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Report on America

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Within This Present. By Margaret Ayer Barnes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50. Bonfire. By Dorothy Canfield. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The Disinherited. By Jack Conroy. New York: Covici-Friede. $2.00. Passions Spin the Plot. By Vardis Fisher. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company; and Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton, Printers, Limited. $2.50. Work of Art. By Sinclair Lewis. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

If a man from Mars, mysteriously capable of reading English, were to inquire into the conditions of American civilization, and if, as might be the case, he were given, as reports upon the conditions of our life, the group of novels with which this review is to deal, what conclusion would he reach? From Jack Conroy’s “The Disinherited” he would discover that the life of the laborer, skilled or unskilled, is one of bleak and animal existence; employment uncertain, family life a grotesque parody of its possibilities, food and drink reduced to low levels, a crude Darwinian struggle for existence the law of life. From Vardis Fisher’s “Passions Spin the Plot” he would learn that our colleges are populous with adolescents hag-ridden by sexual feverish-ness, that a college student can lie, steal, fornicate, and get drunk, with little or no reproof, and that books and studies play no part in that life except as they awaken cynicism in the young. From Sinclair Lewis’s “Work of Art” he would find that trickery is the fundamental law of business, that the conditions of existence in American hotels are fundamentally immoral, and that only the Nietzschean will-to-power really counts. From Dorothy Canfield’s “Bonfire” he would learn that it is possible for the wife of a doctor in a Vermont small town to have six lovers, and that New England democracy, as represented by a town meeting, is incapable of generous social thinking, but can be stampeded in a moment of emotion by a woman’s tears. And from Margaret Barnes’s “Within This Present” he would discover that the effect of the war upon a typical upper-class midwest family was to disrupt its ideals and that only the warlike conditions of a depression are sufficient to restore those ideals.

It is true he would learn a good deal more. Even in the gloomy pages of “The Disinherited” he would find a kind of loyalty and comradeship, just as in “Within This Present” and “Bonfire” he would find love and humor and loyalty as ingredients of the story. “Work of Art” would introduce him to the inarticulate poetry of the American business man, and certain pages of “Passions Spin the Plot” would offer him the lyric cry of young love at its best and sweetest. He would by no means gather that these novels were all of a piece; and, if he were an intelligent Martian, he would pay tribute to the honesty of Mrs. Barnes’s fiction, the sympathy of Dorothy Canfield, the adroitness and speed of “Work of Art,” the saeva indignatio of Mr. Conroy. Nevertheless, the broad general impression left upon him by his reading would be an impression of failure, of unpleasantness, of cynicism, of disillusion, of a, set of people living, as Thackeray said of “Vanity Fair,” without God in the world. It is not the business of the novelist to keep alertly in touch with the movements of contemporary life—one of the flaws of Mrs. Barnes’s book is her anxious contemporaneity—but it is yet true of this group of books that they are curiously dated. They belong to an era, they express an attitude, their artistic methods are modes of expression, which do not in any real sense represent that conquest of the future which it is one of the aims of art to give. They depend for their substance upon a naturalism or upon a realism that is curiously remote from the present. Is it not time for the novelists to awaken to the fact that American life has moved definitely away from the monotonous disillusion that has ruled American fiction for the last twenty years?

The two women novelists would at once protest that they have abandoned the methods in question, and their plea should be heard. Dorothy Canfield has, in novel after novel, called attention to the enduring human values which she finds in Vermont; and “Bonfire” pays its honest tribute to these qualities. At the same time, to find no more revealing fable than the story of a young doctor who marries a girl from the hill-billy group, a girl who has no more social conscience than a, rabbit, is not perceptibly to advance the art of fiction. And though I am under no illusion that Mrs. Barnes’s book is a great, or even a very good, novel—for its flaws are numerous—a general sweetness of tone, a sympathy with what most cultivated persons regard as normal human life, certainly dominates it; where it fails, it fails because the author does not lift it from the topical to the permanent: it is, like a vast amount of fiction produced in the last two decades, fundamentally reportorial rather than artistic in its mode. It shares to less degree than the others the frayed conventions of recent fiction, but it shares them too deeply to rise above them.

Mr. Fisher has had a good press. The book jacket blazes with tributes to which I should like to subscribe. But Mr. Fisher, or his hero for him, seems suddenly with naive astonishment to have discovered that there is sex in the world, and to have supposed that the tormented psychology, real or supposed, of a sex-hungry adolescent will of itself make fiction. He does not advance an inch beyond the achievement of Wedekind’s play, “The Awakening of Spring,” which first fluttered the dove-cotes in 1891, and his book is merely tedious where Wedekind’s was tragic. In reading “The Disinherited” my mind was carried back to the pre-Jack-London days, when “How the Other Half Lives” was a burning issue; and though it is a good thing to be reminded that there is dirt and misery and unemployment in the world, art requires something beyond the naive photography which satisfied naturalism.

Finally, what of Mr. Lewis? In some respects “Work of Art” represents no advance; in other ways it marks a step in the development which, in these pages, I found prophesied in “Dodsworth.” The mechanism of Mr. Lewis’s novel is still the familiar mechanism—a story in a straight line. We follow Myron Weagle from his younger years in a small Connecticut hotel, to his crash and failure; and from his failure, to his return to small-town hotel keeping, and the taking on of a tourist camp. The cinematographic method, the sharp, sure, derisive line, the incisive cartoon descriptions are all here. But there is something more. There is sympathy and solidity. Contrasting with Myron Weagle, whose inarticulate artistry gives meaning to the title, is his brother Ora, an imitation poet, upon whom Mr. Lewis lavishes the rich resources of his contempt. It is not so much that Mr. Lewis has reconciled himself to the conditions of American business existence as that he has found beneath and beyond those conditions certain enduring human qualities which win his respect. He has, mirabile dictu, come to celebrate in “Work of Art” dogged determination as something worth celebrating. And though it will not do to confuse an ethical question with an aesthetic one, certain it is that one leaves the reading of “Work of Art” with a sense of respect for the capacities of human life in America. Mr. Lewis, it would seem, is looking ahead. And, of all the characters which populate these five books, only Myron lingers in the memory as somebody in three dimensions.

Plays, said some experienced man, are not written, they are rewritten. Most contemporary fiction would profit if its authors followed this golden adage.


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