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The New Novels

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

The Trees.
By Conrad Richter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Come Spring. By Ben Ames Williams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.75. This Land Is Ours. By Louis Zara. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.75. Oh, Promised Land. By James Street. New York: The Dial Press. $3.00. The Loon Feather. By Iola Fuller. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Chad Hanna. By Walter Edmonds. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.75. World’s End. By Upton Sinclair. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. Sons and Fathers. By Maurice Hindus. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Europe to Let. By Storm Jameson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. A Stricken Field. By Martha Gellhorn. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, Incorporated. $2.50. Paris Gazette. By Lion Feuchtwanger. Translated by Willa and Edwin, Muir. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. Native Son. By Richard Wright. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. Citizens. By Meyer Levin. New York: The Viking Press. $2.75. How Green Was My Valley. By Richard Llewellyn. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.75. The Happy Land. By Eric Knight. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. Trees of Heaven. By Jesse Stuart. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50. Trouble in July. By Erskine Caldwell. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, Incorporated. $2.50. The Hamlet. By William Faulkner. New York: Random House. $2.50. Mariana. By Sally Salminen, New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50. Look Back on Happiness. By Knut Hamsun. Translated by Paula Wiking. New York: Coward-McCann, Incorporated. $2.50. The Crazy Hunter. By Kay Boyle. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Conversation. By Conrad Aiken. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, Incorporated. $2.50. The Two Wives. By Frank Swinnerton. New York: Double-day, Doran and Company. $2.50. Bethel Merriday. By Sinclair Lewis. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Walk Like a Mortal. By Dan Wickendon. New York: William Morrow and Company. $2.50. Solitaire. By Edwin Corle. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.

The spring fiction leans heavily on two subjects: America’s past and Europe’s present, democracy’s beginning and its threatened end. We scourge Hitler or deify Boone.

Of six historical novels reviewed here, four deal with the “Matter of the Settlement.” The best and shortest of them, “The Trees,” by Conrad Richter, personifies in Worth Luckett and his daughter Sayward the transformation from hunting to farming frontier. Worth goes west from Ohio when game gets scarce, but Sayward stays, clears and plants, lets sun in upon the cabin. The essential history of the frontier is here told, for once, from the inside. The people are symbolic, not merely representative; they think their own thoughts, not those of modern historians; their speech is folk-music lovingly recorded. Mr. Richter has a remarkable ear, and a poet’s feeling for nature. His range is rather narrow, but within it he is flawless. Ben Ames Williams has set “Come Spring” in Maine; it is painted on a much broader canvas, has something of the same quiet strength, and portrays, in Mima Robbins, a spiritual sister of Sayward Luckett. The enemies, as in “The Trees,” are not Indians, but hardship, famine, sickness. Taken from the actual records of a town, “Come Spring” reproduces the slow hewing of farms from the wilderness, and like its shorter and more poetic counterpart, celebrates the courage, endurance, and homely wisdom that make the woman in the sunbonnet the legendary Mother of America.

By contrast, “This Land Is Ours,” by Louis Zara, and “Oh, Promised Land,” by James Street, are tomahawk operas, made to order for Technicolor. The hero of the first, Andy Benton, is another Boone; he fights through a dozen frontier wars, helps scotch Pontiac and Tecumseh, and at the age of eighty goes on west from the Illinois country in search of elbow room. Big Sam Dabney, of “Oh, Promised Land,” has a family resemblance to Davy Crockett, fights and loves and flourishes, and eventually makes a symbolic departure for the new promised land of Texas. Both novels are long, crowded, exciting, full of the voice of Manifest Destiny, hectic with massacres and expeditions and muscular democracy.

Neither “The Loon Feather” nor “Chad Hanna” fits this frontier pattern. Iola Fuller writes the romantic love story of Tecumseh’s daughter in the flowering and lovely wilderness of Mackinac Island. Too perfect characters and a tendency to make everything turn out well are balanced by sharp and delicate observation and a lambent beauty of style. This is Arcadian wilderness. Walter Edmonds forsakes the wilderness entirely, giving us in “Chad Hanna” a picaresque, masculine, sometimes ribald yarn about an Erie Canal Huck Finn who joins a circus and grows up. This is a more craftsmanly novel than any of the others except “The Trees”; the historical labor is completely disguised, the circus background vivid. And the woes of Oscar, the constipated lion, are hilarious.

Against this heroic or happy-go-lucky past we may range the grim chronicles of the present. In “World’s End” we see, colored by Upton Sinclair’s social convictions and simplified by his curious, almost magnificent naivete, the spectacle of the war- and peacemakers from 1913–1919. By too transparent sleights, Lanny Budd, son of a munitions-maker, is taken behind the scenes of Europe and acquires a social conscience. The panorama is vast, but the novel smells of the lamp. Congressional investigations and the memoirs of statesmen are recognizable, even in disguise. This is a valuable digest of behind-the-scenes World War history, but hardly a good novel. The same thing, but not to the same extent, afflicts “Sons and Fathers.” The issues are too big and too close. Still, the problem of Kolya Mitosa, liberal, caught between the upper and nether millstones of revolution and reaction, is moving and humanized in Maurice Hindus’s treatment. Czarist can exist, Bolshevik can exist, but liberal is crushed.

The immediate foreground of Europe is even more lurid. In “Europe to Let,” Storm Jameson shows us through the eyes of a helpless British writer the invasion of barbarism. Starting with a group of fanatic and half-starved young Germans plotting revolution, ending with another group in Budapest waiting for the fate of Vienna and Prague, the story is like a whisper between clenched teeth. And for a close-up of Prague during the Nazi occupation we can turn to Martha Gellhorn’s “A Stricken Field,” as much war-correspondence as novel, but correspondence which wrings the heart with its record of ruthlessness and terrorism. More objective, with a larger grasp of the vast complicated structure of intra-European jealousies, “Paris Gazette,” by Lion Feuchtwanger, is a big book in more than size. Here are refugees in temporary and constantly-violated sanctuary, but here are more than mere refugees and Nazis. A refugee is not necessarily gilded and haloed by his trials; these outcasts are as petty, as complex, as spiteful, and as brave, as ordinary people. It is their suffering and variable humanity that gives this book its pathos—a very different thing from the sheer horror of Miss Gellhorn and Miss Jameson. Feuchtwanger’s people are figures of exile and struggle, at war with a destiny man-made and hence more terrible than an impersonal fate could ever be.

There is a sour irony in reading these books together with the tomahawk operas of the West. For Lebensraum read Manifest Destiny, for Chosen Aryan substitute Chosen American, for the overrunning of Europe supply the winning of the West. The method, the psychology, of the early American democrat was the same as the method and psychology of the current Nazi. Only now the democracies are in the position of the Indian. We may confidently expect heroic frontier novels out of Poland.

There, is, of course, other protest fiction besides the political. “Native Son” and “Citizens” expose social wrongs, the one the pervading and paralyzing suppression of the Negro, the other the ruthlessness of industrial plants in the labor wars. A breathless melodrama by Richard Wright, “Native Son” has invited comparison with “An American Tragedy.” The fate of Bigger Thomas is the fate of a social outcast. But I fail to be quite convinced of Bigger’s representativeness, and the plea of Bigger’s lawyer is a plea for such broad and uncritical pardon for personal weakness or viciousness that it sinks the behaviorist boat. Bigger has been wronged, but he wrongs, too. A pitiable and warped figure, he is hardly tragic. Meyer Levin’s “Citizens” shows us a liberal but ignorant doctor who witnesses a police massacre of strikers. To satisfy his conscience and his curiosity he helps investigate the case, and in doing so develops and justifies a creed of intelligent and active liberalism. Because it approaches with honesty and humility a significant dilemma of our times, “Citizens” is an important novel, especially since the massacre and its aftermath are taken so closely from life that whole sections of the La Follette Committee hearings are included as part of the novel.

Two of the current labor novels are out of England, both of them dealing with abandoned coal districts. “How Green Was My Valley,” by Richard Llewellyn, is vague about its labor thesis, and throws its emphasis on indigent miners as people rather than as laborers. The sensuous Lawrencian quality of the writing, plus its lift of Welsh poetry, half obscures the voice of protest. But Eric Knight’s “The Happy Land,” identical in background except that the flooded and unworked pits are in Yorkshire, not in Wales, pushes its laborers remorselessly over the brink, grants them no organization, shows them rotting away. There is no hope, no escape, in “The Happy Land”; “How Green Was My Valley,” for all its deaths and poverty and abortive attempts at action, is an essentially happy book. It has the sense of human dignity and pride that distinguishes “The Grapes of Wrath”; “The Happy Land” has only the anger and pity aroused by misery without hope.

The tamed plantings of Johnny Appleseed bear bitter fruit. Democracy breeds Bigger Thomases and leaves whole communities of miners to starve in Yorkshire or Wales. And not many writers can feel dedicated enough or brave enough to avoid the topical themes with fear or challenges or open warfare in them. The novels on the spring list which avoid the social and political issues are no closer to immortality than the others, but they are at least a relief from headlines.

“Trees of Heaven,” Jesse Stuart’s first novel, is Kentucky local color, a land dispute complicated by a Romeo-Juliet love affair. It has Stuart’s freshness as well as his characteristic carelessness, his color and zest as well as the rather irritating inflation of his style. “Trouble in July” can be put by courtesy among the regional novels, though it treats Erskine Caldwell’s favorite theme of race war. A macabre and bitter farce, it follows Sheriff McCurtain in his attempts to avoid getting mixed up in a lynching that will hurt him politically. At the end, when the Negro is lynched and the white girl who accused him is stoned to death, the Sheriff suddenly turns bleak, and we see him as a symbol of all well meaning, lazy, venal people who by their dislike of trouble let the world run mad. For a third Southern novel we have “The Hamlet,” Faulkner’s disjointed chronicle of the Snopes family. Despite its lack of continuity this is Faulkner at his best. The Snopeses are fantastic and compelling figures out of a horrible fairytale, and the way they take over Frenchman’s Bend is a commentary on the underlying horror with which Faulkner views humanity. The humorist in Faulkner has never been sufficiently noted; sections of this novel, especially that one made out of the short story “Spotted Horses,” are gusty tall tales, always with this writer’s toothed contempt for his characters showing underneath.

The novels which are just plain novels are of various sorts. Two are from Scandinavia. Sally Salminen, in “Mariana,” tells a warm story of changing conditions on an Aland Island farm and the gradual progression of farm women from pack animals to wives and companions. A little too condensed, and so diluted in its effect, it still is moving, and fulfills the promise of Miss Salminen’s first book. Of Knut Hamsun’s “Look Back on Happiness” I find it hard to say much. It is not a book fit to stand with “Pan” or “Growth of the Soil,” but it has flashes of the subjective, odd magic so characteristic of Hamsun’s earlier work. There is also, unfortunately, a cantankerousness, an old man’s bitterness, which poisons some fine writing.

Kay Boyle proves, if she needed to prove, her artistry in the three short novels of “The Crazy Hunter.” The title story especially is consummately skillful. It is not an accident that the collection is dedicated to Katherine Anne Porter, for the two are much alike in their obliquity, delicacy, and the meticulous Tightness of their technique. Similarly deft but much lighter is Conrad Aiken’s “Conversation,” a novel whose total impact is curiously weightless, like that of a short story.

The theater appears in two current books: Swinnerton’s “The Two Wives,” smooth and well peopled and entertaining but disappointingly thin-blooded and not up to such cool little masterpieces as “Nocturne”; and “Bethel Merriday,” Sinclair Lewis’s novel of the young girl in the theater. Surprisingly, Lewis has written a novel about something he doesn’t despise. The hardships of trouping, the gabble of the Green Room, the excitement, the applause, the sad incongruity between ambition and talent, are told with the skill of an old campaigner. Perhaps “Bethel Merriday” is a cream-puff, but it is an engaging and humorous and sometimes moving creampuff.

Finally there are books by two young and very capable writers. “Walk Like a Mortal” is a serene and polished job; its picture of an adolescent boy caught in his parents’ break-up is so real, honest, and unpretentious that it is a constant pleasure to read. The novel treats its theme of growing up with insight, humor, a tight sense of form and proportion. It is difficult to do an adolescent without being fatuous, ironic, or condescending. Dan Wickenden does it. Honor to him.

Honor too to Edwin Corle for “Solitaire,” a whimsical story of the friendship, finally stopped by the horrified parents, between an eleven-year-old sprite of a girl and an old hobo with a pet rat. There has seldom been so charming and completely convincing a child in fiction. For once the publishers are justified in their jacket blurb. Mr. Corle is, in truth, a kind of combination of Steinbeck and Robert Nathan. They might have mentioned Katherine Mansfield as well.


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