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Not Local Color

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

A Buried Treasure. By Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. Penhally. By Caroline Gordon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. God in the Straw Pen. By John Fort. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. $2.50. A Calendar of Sin. By Evelyn Scott, New York: Jonathan, Cape and Harrison Smith. 2 vol. $5.00, John Henry. By Roark Bradford. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. These Thirteen. By William Faulkner. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50.

A warlike, various, and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in, said Abraham Cowley. When a people looks back on such an age in its own history, another question is raised as it evokes in memory those wars, the turbulent variety, and the tragedy. From such reflection they will ask: what have these tumults wrought? what relation have we, their product, to them? These questions will be asked by the writer, unless he is merely indulging in romance of the blue and the grey or of the leatherstocking; and they will be asked by the historian if he is enough of the poet to have interest beyond his crude mechanism of particulars.

It is such a temper that, in general, distinguishes recent Southern fiction from American fiction of the past few decades. For instance, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Caroline Gordon, or John Fort would not be concerned with the problem of living in Gopher Prairie—certainly, not as Sinclair Lewis, with his abstract bad temper, states that problem.

They feel that they cannot judge a situation or society, abstractly conceived, by an abstract set of values. In fact, they are not concerned with judgment as are Mr. Lewis in “Babbitt” and Mr. Dreiser in “An American Tragedy.” They are, rather, concerned with comprehension, and realize that such comprehension, which is their ideal of art, cannot be achieved without consideration of both time and place in a very special sense.

The writer in a tradition realizes that these two considerations cannot be separated unless the meaning of both is destroyed. In other words, the merely quaint, that pitfall of the so-called local color school, arouses in him a peculiar and violent distaste. The idea of local color is incomplete and unphilosophical; it does not provide a framework in which human action has more than immediate and adventitious significance. The historical novel, as ordinarily conceived, is equally deficient in the same respect; manners tend to be substituted for value, and costume and decor for an essential relationship between man and his background, both natural and social. The result is another form of the quaint, again incomplete and unphilosophical. For the writer in a tradition, whether he arrives at the conclusion logically or whether he is so beautifully balanced and sensitized that such a process is unnecessary, time and place are one thing. From that, in default of other concepts which have sustained literature, he can at least derive a modest and homely sense of destiny.

“The Time of Man” and “My Heart and My Flesh” showed Elizabeth Madox Roberts, not only as a writer possessed of a strong and original talent, but as one who was comfortable within her tradition. The “Great Meadow” seemed a much weaker piece of work, both by conception and composition, for Miss Roberts in her treatment of pioneer Kentucky allowed the sense of reality which had been present in her earlier work to be lost in a pervasive lyricism, too undisciplined to be effective even within the restricted limits of such a method. But “A Buried Treasure” gives Miss Roberts at her best. From this book, whose scene is in the same region some seven generations later, one understands with much greater clarity the legacy of that first generation of pioneers.

“A Buried Treasure” has already been reviewed as a sort of wise and graceful comedy, but to regard it as such—however wise, graceful, and complete—is to miss the real meaning. It is not so innocent. In final definition it is a study of tradition, intricate of symbolism and thoroughly self-conscious in purpose.

Here is a community with an inherited way, of life and set of values which suffice. The gold, which is the buried treasure, might but does not change all this. Andy Blair and his wife, putting aside the first temptation, polish and admire it, marvel at the dates of a former time, and continue in the old way. The boy who has come to find the ground of his ancestors feels a more conscious link with the past. Seeking consciously to understand his own relation with that past, he provides a sort of chorus for the delicate drama in the lives of these people who unconsciously are in such harmonious accord with their heritage.

But there is a deeper symbolism beneath the innocent surface. Through the boy’s head goes the fleeting word: terra . . . the earth. Philly Blair is childless, but in her lap, just as the myth declares, falls a shower of gold; and when Andy sleeps she discovers the two pearls in a bit of cloth tied about his waist. And the idyll ends with the game, whose origins are lost in the origins of the folk, on Midsummer Night in the moonlight. The tradition under which these people live is the same which has always sustained those whose lives were bound to the earth and its fluctuating seasons.

The elements given here as bald and disparate are graciously assimilated. The various levels of symbolism, which, with handling less expert, might have become mechanical or precious, are a natural function of the story and not a cordinate meaning. They, are as easy and essential as the subtle relation between the people and the fields, trees, and domestic objects. This relation appears in a rich texture of perception, a delicate rapport, which finds its perfect vehicle of expression in a flexible style. The poetry of that style is founded on, and controlled by, the sturdy idiom of the people about whom Miss Roberts writes. All in all, here is a story of beautiful modulation and cunning grace; but let the reader be betrayed by neither the wistful gravity of its realism nor the comic fantasy.

“Penhally,” by Caroline Gordon, is informed by the same preoccupation found in “A Buried Treasure,” but with a great difference of method. The latter novel deals with the meaning of tradition at a specific point in time; but the former is the history of a tradition for a century in the life of a Southern family which had migrated with its goods and chattels from Virginia to Kentucky,.

Even in 1826, when the story proper opens, there is a rift in the family—the struggle between the elder brother with his inherited patriarchal idea and the younger who spoils the dinner by declaring, “Brother, a man likes to live in his own house.” Before that remark Nicholas, the elder, had never conceived of the place as his own; he had thought of them all as belonging to the place. Ralph leaves, and the feud is not even reparable in death. The struggle proceeds for a hundred years, the sentiment which would cling to its past and its particular spot and function surviving the disastrous impact of the Civil War. Even in the last generation, that of the present, there is one man, this time the younger brother Chance, who finds his inheritance a life which satisfies all of him. But the land is not his; it belongs to an older brother, a banker who sees it only in terms of profit and loss and who finally sells it to be converted into a hunt club. At the opening ball, to the strains of a Negro jazz band, Chance shoots the banker. Commercialism has accomplished what bayonets and blue-coats failed to do; the tree was not detroyed by the axe laid at its root, but by a smouldering inner decay.

The novel is not constructed about a thesis, for the situation is inherent in the material. If such an impression is given in the last section of the book, it will be quickly dissipated by reflection. It is the result of a technical problem which confronted the author. The first two sections are cast in the form of a chronicle with the terms of the struggle played out by, a number of characters who are to a large degree unconscious of their roles. The drama is mellowed and the effect of its structure diminished by that residual emotion proper to the chronicle with its long sweep of time—the fatalistic emotion wherein suspense is lulled. But in the last part the author, employing her previous material as a basis of motivation and explanation, erects a more strict dramatic structure, mechanically complete in itself, which resolves the century-long conflict. The emotions normally evoked by the two techniques are different, but the author has handled the difficult transition with considerable skill. I, for one, would not quarrel on a priori grounds with such a procedure; the question of the degree of success in this instance may, however, be raised by others with some show of reason,

The prose of “Penhally” is disciplined, not as sensitive or poetic as that of “A Buried Treasure,” but firmer and more accurate. The quality of the writing, with its cumulative emotional effect, sustains the novel in those places where one feels dissatisfaction with certain technical details—for instance, the repeated psychological cut-back. In all justice, it must be said that Miss Gordon is one of our few contemporary novelists who possess a gift and conscience for style.

In “God in the Straw Pen” John Fort has presented a study of religious hysteria in a rural community in Georgia hill country about the year 1830. The story, dramatically considered, depends on the conflict between the shrewd, implacable old evangelist and the younger preacher whom he has educated in the art of holding the people in the hollow of his hand. In the end the young man, unsatisfied by the sense of power in saving others, departs to seek salvation in the fulfillment of his own destiny. Somehow the novel does not quite succeed, probably because of the incomplete characterization of the two principals. But the sketches of types are well executed, even though conventional to a degree, and one feels that the author’s own interest is engaged here rather than in the mechanically disposed conflict between the two evangelists.

The reputation of Evelyn Scott, the author of some ten volumes of prose and two of verse, has thrived steadily during the past decade, being confirmed in the public mind by the success of “The Wave,” a novel of the Civil War. That novel, despite certain obvious defects of form, surpassed any, previous work by the same author and made promise of considerable achievement. But the pledge is not redeemed in “A Calendar of Sin,” a work of two volumes and some fourteen hundred pages.

From one point of view form in fiction is determined by the treatment of character. The ambitious scope of “A Calendar of Sin” makes this problem unusually complicated, for the reader really comes to be adequately acquainted with only a few of the numerous people. George and Sidney in the early stages of the novel are exceptions to this, but there, in laying down the basis of her work, the author seems to have exerted more imagination and care. Only John Dolan appears as a complete individual throughout. Characters which promise much, such as Linda George and Fanny Sidney, become in the course of the novel people who merely walk in and out of rooms. What for the author, according to her statement in a recent self-review, was a certain conception of “fate” appears to the uninstructed reader as a deficiency in characterization. The subtitle, “American Melodramas,” is peculiarly accurate, if the term means that the violent and sensational action is not adequately based on examined motive and realized character. The violence which marks the action of this book is founded on instinct; but if instinct as a motive force is conceived as an abstraction without the differentia of individuals, there will result a peculiar monotony. In other words, behaviorism does not provide a workable basis for literature: a multiplicity of cases proves nothing. Structurally considered, no one part of “A Calendar of Sin” appears as finally necessary. The method is almost that of a series of case histories mechanically plotted with great ingenuity, but ultimately lacking in essential relation.

There are passages of plain and effective writing in this book, but such are too few. The author is scrupulous in her pursuit of accuracy, but accuracy in a strictly denotative sense. When she attempts to exploit that other sort of accuracy which lies in the resources of literature, success is infrequent. The pleasure, perhaps not negligible, to be had from her prose is a purely logical one—a pleasure without overtone. Again, sound and rhythm, indispensable factors in style, are here ignored, for the author seems to forget that the printed word, whether it be spoken or not, is a symbol for a sound and functions as such. I shall cite but two instances chosen almost at random: “But most of the houses were like mausoleums; the town a grave that did not boast a ghost.” “From the padded glitter of rail fences snow slipped, softer than leaves fall, softer than flower petals slip.”

The foregoing remarks are not to be taken as a complete picture of “A Calendar of Sin,” nor will they be interpreted, I hope, as discourtesy to an author of such vigorous literary impulse. They are merely intended to indicate certain flaws which mar her achievement, but despite whose gravity she is competent to erect a reputation. In any case, the novel will certainly find its public and add to that reputation, for it represents, in its sociological bias, one of the major types produced by the contemporary, effort to give the novel “importance.”

Roark Bradford has produced in “John Henry” another one of his heroic black-face minstrel shows with song and dance acts interspersed whenever the straight business lags. Taken for what it is, the book is amusing; to interpret it as I an epic of the Negro soul—as it is certain to be interpreted—would be doing no service to the author’s reputation. There is a certain monotony of device in handling incident, which is only retrieved by the bouncing rhythms of Mr. Bradford’s prose and the characteristic humor. That humor, though conventionally exploited, seems to be authentic; the pathos, however, is not effective, especially in the conclusion,

Several of the stories in “These Thirteen” contain some of William Faulkner’s best writing. “Victory” is good, as well as “All the Dead Pilots.” But “A Rose for Emily,” a story at the same time circumstantial and macabre, is probably the best exhibit of the volume. “Red Leaves” is one of the few successful studies of terror in my acquaintance— more successful, for instance, than “The Emperor Jones.”

Mr. Faulkner’s method aims at a precision in character drawing which implies a concentration on the particular motive or state of mind necessary to the story in hand. This is carried to such an extent that character is frequently stylized, as in “Victory.” But the deficiency, if indeed it is felt as such, is compensated by the fine sense of background and scene in all these pieces, except “Mistral.” Perhaps this accounts for the fact that in the Mississippi stories the stylization is never quite so obvious as in those laid elsewhere. The strong feeling for place catches up and sustains the characters in a permanent impression of reality. The novels—”The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying,” and even “Sanctuary”—are so intimately related to their locality that one cannot conceive of their action without this element. It is the most triumphant aspect of Mr. Faulkner’s work.


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