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Literature in Transition

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Figures of Transition. By Granville Hicks. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. The Novel and the Modern World. By David Daiches. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $2.50. Today in American Drama. By Frank Hurhurt O’Hara. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $2.50.

You won’t know—though you might guess it—that these lines are about Audubon. Probably they are no more than that pleasant, easy rhyming now out of date, however much they concede to the taste for imperfect rhymes. But the patterns of all the books under consideration have a conservative, almost a reactionary, look when set beside the excesses of e. e. cummings, and of others who were writing in those dear old distant times. They inspire one with the consolatory thought that it may eventually be “modern” to write with Homer’s simplicity and Milton’s intelligibility.

Here are three studies of literature in transition. Granville Hicks’s “Figures of Transition” deals with the breakdown of Victorianism at the end of the nineteenth century; David Daiches, in “The Novel and the Modern World,” examines the plight of prose fiction in a period which is without any scheme of stable social values; Frank Hurburt O’Hara studies the disintegration of dramatic genres in “Today in American Drama.”

Taking the three books together, one’s first reflection may well be an acknowledgment of the peculiar vitality of the novel during the past two generations. However it may have suffered for the lack of symbols which are secure in their communicative force, it has continued to communicate poignantly and significantly. In contrast, poetry—with a few distinguished exceptions—has been inarticulate, and the drama—with fewer exceptions—has been superficial. Both Mr. Hicks and Mr. Daiches are Marxist critics.

Their two books, together with two or three which have been produced by other writers within the past year or so, give ground for the hope that the Marxist method—as practiced by critics in America and England—has outlived its ten-year infancy. “Figures of Transition” and “The Novel and the Modern World” are marked by their balance and breadth of sympathy as well as by their penetration.

Mr. Hicks has discarded the crude foot-rule which he applied to American writers in “The Great Tradition.” He approaches even Kipling, the imperialist, with recognition of his skill and respect for his sincerity. This reinforces the conviction carried by his analysis of Kipling’s chronic immaturity. Scrutiny of economic background, search for social motive—these still dominate Mr. Hicks’s critical method. The very title of Hardy’s youthful unpublished novel, “The Poor Man and the Lady,” serves him as adequate clue to Hardy’s pessimism. And even Oscar Wilde is explained almost entirely in terms of “his dissatisfaction with the society of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties.” Mr. Hicks acknowledges in his preface that “there are many valid ways of writing about literature” and that his way is only one among them. It would be difficult to deny that Mr. Hicks’s method—especially in view of his new flexibility—has produced a firm and unified volume of critical writing. Mr. Hicks’s introductory chapter, “Victorian Flood and Ebb,” deserves special praise. It is a compendious history of the two chief modes in which nineteenth-century English literature was related to its economic background: the utilitarianism of the Bentham-Mill tradition, and the interventionism of the Coleridge-Carlyle-Ruskin tradition. Demonstration of the direct intellectual relation of a socialist Morris to an authoritarian Carlyle is peculiarly illuminating.

Mr. Daiches has been criticized for falling between two critical stumps. When all the discussion is ended, will he accept the aesthetic or the social evaluation of an author? His analysis of technical process is scrupulous and brilliant; his acknowledgment of technical achievement is generous. But he is constantly concerned to account for technical method itself in terms of moral motive.

As Mr. Daiches sees it—and he has anticipated the attack —there is no contradiction here. Admitting that the validity of his critical faith is not susceptible of proof, he presents it explicitly and dogmatically: “That critical approach is most useful which involves relating the art of fiction at any given time to the civilization of which it is a part, and endeavoring to see all other questions of form, technique, style, and subject matter against the background of this relationship.” Like Mr. Hicks, he recognizes the validity of different “levels” of approach; but, further, he hypostatizes a hierarchy of levels and maintains that they are organically interrelated.

The common reader is likely to feel that Mr. Daiches is, if anything, too reluctant in his recognition of the inadequacy of mere technical virtuosity. “Ulysses,” he admits, would be tedious if it were not so virtuose. Why not go a step further and say that “Ulysses” is tedious and virtuose? “Technique,” he says, “keeps us interested.” Keeps whom interested? Surely the normal taste is quickly glutted by Chinese puzzles. But of course technique is not irrelevant, and it is well to have Mr. Daiches demonstrate his full competence to cope with the technical demands of even a Joyce.

Mr. Daiches’s studies illuminate each of his subjects. His reconsideration of Galsworthy is welcome, and it is valuable because it is just. He clarifies Katherine Mansfield by a process of classification; he makes Aldous Huxley’s conversion intelligible; he accounts for Virginia Woolf’s tenous-ness. In each instance he argues effectively for the main contention of his book: that the emphasis on technical experiment which has most strikingly characterized the twentieth-century novel is directly determined by the period’s insecurity in social values.

“Today in American Drama” is less serious in manner and in accomplishment than either of the other two books; the lure of the theatrical has touched its style. The author’s introductory paragraphs, citing the inhumanity of the Copernicus-Newton-Darwin physical universe, would suggest that the intellectual milieu of the drama lags a half-century behind that of the novel. Mr. O’Hara takes a glance at the winds of social doctrine which have blown across the contemporary stage, and he refers the mutation of dramatic forms to traditional Aristotelian standards; but he establishes little beyond the obvious fact that tragedy and comedy are not what they used to be.

The Marxism of Messrs. Hicks and Daiches provides a focus for their critical inquiries; Mr. O’Hara’s book suffers for lack of focus.


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