Relief From Murder

A Harvard literature professor demands a "new deal" in fiction

In the course of my job as a book reviewer I have recently read a powerful and sombre novel, Slogum House, by Mari Sandoz. To its indubitable merits as a piece of writing I have paid my tribute in the notice of the book. There is an energy in the author's style which has my admiration, and I shall not soon forget the central character, Gulla Slogum, as impressive an incarnation of insatiate greed as I have met in fiction for a long time. She recalls Balzac's misers, she recalls the grand manner in villainy; and to the imagination which created her I give my willing homage. Miss Sandoz has, I think, the right to create any kind of character to which she can give plausibility; and in this case the character is so vast and vivid that objection to Gulla Slogum on the ground that her moral principles are those of Satan himself would be idle.

In the course of the story Mrs. Slogum drives all her daughters save one to prostitution in her own house—prostitution carefully calculated to permit Mrs. Slogum to break the laws of the United States and of the State of Nebraska, where the novel is laid. It seems incredible that a mother would serve as a madam to her own daughters, but Miss Sandoz has made me believe it can be true. Mrs. Slogum furthermore drives most of her sons to commit murders of one sort or another in order that the glory and possessions of Slogum house may increase. She shields her brother, a fugitive from justice, so long as he is useful to her, and then raises no obstacles to his being 'bumped off' by the family. The lover of one of the daughters, a rather likable upright young man, is gelded, largely through her instigation, and there are various other acts of darkness in the book. The characters talk with great frankness, and make reference to matters of defecation and copulation much as certain groups of characters talk in real life.

As I think over Slogum House my eye wanders to my bookshelf, and I go over and take down the first six or seven review copies of other novels as I come to them. The first of these is diversified by a seduction scene on a golf course, a murder, a lynching, a riot, besides what other derelictions I do not now recall. The next, an admirable novelette, has for one of its chief characters a psychopathic father whose son is the captain of the ship on which the father serves as mate, and reaches its climax when the father throws some unoffcnding live birds into the furnace of the boat, whereupon he is slain by the Mohommedan keeper of the birds, to the vast relief of the other characters and of the reader. The third is the story of a bootlegger's daughter. Most of the characters live outside the law, and there are various scenes of violence and cowardice in its pages. The fourth is dedicated to the proposition that American history is the history of fools; it begins with a savage hunt for witches and ends with the hysteric folly of the post-war years, and in between are piratical murders, mob violence, scenes of corruption and bribery, and other treasons, stratagems, and spoils. The next is devoted to showing how a bereaved husband discovered after his wife's death that she was a female cad. The sixth is principally laid among tenant farmers in the South; it ends with a murder and includes a seduction or two, a prostitute, an unhappy marriage involving adultery on both sides, and one or two characters who are slightly deranged.

If I were to take down more of the novels of recent vintage on my shelf, I know I should but prolong the same Thyestean banquet of authors creating characters only to destroy them, physically or morally as the case may be. Or, if the characters are not thus destroyed, I may safely expect them to be strong, violent men or weak, frustrated human beings. I shall expect them to commit rape or suffer seduction, just as I have learned to expect that fictional weddings are but the opening scenes in a long series of unhappy episodes for husband and wife. I know from novels that children are born to be miserable and that old people are a burden to themselves and to others. No one in a novel who has a job is satisfied or contented with his work, and a good many characters are sure to lose their jobs.

I have trained myself to believe that the true pith and marrow of existence, or at least what the novelists believe to be those parts of existence worth writing about, are mostly outside the law and beyond the jurisdiction of the limited moral codes I am familiar with. It is true that this extra-legal life does not seem to bring the characters any greater amount of satisfaction than if they lived within the law and within a moral code of general application, for they are uniformly unhappy and customarily come to a bad end. The novelists report—are they not the true abstracts and brief chronicles of the time?—that life in the United States is compounded of boredom and horror, violence and despair. It is a verdict which is supported by many of the poets—Mr. Robinson Jeffers, for example—and, as poets are also persons who see into the heart of things, I must of course believe. If I did not believe, the dramatists would persuade me of a similar truth.


So far as I know, I have no objection to literary violence per se. As a student of literary classics I know that Agamemnon and Clytemnestra were murdered, that Antigone violated the moral code of her time, that Hamlet accused his mother of incest, that Dickens reveled in criminal melodrama, and that Moby Dick is a symbol of man's struggle against evil. The Italian critic, Mario Praz, has demonstrated how large a portion of nineteenth-century literature is devoted to themes of sensuality, lust, abnormal sex, necrophilism, and other matters of that sort. What is Macbeth at bottom but bloody melodrama? What is Don Juan but a brilliant, cynical comment on all modem society?

I happen to be interested in Victorian literature,—a literature not undistinguished by scenes of violence in its fiction,—but I see, or at least I hope I see, the limitations placed upon literature by Victorian propriety. I think 'Ulysses' is a great poem, but I do not admire 'Dora' or 'Enoch Arden.' I like to read Trollope, but I know his novels are only a partial report on life. I think Colonel Newcome is a bore, and I find I can get through George Eliot only by determination. I am probably a bit of a Victorian,—most of us are, but I do not think I am enough of a spiritual inhabitant of that much-injured century for my interest in it unduly to warp my artistic judgments.

I also believe in the freedom of the artist to treat the scenes and create the characters which interest him. I think more harm than good is accomplished by the censorship of literature, and I could support no movement which, by legislation or by police interference, would through force take away his corncob from Mr. Faulkner or his 'sons of bitches' from Mr. Farrell. I do not believe the literary artist should be bound to any programme, Victorian or Marxist, proletarian or aristocratic. I think there must be a vast deal of wasted experimentation in any literary movement before lasting results are achieved, and I think twentieth-century American novelists—some of them—are achieving enduring books. I think the relation of morality to art is so subtle and important an affair that it cannot be confined to any formula, however well intentioned, whether it originates in a church, a college, or a critical school.

Nevertheless, I am bored by these novels. I think a great many other readers are bored. I think one of the most exciting things that could happen in American literature would be a sit-down strike among novel readers. I think it is time for somebody to lead a protest against monotony. I am fed up with this interminable procession of weak and cowardly men, strong and brutal men, oversexed women, undersexed women, frustrated children, bewildered parents, hopeless farmers, and greedy overlords. I have had my fill of cruelty, rape, seduction, incest, Lesbianism, illegality, lynching, murder, castration, and general hellishness. I am willing to admit that the language of the uneducated has its moments, but I should like to read some merely civilized conversation. I long to be introduced to a cultured human being in a story and to enter an ordinary home. So far as I know, I do not say these things because I am a hopeless Victorian or a college professor or a theorist about literature or a bourgeois or an upholder of a particular moral code. I say them in my simple capacity as a reader of books. I think I have had about all of this diet that my system can assimilate.

The pride of the hard-boiled school is that it is realistic. We do not care, say these novelists in effect, whether you like our picture of life or not, for this is existence as we find it, and as honest artists we portray what we see and feel. Any other approach to the artistic problem would be suicidal. We are discovering that life in the American republic is not wrapped in the rose-pink cloud of Jeffersonian idealism. We are telling you what the tenant farmers and the workers feel; we are telling you the real thoughts of the men and women, so docile, so civilized, so meek and well behaved, whom you see daily on the streets or in the country. If you don't believe us, see them at a lynching or a labor riot. Trace their secret thoughts, and you will find at the bottom of their love affairs and their family relationships the lust and cruelty and frustration we portray.

Bosh! I know only one human being intimately, and oven that intimacy is imperfect, for no man can know himself. American life has been historically an unruly and violent life, and if earlier American novelists intended to report the whole truth concerning it, some of them certainly omitted much that could have been told. Nevertheless, bosh! It is the pleasing delusion of every literary movement that it, and it alone, has got at the truth at last, but I sec no reason to suppose that the reigning fashion in fiction is any nearer ultimate reality and truth to life than any earlier literary fashion, and I am puzzled to know why novelists so intelligent as ours are taken in by their own rhetoric.

As a literary historian I know something about fashions in literature. Professor John Livingston Lowes has written a book called Convention and Revolt in Poetry, in which he shows how the history of one of the most individual of the arts is really a vast systole and diastole of expansion toward freedom and contraction toward restraint. Somebody ought to write a book called Convention and Revolt in Fiction.

For example, there existed at the turn of the eighteenth century a popular school of fiction writers known as the Gothic or Terror novelists. We smile at the absurdities of the conventions upon which they depended for their effects, but it appears upon inspection that we are not entitled to smile—at least not very broadly. For what were the ingredients of the Gothic novel? Violence, horror, seduction, rape, murder, incest, adultery, illegitimacy. In Ambrosio, or The Monk, the hero rapes a nun in a burial ground and uses language which is still sufficiently indecent. In the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe the leading character lives outside the law and abandons all moral codes in order that he may commit as many crimes, sexual and otherwise, as the lady thought the palpitating reader could stand. In Melmoth the Wanderer an ageless hero, outside the ordinary canons of humanity, wanders the earth as the hero of Mr. Hunt's Greathouse wanders through American history.

The literary historian can point to novels having to do with parricide, infanticide, matricide, and various other melodramatic modes of destruction. The only reason why tile writers of Gothic fiction did not create a few morons of sadistic tendencies, such as Mr. Faulkner sometimes employs in his extraordinary novels, is, I suppose, because the earlier school had not yet learned about morons, but they did what they could. They ravished as many virgins in their badly printed pages as romantic probability could stand for, and they got a lingering thrill out of every sexual act. The conventions of this group, in fact, so curiously resemble the conventions of the reigning school of violence that I wonder why rape and murder and holocaust and fornication are in the one case dismissed as romantic hocus-pocus and in the other case are considered seriously as a disillusioned report on life.

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