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Fiction Leaves the Home

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

The Forest and the Fort. By Hervey Allen. Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50. W< Regulators. By William Degenhard. The Dial Press. $3.00. Citizen Tim Paine. By Howard Fast. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $2.75. Jake Home. Bjr Ruth McKenney. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Sweet Beulah lM-By Bernice Kelly Harris. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.75. Nun&tt One. By John Dos Passos. Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50. Gideon Pit*-ish. By Sinclair Lewis. Random House. $2.50.

In trollope’s day the dominant type of novel was often called “domestic” as concerned with the intimate relations of private individuals. Historical romance flourished, too, and there were examples of political novels and those which Cazamian comprehends under the term “social.” But the most respectable of all were the domestic, A cursory survey of American fiction during the last two decades reminds one how the field is dominated by what we may call the novel of public interest. And the same thing holds at present for the average job lot of serious fiction sent out for review, as in the case of the present group. Every one of these seven books is clearly meant to impress upon us something of importance in relation to our social structure and habits. The first three are historical novels, Hervey Allen’s “The Forest and the Fort,” the initial one of a giant series, introduces the subject which seems destined to inform the whole,—the gradual emergence of the spirit of national independence in the frontier districts of colonial Pennsylvania. “The Regulators” by William Degenhard is built about the Shays Rebellion of 1786-87, which is pre* sented as an episode in the age-long struggle between Tory money-power and the interests and liberties of the common man. “Citizen Tom Paine” by Howard Fast presents in a similar spirit the revolutionary author of “Common Sense” and “The Crisis.” Coming nearer to our own times, we have in Ruth McKenney’s “Jake Home” a full-dress proletarian novel, centering in the career of a miner’s son who joined the “party” and became the heroic leader of labor causes in the period following the first World War. Strictly contemporary is “Sweet Beulah Land,” by Bernice Kelly Harris, and built round a private history, but still with its social moral, showing, as it does, how the proud inheritors of “gracious” living may lose the game through want of understanding for the disinherited. What more specially gives it its public character is the pains with which the author accompanies the main story with complete case-histories of the community—landed aristocracy, assorted poor whites, and assorted negroes—making up a Carolina Middletown in the form of fiction. “Number One” by John Dos Passos is a formidable study of a Southern political leader capable of debauching a whole state and threatening the nation. Sinclair Lewis’s “Gideon Planish” is a hilarious and frightening study of racketeering in the organization of philanthropy and other more dubious public causes.

For the most part, historical novels and fictionalized biographies are read by people who have not the force to go direct to biography and history, preferring to have them first diluted and then seasoned up by the writer of fiction. Such books doubtless serve an educational purpose and need not be too much disparaged. But one shudders at the hodgepodge of fact and fancy which the reader must carry away from a book like “Citizen Tom Paine,” where the facts have been reduced to a minimum and the chief contribution of the author is to “point up” what remains,—for example, by fmaking the patriot get drunk on every possible occasion. In the historical novel which mainly features imaginary characters, as in “The Regulators,” the author can spin a web of mystery and adventure, displaying the prowess of his hero, without mishandling historical characters and events. The most frequent defect of historical novelists is sheer lack of imagination. They rely on the interest of actual events, and often do not seem to have conceived of the art of illusion as it was cultivated by a Conrad, a Maupassant, a Chekhov, or by a Dumas, a Stevenson, a Sabatini. They are painstaking in description and documentation, but they may have no real power of characterizing or visualizing. They may have no sense for style as a means of conveying the flavor of the period. “The Regulators” purports to have been written by a participant in the Shays Rebellion, but the vocabulary is drawn from an age of gasoline motors, night clubs, and western movies. “The frigate could not accelerate as fast as our ship.” “Luke barged in.” “Mr. Blair was not at all fazed.” “All right, you win.” “I got wise to his game.” “Beulah was a mess.” Mr. Allen has a much better sense for style, and the adventures of the pioneer boy adopted by an Indian chief among the Ohio River tribes are full of curious interest. But the situation is not conceived with anything like the imaginative consistency and intimacy of Caroline Gordon’s “The Captive.” Much of the story is lumpy with unassimilated facts and summaries. Sometimes fiction is hardly to be distinguished from history except in being less reliable.

Naturally a subject is likely to be more completely imagined as it is nearer to the author’s time and experience. In “Sweet Beulah Land” the little close-ups of Carolina cotton-country people are convincingly done. Unfortunately, there are so many threads to follow that one takes up a cold scent each time a group is re-introduced, and the story loses in intensity what it gains in extension. The characters and situations are extremely well built up in “Jake Home,” which has some of the emotional intensity of George Eliot or Sigrid Undset. All that stands between us and entire conviction is the suspicion that the hero, in spite of his life-likeness in detail, is as a whole a purely ideal figure—a dra-matic projection of the author’s wishful thinking. As often in proletarian fiction, one is surprised to find so much of the old evangelical fervor and sentiment in a “party” novel, until one reflects, for the hundredth time, that the party is for many the inheritor of the Sunday School. Miss McKenney has great talents, and it is only a touch of the cliche which keeps her out of the ranks of our best.

As for the complete imagining of the subject in terms of character and situation, which seems to be the defining merit of fiction, as such, the palm must go to the veteran Dos Passos. In “Number One” he does not undertake any such intricate and abstract pattern as in “U. S. A.,” nor is the narrative so dispersed and unfleshed as in “The Adventures of a Young Man.” A few episodes in the career of a popular demagogue are given with the searing intimacy of a bad dream; the dream was that of his drunken promoter, Tyler Spottswood. The specious bonhomie of politics, the bogus idealism, the vulgar showmanship, the childish egoism, the nauseous pleasure-seeking, the corruption of all values, and the treachery, are all made to live in the simplest of dramatic terms, without exposition or italics. Perhaps the author was ill-advised to depend for his interpretation on so feeble and forlorn a spirit as Tyler Spottswood; he does not quite make us understand what it was in Chuck Crawford which cast so enduring a spell over his henchman, nor whether in the end the loyalty of this flabby idealist is to be taken as evidence of moral strength or intellectual weakness. But while we may not thoroughly understand Tyler, we thoroughly envisage him, and the gang of crummy grafters with whom his unfortunate lot was cast, and we shall be warned against them when they turn up in Detroit or St; Paul.

For the powerful art of Sinclair Lewis, we need a special category, a term not yet perhaps associated with the novel. “Gideon Planish” is one of the strongest and wittiest of his books, and the critics are taking him severely to task for making his characters the stalking-horses of his wit. Doing that is not of course the same thing as imagining the subject in terms of character and situation. It is—shall we say, roughly?—the exact opposite. It is conceiving the characters and situation in terms of the satirical point that is to be made. The characters do not live as autonomous individuals; they exist from moment to moment as terms in an elaborate formula that is being worked out. In this case the formula represents the promoter of organizations pur-porting to be for the public good but mainly serving to give employment to the promoter and potentially capable of corrupting a people. Such organizations are legion—in education, religion, charity, labor relations, and politics — in every matter of public interest in which pious motives may be perverted to unholy ends, and in which vagueness of intention may prevail on the surface or all the way through. (“Pretty much everything was decided about the new organization except its name, and for what purpose it existed, if any.”) This is a big formula and it takes a lot of working out. “Gideon Planish” develops its theme with the ingenuity of variation and the insistent iteration of Ravel’s Bolero and rises to an impressive crescendo of the ridiculous. It would be invidious to name the university presidents and advertising men and America Firsters and Elmer Gantrys whose essence has been caught in the protean changes of Dr. Planish. Mr. Lewis is as breezy in his books as he is over the teacups. He indulges freely in whimsy and extravaganza, as in the case of young Dr. Riot, who was “Professor of Education in Wisteria College for Women, and author of Don’t Be Afreud” He does not always keep his face-tiousness within bounds, nor observe “the modesty of nature”; and so we compare him to Mark Twain rather than to Swift or Voltaire. Essentially his genius is for satirical burlesque, and I’m not sure but that he is best where the vein is purest. I’m not sure that “Gideon Planish” is not better Lewis than “Main Street” or “Babbitt,” where he took more trouble to build up people in their own right. There is no law against a man’s clarifying his art as he goes along, or even trying something new, though it is troublesome for the critics.


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