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Six Southern Novels

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner. New York: Random House. $2.50. The Long Night. By Andrew Lytic. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.50. Courthouse Square. By Hamilton, Basso. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. Green Margins. By E. P. O’Donncll. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company. $2.50. To My Father. By Charles Wcrtcnbaker. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50. Lost Morning. By DuBose Hey-ward. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50.

Mr. T. S. Eliot has written of the drama a sentence which is equally applicable to the novel: “It is essential that a work of art should be self-consistent, that an artist should consciously or unconsciously draw a circle beyond which he does not trespass: on the one hand actual life is always the material, and on the other hand an abstraction from actual life is a necessary condition to the creation of the work of art.” There are two frames of reference, interlocking yet distinct, and each frame demands its own consistency. Since the novel is a particularized and specialized, but self-contained, world in miniature, it makes special demands of consistency, of probability, and of artistic reality; since it also presents human though fictionalized life, there is a larger and more remote frame of reference which can never be overlooked or discarded.

Of the six novels considered here, four are decidedly above the average. But only one—”Absalom, Absalom!”—maintains a strict consistency; and Mr. Faulkner achieves this by an intricate artistic method of allowing the story to filter through the minds of various narrators to the reader. By this method, Faulkner can present Thomas Sutpen as possessed demon and as possessed innocent; he can present many possible interpretations with no absolutely final resolution, and do it convincingly. The author keeps himself out of the picture, and he presents a specialized—not a representative—world of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which is as much his own creation as Poictesme is Cabell’s.

The material handled sounds melodramatic. Thomas Sutpen comes from nowhere, with a wagon load of wild niggers and a French architect, to buy a hundred square miles of land, build a mansion, and beget a family. “Absalom, Absalom!” is his story, although the title fits a son who kills his mulatto half-brother to prevent an incestuous marriage. All the characters are harried and abnormal and violent; they live according to some strange and driving inner design which differentiates them from persons in the everyday world. Only through a masterly artistic restraint does Mr. Faulkner hold this violence and strangeness in check: he employs a long and complicated sentence structure with tricks and devices of writing which slow the reader and require his entire attention; he leads up to a fact, then stops without revealing it, and allows a partial contradiction before the fact is revealed; he presents, ultimately, not facts but hypotheses which may be accepted or rejected. “Absalom, Absalom!” is closely related to Mr. Faulkner’s earlier novels: the chief narrator is the protagonist of “The Sound and the Fury”; the setting is similar; and a few minor characters have appeared in earlier books. It may be that Mr. Faulkner has obscured the movement too effectively for his novel to be popular, but he has rivaled and possibly surpassed the powerful and moving “As I Lay Dying.”

At the other extreme in the matter of consistency, in “Courthouse Square” Mr. Hamilton Basso identifies himself with the returned Southerner David Barondess to such an extent that a careful reader has some difficulty in extricating the editorial comments of the author from the thoughts of his protagonist. Mr. Basso is much less the artist, and much more the reformer. It is definitely enheartening for a contributing editor to the New Republic to aim his satiric shafts at Communism and Fascism alike, and at the pseudo-sophisticates among the New York literati, but enheartening in a way that has nothing to do with fiction.

David Barondess, a successful novelist, comes home to a family which had always been in conflict with their neighbors, first over slavery and then over the rights of the Negro. By local standards, the Barondesses were “queer,” and David Barondess had continued that tradition by marrying a lady explorer who had gone on an expedition, leaving David to return alone. The life of Macedon is handled with deftness but with little of sympathetic comprehension; the riot (which ensues when the mulatto druggist Alcide Fauget attempts to buy the oldest and once the best house in Macedon for a Negro hospital) is vividly told. Mr. Basso has drawn a group of people mainly despicable, leavened by some persons almost too admirable, but he contrives to make them real and individual. Perhaps he strives too hard to imply that they are also representative. A larger flaw is this: that David Barondess is described as more intelligent than the minor characters, but his conversation consists too largely of cliches; his cleverness lies in such expressions as “he hates my guts,” addressed to his aunt; and his mental outlook, a loose liberalism mixed with Freudianism, seems as unenlightened or at least as unintelligent (since it stirs up immediate and irreconcilable trouble to the detriment of all) as the outlook of most of the townspeople.

Mr. Andrew Lytle’s “The Long Night” is impressive and interesting. The first half of the book has a sustained drive and a continuity that to some degree sustain the second part, where Mr. Lytle’s main character changes from a driven revenger to a dispersed and Hamlet-like doubter who in the end deserts both his vengeance and his army. This change of characterization is never adequately handled within the first frame of reference, possibly because the author wavers in his point of view to such an extent, in the later section, that the reader can see as clearly into the mind of General Albert Sidney Johnston as he can into the mind of Pleasant McIvor. These shifts mar, although they can not ruin, a hard tale of an Alabama blood-feud, which begins when Cameron Mclvor is murdered by a gang which seems loosely patterned on the Murrell gang, and his relatives gather to avenge him. Mr. Lytle knits his episodes of vengeance into a pattern varied but essentially integrated; he makes pursuer and pursued alike possessed of good and evil, of the attractive and the repulsive. He has, also, a communicable gusto and a flexible, earthy, idiomatic prose that give to “The Long Night” a definite distinction from the superb introduction to the abrupt ending.

In recent years the local color novel has been revivified, although it is usually labeled “regional.” If Mr. E. P. O’Donnell had studied the best work of the local colorists and added to that the modern element of sex, he would have had an excellent formula for “Green Margins.” The bayou country of lower Louisiana is isolated, strange, and exotic, with great swamps, a mighty and mysterious river, and a small amount of habitable, almost tropical, land; the people are little known, inbred, and colorful with all the color of something near at hand yet basically foreign. In the first part of the book, Mr. O’Donnell promises something more. Sister Kalavich in the beginning seems a symbol of Maya, or of some earth-mother who will enrich the story with an underlying myth which has never become outworn. Unfortunately, the myth and the potentially significant character are dissipated, until Sister is presented as a woman to whom things happen, as a strong eternal female who waits for a lover. If not a great character, as she seemed at first to be, Sister is adequate; but she and some well-handled minor characters—the gusty Austrian ex-major, Grampaw; the almost-white girl Unga; the Negroes Bonus and Pretty John, and others of the village and swamp dwellers of the Cajun country’s mixed races—can only carry in part the typed individuals: the rich woman and the weak artist from “outside,” who marvel over country and people; and the lovers of Sister, who seem too remote and, though typical enough, too undefined.

The marks of hasty writing in “Green Margins” are all too plain, in characters that are well-built but never develop, or that are inconsistent (Mocco Kalavich suddenly and temporarily possesses a knowledge of draftsmanship and architecture for which the reader is totally unprepared); in descriptions excellent during such tense moments as the hurricane, but flat and dull in the routine movement of the book. Mr. O’Donrell’s faults are plentiful, and obvious; but they result from imperfect execution of a too-ambitious project. He has written a novel that has much to recommend it, in exotic background and strange people and customs; he seems to know the people and the region thoroughly, and he presents them honestly and unpatronizingly. The local color novel possesses a real if limited validity, and “Green Margins” has the virtues, with relatively few of the defects, of the better novels of this class.

Mr. Charles Wertenbaker wrote in “Boojum!” one of the most ingratiating novels of hard-drinking adolescents of the so-called “plastered age.” He has matured, and in “To My Father” he makes a serious attempt to write a mature novel. But the marks of Boojum are still on him, for Charles Chas-tain and his fellows at Episcopal High School and at the University of Virginia are almost the same adolescents of the earlier books. “To My Father” has an attractive theme: that a man’s strength and fulfillment depend on four factors: heritage, home, his own job, and a helpmeet. The theme is better than the performance. Charles Chastain vacillates, drinks, lives unsatisfactorily with a wife and, finally, satisfactorily with a mistress who is to become his wife. He is not consistent, either in the novel or in life, since the author leaves him on the road to happiness and a successful medical career, although he has previously endowed Charles with much charm but little character. Mr. Wertenbaker succeeds better with the troubled doctor-father and the mother, who leave Virginia but who live only to return to it, than he does with the young men and women. The novel abounds in sex of the plain and of the Freudian varieties, from a neurotic impotent Philip Chastain who is summarily disposed of with certain information dragged in only because it is sexy, to a heroine who talks of the necessity for promiscuous amours in order that she may find the perfect mate. “To My Father” has a date set upon it, and that date is a decade past.

The same statement can be applied to Du Bose Heyward’s “Lost Morning.” Reduced to outline, the plot sounds incredibly trite: an artist has been managed, his art commercialized, by his more practical wife, but he secures release when he loves—in all meanings of the word—his artist-secretary; after the secretary is accidentally killed, he abandons his wife and his etchings for a Bohemian garret and sculpture. Mr. Heyward does not explain how the managed artist is to become a great and independent artist, but he makes the implications of this transformation too obvious for any doubting—and, incidentally, for any belief. The novels and poems of Du Bose Heyward have ranged from excellent to bad; “Lost Morning” must be regretfully but emphatically added to the debit side.

Mr. Heyward puts these words into the mouth of Felix Hollister’s wife: “. . . artists are different. Their heads are always in the clouds. They can’t take care of themselves like other people.” These words seemingly epitomize the belief not only of Mr. Heyward, but of Messrs. O’Donnell, Basso, and Wertenbaker. In their four books are two painters and two writers, and these four characters are weak, neurotic, hard-drinking, and bewilderedly baffled, not by metaphysical problems but by immediate circumstances. And they are crucified by their companions and their surroundings. It is hardly a convincing thesis, since the men presented here have within themselves the seeds of defeat: they might be happier in an artistic Bohemia or a made-to-order environment, but they could hardly, under any circumstances, be valid artists. Messrs. Faulkner and Lytle also present protagonists who are defeated, but they are overcome by moral and not by circumstantial forces. In this difference between the petty and the magnificent, between the semi-emasculated and the masculine, lies the difference between the adequate and the great novel. Neither Mr. Faulkner nor Mr. Lytle achieves greatness in the novels here considered, but at least they are groping toward it.


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