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Novelists on the Threshold

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Dancing Saints. By Ann George Leslie. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. The Wind and the Rain. By Joyce Horner. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.00. Without Passport. By Joan Coons. The John Day Company. $2.75. Grand Crossing. By Alexander Saxton. Harper & Brothers. $2.50. Heaven is a Stinswcpt Hill. By Earl Guy. The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Night Duty. By John Stuart Arey. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. The Hill. By David Greenhood. Duell, Sloan and Pearcc. $2.75. Equinox. By Allan Seager. Simon and Schuster. $2.75.

Eight first novels. Two (“The Wind and the Rain” and “Night Duty”) are British; the rest, American. Three are by women, and five by men. If, now, one could generalize on this basis (which one eannot), concerning First Novels and the Young Novelist, what would emerge? Something, I think, like this.

The Young Novelist today is preoccupied with youth and with youth’s emotional and intellectual and even occupational adjustment to the world (Horner, Coons, Saxton, also Arey and Seager to a limited extent). He is not particularly interested in the War as such, though he takes account of it in so far as it colors and influences what youth wants to do (Saxton, Arey, Seager). One-fourth of him (Guy, Saxton) is sociologically-minded; another fourth (Horner, Coons) is interested in the youth as artist; only one-eighth has much sense of history (Leslie), or much interest in form as such (Horner). One-fourth is mildly experimental, though with a sense of tradition behind the experiment (since it is difficult to believe that Mr. Guy could have devoted most of the 220 pages of “Heaven is a Sun-swept Hill” to a description of the Lower Mississippi in flood, without at least remembering his Conrad, or that Mr. Arey could have reconstructed in “Night Duty” the life of a London hospital under air-raid without ever thinking of Arnold Bennett’s “Imperial Palace”). And one-fourth (Saxton and Seager) unhappily seems to be under the impression that Hemingway and Steinbeck are important writers because they permit themselves to employ a vocabulary that is generally confined to waterfront rowdies and a little group of pseudo-intellectuals that ought to change places with them. (Greenhood also has a little of this. But Seager is the only one who has a really nasty mind.)

Young people are often criticized for talking and writing about themselves; the criticism is unfair. We tell young writers to begin with what they know, and what does the young writer really know well except himself? When a writer begins in her teens, as Marjorie Bowen did, and yet begins with the historical novel, that alone should be enough to indicate that she bears watching. The Marjorie Bowen who wrote “The Viper of Milan” had not yet accumulated much of the vast knowledge and skill she now possesses, but she had already emancipated herself from the egocentric view of life. So, I think, has Ann George Leslie, whose “Dancing Saints,” the picture of a dying Shaker community, is the most substantial achievement among our eight novels; the dedication of her book, which was evidently planned to take in everybody she loves, is the only youthful thing about her. She had no need to be so inclusive; she will publish other books. There is a little youthful melodrama, perhaps, in the carnival episode that helps her to a denouement, but the denouement is a ticklish business at best; it would be better for most novelists if they could leave out the denouement. But they cannot, unless they are Virginia Woolf, and it is better not to try. Anyway, it is not only first novels which start better than they finish.

“Dancing Saints” took the Avery Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan—it has something of the same loveliness of spirit that distinguished another Hopwood prize winner of a few years back, “The Loon Feather,” by Iola Fuller—and Joyce Horner’s “The Wind and the Rain” won the Doubleday, Doran-Curtis Brown Writers’ Conference Prize. Prize-awarding juries, so often abused, may hold up their heads today. For these two books clearly outshine all the others. Their authors have careers before them, Alexander Saxton and Joan Coons may also have careers before them, but of a very different sort. Miss Coons is ready now for what might turn out to be a spectacular success in that half-literary world (never quite “standard” and never quite to be despised) where Margaret Ayer Barnes, Marcia Davenport, and Booth Tarkington in some of his aspects are gods. She is refreshingly on the side of the angels, and her sense of values is sound. In “Without Passport” her narrative develops the contrast between the musician who lives for music and the musician who knows that in order to be a great artist one must be a great human being too, and some of her earlier sections have, at times, a “My Antonia” kind of charm. But the “artist’s life” portions of her book have all been done with a rubber stamp, and one fears that even the lurid pages of “The American Weekly” have made their contribution. As for the immensely talented son of the late Harper editor, E. F. Saxton, his principal difficulty at present is that he has gone whoring after the false gods of naturalism; somebody really ought to tell him that young people do not spend all their time in drinking, smoking, and sexual intercourse. There are even some young people who never get drunk, but I would not tell him that; the shock would be too great; let us give milk to babes—or is it gin? “Grand Crossing” ranges from Seattle to Boston and back to Chicago—the Chicago of the University and the Chicago of the slums. Saxton’s local color is thin; his University of Chicago might be almost any great university, and his Roosevelt Road could be the Jewish district in any large city. But his people live—in their ideas, if not in their copulations; and he is a novelist of ideas if he is a novelist at all. He dramatizes the conflicting creeds of this generation, and if you want to know what young people are worrying about, this book will tell you. Moreover, Saxton’s disdain of easy solutions, his determination to embrace life “without passport” (to use Miss Cooriss phrase), merits high praise.

The books by Guy, Arey, and Greenhood are perhaps less completely realized. “Heaven is a Sunswept Hill,” slight in a way, for all its tremendous theme, is hard for me to judge. It has been warmly praised by a number of reviewers, and they may be right; for myself, I fear I must wait for Mr. Guy’s second novel before I can be sure. I suspect, however, that Mr. Guy has more talent than John Stuart Arey, whose “Night Duty” seems to me somewhat confused, alive only in spots. “Spotty,” too, in quite a different fashion, is David Greenhood’s “The Hill,” which is not a novel, but a series of sketches about the people in a California ghost town. It is the closest of the eight books to the “Advanced Composition” course, yet the best of it is very good indeed.

For Allan Seager’s “Equinox,” on the other hand, I can say little. I have no objection to the incest theme as such; but when the incest becomes the most pleasant thing in the story, then something is wrong. Incest, too, calls for a sense of inevitability and for a tragic power which Mr. Seager cannot command. The publisher’s “blurb” for this book will raise your hopes that America has produced a first-rate sensation-writer to stand beside the great sensation-novelists of Great Britain. Do not be deceived. The stream-of-consciousness method does not lend itself well to sensation-fiction. The development of Mr. Seager’s narrative is full of pretentious flourishes, and he develops everything, if only it is nasty enough, whether it has any really vital bearing on the progress of the story or not. Neither his generally loathsome people nor the loathsome things they do carry conviction.

Excluding Mr. Seager, however, one must say that the most remarkable thing which emerges from this group of first novels is their warm humanity. They are not sentimental, they are not “rose-pink,” as Meredith would say; they are not even overly concerned about love as such. “Equinox” is the only one of them in which love brings death; love is, to be sure, the theme of “The Wind and the Kain,” but the heroine has much too much sense either to kill herself for love or to accept it at a spendthrift’s price. But love is not only Eros, love is also Agape, and of love as Agape these books are full. You could not ask a more striking testimonial to the fact that there has been a decided change in the climate since our comfortable twenties.


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