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The Fruits of Diversity

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

Light in August. By William Faulkner. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert K. Haas. $2.50. Peter Ashley. By DuBose Hey ward. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50. The Laughing Pioneer. By Paul Green. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company. $2.00. The Haunted Mirror. By Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50.

The most striking characteristic of the South’s present impressive literary production is its diversity. When the star of destiny seemed to stand still over the Midlands, a decade or more ago, one could speak of a Middle Western School; no one would be brash enough to speak of a Southern School today. Three novels and a book of short stories lie before me, all written by Southerners, and as completely unrelated in every respect as if they had been written by the natives of four far-removed countries. Actually the South has always had a far greater variety of culture than is generally known or admitted. Even during the period when there was a sort of crystallization, and when the romantic pattern became firmly fixed in the minds of both Southerners and Northerners, there was no single South; it was merely that the ruling classes happened to be the articulate classes, and that what they believed and taught made an agreeable credo for all.

As difficult as it may be for some to credit the statement, the difference was as great even in parts of the ante-bellum South as the difference between William Faulkner’s “Light in August” and DuBose Heyward’s “Peter Ashley.” For, granting that there is an element of truth in the statement that Mr. Faulkner has turned his consummate skill to the creation of a South that exists only in his fiery and tortured imagination—that he is really writing Gothic romances in the modernistic manner—if he had been living in the Civil War period, and a realist, he would have found horror and lust and brutality in such quantities as to make Mr. Heyward’s likeable novel seem little more than a pleasant dream. And yet this would not have been the whole truth either, for there was a South such as Mr. Heyward depicts, gracious, kindly, aristocratic, infinitely agreeable for those who observed its tabus.

What Mr. Heyward has done is to take the Charleston of 1861, from the time of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession to the bombardment of Fort Sumter, as the setting for a novel whose strength lies in its background and in the recapture of the feeling of a tremendously dramatic moment. Its weakness lies in the stereotype of its characters; its hero, heroine, and villain are conventional figures of romance, people told about rather than people who come to life and comport themselves in the manner of recognizable human beings. No finer period in all the history of the country could have been chosen by Mr. Heyward, who knows his Charleston with an intimacy that speaks in every page of his book. He borrows freely from the actual figures of the times; the creatures of his imagination walk about among men of flesh and blood. He has a keen eye for the picturesque, and writes vividly and entertainingly of horse races and other pastimes of the period.

In brief outline, his novel is the story of Peter Ashley, who comes home from school in England filled with the liberal ideas of the times to find himself precipitated into a situation out of which came the Civil War. He is intellectually in opposition to the ideology of the slave-based civilization about him, but he is a South Carolina gentleman, and in the end his scruples are overcome; he goes off to war with the rest of his kind. An old uncle, who has found out what war is really like in Mexico, looks on, a sad figure, moved particularly by the enthusiasm of the young and their feeling that war is a picnic, far more exciting than a fox hunt and little more dangerous, if any. The book has a gentle irony; it has an agreeable style, and it is entertaining reading. It is, too, a far more sustained piece of writing than its immediate predecessor, “Mamba’s Daughters.”

Mr. Faulkner is writing about a South of the here and now, but it is a South that has never recovered from the effects of the war that Charleston looked upon as a delightfully romantic episode. There is a surer touch in “Light in August” than in any other novel by the young Mississip-pian, a more certain mastery of a technique that is his own. It is violent and powerful, with effects that again and again leave the reader agape with admiration, especially the magical trick Mr. Faulkner has of suspending people in time and space. It has its own peculiar humor, and its sure understanding of poor whites. To this reviewer, it is not without noticeable faults, perhaps the most striking of which is the failure to make one of its important characters credible. This is the ex-preacher, Hightower, a storm-tossed creature whose tragedy loses its poignance for the very simple reason that he does not seem ever to have lived outside the imagination of the author.

The central figure of the book is Joe Christmas, who looks as white as anybody, but who has reason to believe that he has the fatal drop of Negro blood. He is a doomed being, lashed and beaten by Fate, and at the last meeting his death in a scene as terrible as anything Mr. Faulkner has done. This pursuit and capture is framed by the adventures of young Lena Grove, introduced to us as she sets out from Alabama to find her lover, Lucas Burch, by whom she is with child. She hears of a man with a somewhat similar name, Byron Bunch, in Mr. Faulkner’s Jefferson, Mississippi; and, the fury of the Christmas tragedy having subsided, we see her and Bunch on their way from Mississippi to Tennessee, with Lena remarking: “My, my, a body does get around. Here we ain’t been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.” Lena is a simple and trusting soul, who finds what she expects to find, a remarkable creation not soon to be forgotten.

This is no place for a discussion of the art of Mr. Faulkner, a task for someone who will have the patience to sit down with his entire output and settle many of the questions hurried reviewers can do no more than brush past. But whatever his faults and his weaknesses, he has an amazing talent, and it is at its peak in this novel. My vote would be for him to discard many of his mannerisms, which he does not need, and which are of no help to him—I mean trivial mannerisms, such as the coupling of words. But he will go his own way, of this one may be sure. And it will continue to be a highly interesting way.

Paul Green’s first novel, “The Laughing Pioneer,” is hardly the finished piece of work one might have expected from reading his book of sketches, “Wide Fields,” in which he showed a talent for prose that had nothing to do with his skill as a dramatist. As a novel, it creaks considerably in its mechanics, and its plot hinges about a banal incident. In its general theme, it bears a noticeable relation to Mr. Green’s play, “The House of Connolly,” in that it is concerned with the rejuvenating effect of the arrival of a poor white in a broken-down aristocratic household. It has been said that Mr. Green’s Southern aristocrats do not behave in the conventionally aristocratic manner, but this is not altogether a just criticism; there was, as has been suggested, a considerable diversity in Southern aristocracy. He tells the story of an aged father and a daughter, Miss Alice, living out their days alone except for the visits of Mr. Rorie, Miss Alice’s beau, another aristocrat fallen to clerking in a store. Danny, a husky youngster with no background—a woods colt—comes into the picture with his guitar on his back, and a whole store of “ballets” in his curly head. He finds Miss Alice sympathetic and goes to work to straighten out the farm. Her father dies; and to the horror of the neighbors, Danny and Miss Alice occupy the house unchaperoned. Rorie assembles his hooded brethren to straighten matters out, and Miss Alice dies as a result of the encounter, leaving Danny free to wander down the world. . . .

The novel is not without its moments of excellence, and the writing is often truly poetical. But a Faulkner could put it into a short story and make its rep ding a burning memory, whereas there is no very powerful impression left behind in its present form. If one may venture a judgment upon so slender a criterion as a first novel, Mr. Green’s talent lies in other directions.

There are seven short stories in Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ “The Haunted Mirror,” stories of her own Kentucky folk, done in the unfailingly lovely and simple prose of which she is a perfect mistress, and giving delight to the lover of good writing for its own sake. Some two or three of the stories have already attracted deserved attention in collections, such as “The Sacrifice of the Maidens,” a poignant piece rich in overtones, and “Death at Bearwallow,” which appeared in the first “American Caravan,”—this reviewer’s own favorite of the present volume. Miss Roberts sees her people through her own poetic vision, and their reality is an inner reality, which means that not everyone will get the full power of the stories; there is the danger that the reader’s own conception of reality will clash with that of the author, with a consequent loss of interest. But no one who has followed Miss Roberts’ work in the field of the novel can afford to neglect this collection. It is, as its publishers suggest, “an integral part of her work.”


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