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The Young Man and Society

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

No Star Is Lost. By James T. Farrell. New York: The Vanguard Press. $3.00. The Fathers. By Allen Tate. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.50. Old Haven. By David Cornel Dejong. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50.

“How shall man live among his fellows?” the young men of Athens asked Socrates as he walked along the outer wall under the fountain of Panops. Our fiction has echoed that question ever since. In three important novels of the autumn it reappears again, differently stated and answered in each book, but always with the same central conflict: man against a society. In the case of James T. Farrell’s book, “No Star Is Lost,” it is the struggle of a sensitive boy against the viciousness, filth, and futility of his Southside Chicago environment. In Allen Tate’s story, “The Fathers,” it is the impact of a strong, ruthless man, who does not believe in rules, upon an ante-bellum Southern society which lives by rules. In David Cornel DeJong’s novel, “Old Haven,” it is the younger generation and new ideas striking at the roots of an old Holland culture.

Readers familiar with the Studs Lonigan books will hardly need to be told how Mr. Farrell handles his version of this subject matter. “No Star Is Lost” is a continuation of the story of Danny O’Neill and his many relatives, begun in “A World I Never Made.” The new book contains the same Words which caused “A World I Never Made” to be haled into court, although perhaps fewer of them. It contains the same cold hate, blind rage, filth, bedbugs, liquor, vicious children, and piglike adults. “Good old AT still prays for business and tries to raise his family by the bootstraps. Aunt Margaret still swears off on Friday and gets drunk and man-hungry on Saturday. Lizz O’Neill still caresses her children with pithy Anglo-Saxon epithets. For Mr. Farrell remains unable or unwilling to draw a character capable of living and thinking with dignity.

But to say only this is to ignore the great power of “No Star Is Lost.” Like all of Mr. Farrell’s books, it is a vigorous and moving sketch of one urban stratum. Humor and pathos sit side by side on its pages, and even when disgust occasionally crowds out the other two effects the reader still admires the clarity and vividness of the reporting. It is a great shame that Mr. Farrell’s books have been less impressive as links in a long chain than as units, because Mr. Farrell’s chains—such as the Studs Lonigan trilogy—have thus far succeeded not in achieving strength, but only in acquiring length. There has been too much of the same medicine administered in the books. When a reader has been beaten over the head by naturalistic details for a few volumes he develops scar tissue to dull the force of further attacks; after all, thirty fictional drunks are not much more impressive than three. But there are signs in this latest novel to indicate that Mr. Farrell is aware of the dangers of unrelieved naturalism, and that he is groping away from it. If later volumes of the series prove this to he true, “No Star Is Lost” may be the most important, as it is certainly one of the best, of Mr. Farrell’s novels.

It is only fitting that on some Walpurgis Night one or two of Mr. Farrell’s characters should be brought to life in the pages of Mr. Tate’s novel. Among Mr. Tate’s antebellum Virginia gentlemen and their well-mannered restraint, Mr. Farrell’s loud-mouthed slum boys would walk as though in a museum, pinching their bedbug bites in order to be sure of reality. And yet the action of Mr. Tate’s “The Fathers” might frighten even Studs Lonigan, who wanted to be a gangster. In the space of about forty of Mr. Tate’s pages there are two murders, a death from fright, a rape, a mad scene, and the secession of a sovereign state; and during all this time the characters hardly raise their voices above a tone of polite inquiry. The astonishing thing about “The Fathers” is the way Mr. Tate has bound up melodramatic action in the gossamer robe of extreme understatement and absolute neutrality, until his Dracula becomes as alluring as a siren.

At times the technique is irritating. Mr. Tate behaves occasionally like a tennis player who runs around the ball in order to avoid having to hit a hard forehand drive. The cast of poker-face characters who shrug their shoulders and make small talk while volcanic emotions are supposed to be seething within them, on more than one occasion give a reader the sensation of trying to do gymnastic exercises in a strait-jacket. This is not to call into question the quality of Mr. Tate’s craftsmanship. It is rather to suggest that the modern reader is not accustomed to Mr. Tate’s kind of craftsmanship, its classical perfection and restraint, its exquisitely chiseled prose, its sharp observation and rich overtones. The worst thing that can be said about the book is that it is cold, that it gives the impression of being written with the head rather than the heart. The best thing that can be said about it is this: it holds out the promise that the penetrating and cultivated mind of Mr. Tate, now that he has turned to fiction, will be put into contact with a much larger audience than either his poems or his essays could reach.

Mr. DeJong’s book is mellower than “No Star Is Lost,” warmer than “The Fathers,” It lacks the bitter sense of futility so evident in the former, the sense of inevitable fate so ominous in the latter, the intensity of both. It is a leisurely book, pausing in its quiet chronicle of twenty years to paint the deep colors of the Dutch scene, and almost casually bringing a whole town, a whole civilization, to life before our eyes. Although there is no character so closely defined as Danny O’Neill, there are many more characters in Mr. DeJong’s broader canvas than in the smaller canvases of the other two authors. We meet rich and poor, righteous and sinful, fisherman and land folks, gossiping wives and their industrious husbands. Four generations of Tjerk Mellema’s family pass before us. We see grandfather Hannia singing psalms in church with his mouth flapping open and shut, and salty seventy-five-year-old grandmother Mellema, the greatest aristocrat in the town, opening a saloon where she can play her accordion and receive female trade at the back door. We hear the bells of the towns, watch the sea batter at the dikes, see the sun gild the sails of the canal boats.

It is a rich book that Mr. DeJong has written in this, his second novel. It is to his first one as an oil painting is to a water color. The defects of the work are only corollaries of the virtues. There is a dangerous somnolence about this calm Dutch scene, and too many temptations to linger over pictures and sounds at the expense of action. The book is like the smooth waters of the canals, rather than the tempestuous waters of the sea outside the dikes. Its narrative has a tendency to be too level, too little relieved, too seldom climactic. But the accomplishment is a solid and substantial one, and the author of “Old Haven” has proved that he has the magic gift which transmutes everyday things into beauty.

Mr. Farrell achieves his effects by strong-arm methods; Mr. Tate, by understatement and restraint; Mr. DeJong, by capturing the warmth of commonplace life. The glory of each book lies in the use of the methods: the strength of Mr. Farrell’s arm, Mr. Tate’s classical perfection, the warmth and color of Mr. DeJong’s pictures. And the pitfall into which each author occasionally falls is the monotony of unrelieved naturalism in Mr. Farrell, the coldness of over-restraint in Mr. Tate, the dreaminess of Mr. DeJong’s narration. Let us hasten to say that these novels are pleasantly readable, and they are important both for their own sakes and for their positions in the careers of their authors.


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