance and that they fear the hatred of the natives. Earnest patriots have felt that the book may encourage Americans to sit still and wait, instead of fighting, in the belief that defeated goodness possesses a terrible power which is its own defense I But Mr. Steinbeck has been explicit in his symbol of the chocolate and the dynamite, two gifts which stand for the need for power in the hands of defeated goodness. No writer could be more thoroughly misread. This cool book, with its deliberate abstracting of types like the cynical Colonel Lanser and the kindly wise men, Winter and Orden, who remember the death of Socrates before they separate for death, is no “What Price Glory” or “Journey’s End” or “All Quiet.” The heat and the hatred are trussing. Nor is Orden’s death a sensuous, intense, personal destruction, like that in “A Farewell to Arms.” Crisp, classically concise, the story searches the meaning of our disaster; having found that, it makes no concession to fanatical hatred. The decent good men are lost by their own woolgathering amiability; the arrogantly powerful tread to doom in their German boots.

“Islandia,” a “wonder of wonders,” a tour de force, loses much of its appeal, when on second thought the weight of the reading and of the over-writing begins to tell. The novel tells us of that dream country which was a strange reality to the writer, a place known to him by hills and weather and people and laws, imagined over many years. Complete pictures, poetic if lush, and amorous scenes of a naive sort illustrate the idyllic—though endangered—perfection, which a visiting American finds in the intelligent, handsome, kindly natives of Islandia who can discriminate between the kinds of love without moral repugnance. The account of the search for a happy love with a girl of Islandia’s ideals seems naively drawn out, as though it were a preoccupation; it stands in the way of the Utopian pictures and meanings that are social or philosophical. The book is a sport, a work of imperfect, perhaps uncontrolled, genius. There are suggestions of the novelist’s art in the occasional glimpses of Americans and of family life at home and of a wife from the real world; but the story of Islandia is a fable too long pursued.

In Miss Suckow’s “New Hope” and in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s “Cross Creek,” two born story tellers add to their already substantial performances by presenting stories of real American life and of the poetry of common experience and of the beauty of the country each knows best. “Cross Creek” has, in its loosely built but otherwise well unified chapters about life in the Florida woods, all the emotions of real people, all the action and humor, all the knowledge of animals and flowers and seasons that we could ask for in a great novel. In “Cross Creek” Miss Rawlings reveals the somber meaning of this Florida country even better than in “The Yearling.” There is too the good fun in the story of the pet raccoon and of Florida food; but the real measure of “Cross Creek” can only be taken in its nature poetry which never deserts the ordinary and the humble for that strained pantheism found in so many novels about the land.

In “New Hope,” Ruth Suckow has written what seems to me her finest novel. It is not only more compact and freshly phrased than “The Folks”; it has also a poetic quality that her other shorter novels, like “The Bonney Family,” lacked. She has raised the simple Iowa farm words to a level of great dignity and validity in writing with sympathetic understanding about Iowa church socials, children out of doors in the spring, and about the running away of Clarence and the minister’s girl. For anything like this deep feeling drawn from life on a farm or in a raw Iowa village, one must go to her “Country People” or to Willa Cather’s magical stories of the Nebraska frontier. I have never read a book so free from comment or interpretation by the author. We are never told to laugh, to cry, to see one man right and another wrong; we are not told what is stupid and what is noble, except upon a final half-page of great beauty where the whole experience of a boy’s life is suddenly epitomized and evaluated. In this novel, another difficult feat is accomplished: we are made to enter the half-hidden life of children, with their shy pleasure over little things and their grief over a bird’s broken wing; but we do not enter with that doting sentimentality so distressing to the young.

“Rogue’s Legacy” follows the familiar pattern of the romance of a famous life, written mainly for the sake of reproducing the atmosphere of the period. The life is that of Francois Villon, and we see that fifteenth century brawling life of the tavern, the great house, the road, and the thief. Miss Deutsch does the old story well, with a poet’s skill at scenery and strenuous action. The dark attraction of Villon’s immorality and disease adds interest to the book. But for all its skill, it is a story curiously immature. It comes to little more than an old-fashioned romance with a trick of startling, fleshy vividness that strikes off a realistic moment of passion, as do those deliberately erotic passages in “Anthony Adverse.” Here is a wild young man in love, but somehow the novel does not manage to re-create the living poet and his vexing world.

Of the newer sort of historical romance, Philip Lightfoot Scruggs’s “Man Cannot Tell” is a good example. It combines the historical story—of Bacon’s Virginia rebellion— with realistic characters. The men and women have flesh and blood; they move and breathe; they do real things. Jellis Holt is an individual, not a type; John Branch convincingly combines authority with kindliness; Anne is a girl whose feeling about love is her own. This sense of personality dominates the whole historical scene, in which Americans, British, and Indians all play a part. The scenes then are full of action that happens to living friends, and not to story personages. Mr. Scruggs has a feeling for the land, and this makes his book more powerful than most historical romances. Descriptions, like that of the storm near the opening of the book, are full, and strong in a way that lends strength to the characters themselves, as Conrad often increases the sense of strength in his sailors by depicting their conflict with the wind and the rain. This novel should please many more readers than have yet had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with it.


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