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The Perennial Rooster


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

Porgy. By DuBose Heyward. Decorated by Theodore Nadejen. New York: George Doran Company. $3.00.

Said the Fisherman. By Marmaduke Pickthall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

The Tale of Genji. By Lady Murasaki. Translated by Arthur Waley. Boston: Houghton Mifilin Company. $3.00.

The Outcast. By Luigi Pirandello. Translated by Leo Ongley. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.

Krakatit. By Karel Capek. Translated by Lawrence Hyde. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

Firecrackers. By Carl Van Vechten. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.

The Perennial Bachelor. By Anne Parrish. New York:

Harper Brothers. $2.00. The Glorious Apollo. By E. Barrington. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. $2.50.

How far do the heroes of literature reflect the nature of the country and the era that produce them? Different as they are, do the men of the Victorian novelists reflect representatively the English of a century ago? Henry Esmond, Septimus Harding, Dr. Lydgate, David Copperfield,—are they all Victorian Englishmen? Soames Forsyte, Peter Westcott, Gerald Scales, Mr. Britling, are certainly varied enough as types of the present-day Englishman but there is something about each of them that differentiates him from the Victorian character and yet he is no less British. The group of novels fisted above represents a polyglot company. It is interesting in reviewing them to amuse oneself in comparing them in their racial coloring and in the authors’ conceptions, at least, of masculine behavior under strikingly different environal circumstances. Three of these novels are American but the types are representatively different; a negro in Charleston, the “smart set” of New York, a small-town bachelor of Delaware. The novels themselves vary from the brilliant claptrap of the exotic Capek to the exquisitely considered art of DuBose Heyward and Lady Murasaki. Mr. Heyward’s “Porgy” makes an interesting beginning for though like all good art it is intensely individual, it is consciously a racial study.

I

By all tokens it has been disappointing that the South, warm and colorful, with its passionate roots stretching back to St. Augustine and New Orleans and Jamestown, has in the field of art borne so thin a crop. In literature, it once nurtured Poe, gave birth to Lanier, produced the inimitable “Uncle Remus,” dominated fiction for a brief local color decade under the leadership of Thomas Nelson Page, James Lane Allen, and George W. Cable and more contemporaneously it made a tentative bid for fame with O. Henry and challenged carping critics with Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell. Something no doubt: but not enough to prevent a writer in a great city that the South loves, from emulating with his pen the swords of the Sheridans and Shermans in trying to turn the region into a crow-starving desert.

The answer to such criticism (more friendly perhaps in intent than in seeming) must come from the artists not the journalists. One word of the answer is Mr. DuBose Hey-ward’s “Porgy.” No more beautiful or authentic novel has been published in America for a decade. For the first time a white man has created realistically in fiction a negro in his sordid setting of tatters with the fidelity of poignant and poetic art. And no black man, certainly, in America has achieved what Mr. Heyward has achieved.

Porgy is a crippled beggar, blending in himself the conflicting faiths in Lord Jesus and the voodoo witchwoman. He lives on the pennies dropped into his cup as he sits on his withered legs, begging alms. The lovely, the storied, the aristocratic Charleston is his background and tolerates in pity (with muffled nose) even the foully aromatic goat that brings Porgy each morning to his begging place. In the beginning, fife passes Porgy by, dropping a few un-missed coins for his pleasure. But there come to him adventure, danger, woman-love and child-love; he kills to save his mate; he knows happiness and tragedy. Life sweeps him into its current, full-flooded and boisterous, and then sweeps over him, leaving him spent and gasping in the place whence it took him up. Porgy seems the embodiment, the symbol even, of his race, the black Israel in a land of alien rulers.

Had Mr. Heyward never written a line of verse his novel would prove him poet. Vivid scraps of negro life; gambling scenes, burials, dances and trips by steamboat to pic-nicing places on the water, religious drunkenness, passionate broils and as passionate loyalties, are woven into a vivid and moving story that holds the attention by its interest so entrancingly that the reader often forgets the poetry and aristic power of the pictures and the deeper significance of the story. There is a storm scene, unforgetable and not unworthy too to be remembered along with the great storms of literature,—with Dickens’ in “Copperfield,” Conrad’s in “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and Masefield’s in “Dauber.”

The negro, Miss Sarah Cleghorn has said poetically, “is he—who has moulded, is moulding the white man’s soul.” Mr. Heyward, for his part, has not forgotten that the white man is he who is moulding the black man’s soul: and as no one not of the South—and for that matter, perhaps, as no one but Mr. Heyward in the South—could have done, he has been fair to the white man as well as the negro—and yet told the truth. The petty injustices, inseparable from the lot of an inferior race, living in a civilization that he did not form, the thread-bare tragedies, comic to eyes that miss the pity of them,—all these things are mingled with kindly loyalties, acts of humanity and kindness, that show the dependence of the negro at last upon the white man for so much that keeps his life civilized and secure.

The negro has been a piquant character in American fiction from a time even antedating Jupiter in Poe’s “Gold Bug.” He has been the humorous and lovable narrator of delicious stories that small boys love; he has been the loyal servitor to a loving master; the black frame to a pink and gold portrait of white chivalry and beauty. Or he has been the white man in heart and soul, masquerading in black skin in humanitarian romance, or the equally unreal puppet of sentimentalism and of comic yarns. But “Porgy” is unique. Mr. Heyward’s negro is no commonplace fieldhand or truck-roller; he is a creature of music and poetry and dreams. But he is a real negro, not a black-faced white man. He thinks as a negro, feels as a negro, lives as a negro. White men enter his life only as his life touches theirs; not as their lives touch his. The circumstances, the incidents, the codes and habits of action are in terms of the negro’s life and Mr. Heyward takes his readers’ understanding of these for granted without spoiling his art by explanation or conciliation. The wonder is that with such fidelity to realistic detail the novelist has been able to give to his story the quality of poetry, so that it glows with beauty of expression as well as with beauty of form.

The canons of art quite properly know no color, race or province. Mr. Heyward’s fine novel would be as full of beauty and truth whatever hand had written it; but humanly it is fitting that “Porgy,” the poetically tragic story of the negro soul, was written by a white man of the aristocratic tradition of lovely old Charleston. The negro has been too often exploited for ulterior purpose, bad or good, in literature and out, by men of his own color and by white men. There is an historic fiction much taught in schools, and perhaps sometimes accepted even in South Carolina, that a great emancipator freed him because of unmixed humanitarian motives, when the facts are sufficiently clear that his emancipation was a war-threat, offered with a corresponding bribe of promised annulment to the states that would lay down their arms. His body was freed from bondage as an incident in a white man’s war. In fiction, too, the negro has existed as a part of the white man’s fife, and has been shown in his relations with the dominant race to point a moral or prove a purpose. There is a difference of treatment in this remarkable first novel that is significant. There is no brief-holding; the theme is simply Porgy. Du-Bose Heyward, with all the sympathy of a poet, has created a real man as he lives with his own race. In “Porgy” he has given freedom to the negro’s soul in the region of art where also the white man has had dominion over him.

II

Marmaduke Pickthall’s “Said the Fisherman” is as rich with the color and life of the East as are the Arabian Nights. It is a picaresque novel as irresponsible of moral values as the “Nights” themselves and yet quite free from the oversexed prepossessions of those Eastern tales—and for that matter of much modern fiction as well. The Turkish hero, Said is introduced to us at a moment when he thinks his fortunes are at flood but on reaching his home he finds himself robbed and is driven by superstition from his home, desolate, and with his wife, a wanderer. When even his donkey and his little household stuff are stolen from him by passing soldiers, he learns from a wayside beggar the password “All to gain and nothing to lose.” The life of a wandering rogue, a plundering, thieving, conscienceless vagabond, teaches him to think, to bluster, to succeed, as all his honest years as a fisherman had not done. He becomes a merchant of wealth and a man of consequence in Damascus. A gorgeous pattern of Oriental life, shrewd in its knavery, brutal in its passions, bloodthirsty in its riotings, recklessly changeful in its fortunes, is backed with Damascus and Alexandria, looming gorgeously colored, like “bastions fringed with fire.” Strange fortunes take Said to England with results of inevitable contrast and the round of his life throws him back into old ways that restore him to our imagination as Said, the Fisherman, whose luck was still his.fate. The point of view of the book is uncompromisingly Eastern, the mind of Said is the mind of the Turk but there is no taint of exotic artificiality. On the contrary the pictures are as natural in their coloring as the lights that lie in the heart of the opal and the poetic beauty of the language is the result of no encrusted phrases of rhetoric but of the fluid perfection with which the words hold in solution the loveliness of the scenes evoked as by enchantment.

Another novel of the East, the publication of which in a beautiful translation is of abiding importance, is “The Tale of Genji.” Only a part of the old romance by Lady Mu-rasaki based upon the life of a real son of a Japanese Emperor is given in this rendering but it makes a sufficiently complete book as it stands. It is strangely evidential of the unchanging interests of the civilized human mind that this story as old as the English Cathedrals of Norman times is as fresh and vital in its modern English garb as if it were written last spring. The amours of Genji, a Japanese Beau Brummel and Don Juan rolled into one, are more romantic than Count Jurgen’s. And there is a reticence of taste in the telling that keeps the oven-top on without spoiling the flavor of the dish. It is to be wondered at as to how far this restraint is Lady Murasaki’s so many hundreds of years ago and how far it is the translator’s. A like question comes to the mind when a phrase—especially one relating of droll amusements—reveals a finesse reminiscent of James Branch Cabell. Vivid as the story is and robusti-ously intriguing or delicately fascinating as the personalities of the hero and of an inamorata or two are, it is as an exquisite piece of art that one enjoys and remembers “The Tale of Genji.” No doubt there is as much the psychology of the Japanese man here as there is of the negro or the Turk in “Porgy” and “Said the Fisherman;” but it is the objective beauty of the book that bites into the memory. Its texture is like hand-wrought lace, old and flavored of the sandal-tree. And yet it lives, vibrant and fresh like one of its own garden scenes at daybreak with dew-laden morning glories making a tracery of color and touching the face of Genji with their cool, wet trumpets.

III

“The Outcast” by Luigi Pirandello is perhaps more revealing of national idiosyncracies and racial psychology than any of the novels discussed. The outcast is a woman but she is made an outcast by the men. This is a stronger book than “The Late Matia Pascal” and a more interesting; and if it lacks the original individuality of Pirandello the playwright, it yet reveals him as a competent craftsman of the novel-form. The theme is old. Slander like prophesy helps make its own words true. Her husband and her father doom Marta Pentagora when she is innocent. They wreck themselves in blighting her but the injury to her is no less. The town believes and scorns only because the men of her household have branded her. The power of old beliefs, of fixed prejudices and slanders accepted, takes a place of Calvanistic inflexibility in achieving pre-destina-tion. Marta is predestined to fall because everyone believes she has fallen. At last she is driven almost as if in a hypnotic state into the arms of a lover she doesn’t love. Yet “The Outcast” is not a thematic novel: it is detailed, circumstantial, realistic. Picture succeeds picture, dark and passionately sombre but clear-cut in edges and outlines, arresting to the memory till imagination broods over them as upon canvases of “Dutch Interiors.”

As foreign to the American as the Italian’s novel but in sharp contrast to its realism is “Krakatit” by the redoubtable Karel Capek, author of that sensation of a season, the play “R. U. R.” Its hero, Engineer Prokop of Prague, invents a marvelous powder, krakatit, a little pinch of which under certain circumstances will destroy whole blocks of a city. The powder, through the men who pursue Prokop in lust of the power for destruction that the powder gives, becomes a monster, worse than the hideous creature made by Frankenstein, overwhelming its creator. A great part of the exciting and wildly unreal story moves in the circles of grotesquely extravagant dreams. Its passion is the fierce, brutal frenzy of Mongolian blood. The book has the sensational gripping interest of a detective story plus the romantic adventures among imaginary royalties of a George Barr McCutcheon “thriller.” There is power, too, in the spendthrift imagination with which some of the pictures are painted. There is no semblance, even, of the intricate complications and ingenious unravelling of the mystery novel. The story rushes on tearing wheels like a high-power car, from episode to episode, tremendously exciting, but arriving at last no where, in spite of the scattered hints of symbolic meaning.

IV

One trait in common emerges as we consider these novels of alien races; Negro, Turk, Japanese (of centuries ago), Italian, Bohemian: among all these people, it would appear, the men control, dominate, possess their women. What of our own civilization? Are visiting critics right in finding in the United States a reversal of this? Ane our women really the pampered domestic tyrants of the comic sheets? Two recent American novels give variant but interesting side-lights on the question. In “Firecrackers” Mr. Van Vechten has introduced into fashionable New York society a glorious Apollo who, from furnace room to acrobatic bar, races from love-stricken women until in a cheap drinking place his Josephic resolutions fall to smash like a whisky-glass knocked over. It is a sickly book with a sickly flavor but it presents an interesting answer to our question about American men. In this book the women in furs and silks, orchid-crested, pursue vagrant young men and vagrant fancies at the expense of their subdued and neglected husbands.

Anne Parrish treats the matter differently. A whole family—two generations—of women subdue themselves in man-worshipping immolation to the making of one weak, ineffectual perennial bachelor. It is a special study but there is much truth in the picture. The man is the center of the household but the women have put him there. “The Perennial Bachelor” is much more than a special study of a bachelor-in-the-making. It is an absorbing story of the interwoven lives of a family group, told with triumphant skill. It would be a mistake to group it comparatively with the first three books discussed above: it is not a richly colored, beautifully modeled piece of creative art but a delightful and satisfying novel. Its significance, beyond its charms, lies partly in the success with which, beginning before the war of the sixties and coming to the present, each decade lives again with its own peculiar coloring. The songs, the dances, the games, the fashions, follow each other with vivid power of recall until we seem to see upon a screen the reel of our own days passing and hear as an accompaniment the airs we sang in other years. “The Perennial Bachelor” has the fire of romance and the truth of realism. Miss ParrishV writing at times, by its exquisite tone-effects and finesse, suggests the methods of Katherine Mansfield applied to the novel.

In “The Glorious Apollo” E. Barrington has told, with reasonable fidelity, the life story of Lord Byron. It is a feminine and a hostile view of the English poet. The Byron that emerges is certainly not a Victorian: but it is hardly unfair to say that it is an exaggerated impersonation of a woman’s apotheosis of masculine egoism, cast in terms of the poet’s life and of the character of a modern Englishman. The book has all the vivacity, characterization, and narrative suspense that are needed to make an entertaining novel. And it is just that,—and no more. The main facts of Byron’s life emerge, it is true, but one is reading not an understanding interpretation of a singularly individual personality, but romance, the fiction of a clever story-teller. “The Glorious Apollo” has neither the significance as a psychic study nor the beauty of art of Maurois’ “Ariel.” Inferior in all the qualities of beauty and understanding to that exquisite impression of Shelley, Barrington’s book will no doubt entertain more people; well, perhaps just because it is less restrained in art and more theatrical.

One thing in common all these heroes of diverse colors have: each is a little chanticleer crowing-up his own sun, and ministered to by all the feminine flock; man always and among all races is a colossal egotist.

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