Relief From Murder

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

By Howard Mumford Jones
I

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.

II

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.

III

Now of course there is more to contemporary novels than murder, incest, rape, and adultery. They rest upon sociological grounds. They picture American discontent. They report the truth about the tenant farmer and the workingman in language used by such persons, and they are therefore to be considered seriously as art.

How much of it is art? I turn to the preface of a once famous novel no longer read—Charles Kingsley's Yeast, published in 1851—and I read: 'This little tale was written between two and three years ago, in the hope that it might help to call the attention of wiser and better men than I am, to the questions which are now agitating the minds of the rising generation, and to the absolute necessity of solving them at once and earnestly, unless we would see the faith of our forefathers crumble away beneath the combined influence of new truths which are fancied to be incompatible with it, and new mistakes as to its real essence.' But eight years later, in a preface to the fourth edition of Yeast, Kingsley was compelled to say that 'so many things have changed since then' that his novel had in 1859 only a sort of historical interest.

Or I turn to Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton, published in 1848 because Manchester workingmen 'seem to me to be left in a state wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite.' The preface ends on this ominous note: 'The state of feeling among too many of the factory people in Manchester . . . has received some confirmation from the events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent.' And my point is, not that Mrs. Gaskell was not justified in telling the truth as she saw it about industrial Manchester, but that the revolution she was afraid of never came off.

Or I turn to Dickens's Hard Times, published in 1854 to show that 'the English are, so far as I know, the hardest worked people on whom the sun shines. They are born at the oar, and they live and die at it.' But John Ruskin said of this novel: 'The usefulness of that work (to my mind, in several respects, the greatest he has written) is with many persons seriously diminished because Mr. Bounderby is a dramatic monster, instead of a characteristic example of a worldly master; and Stephen Blackpool a dramatic perfection, instead of a characteristic example of an honest workman.' And yet Dickens, like Kingsley and Mrs. Gaskell, basing his novel upon a sociological truth, was like them actuated by honest indignation at the social conditions of his time, and like them in consequence created characters that shortly seemed incredible.

I do not wish to deny any contemporary novelist the power of honest indignation. The honest indignation of the three Victorians undoubtedly helped to ameliorate the lot of Victorian workingmen, just as the honest indignation of Mr. Upton Sinclair in The Jungle helped to clean up Packingtown. I hope the indignation of contemporary novelists will have similar results. But it will not have a proportionately adequate result if their indignation is conveyed through characters who are dramatic monsters.

Moreover, the judgments of art are not the judgments of sociology—a fact which leads contemporary novelists into arguments curiously confused. The contemporary novelist mutters something about bourgeois morality if the harassed reader finally tells him he is tired of dramatic monsters, but in the next breath he appeals to his reader for support because the author is morally on the right sociological side. The novelist draws these pictures of greed and violence, lust and cruelty, he says, because in the long run he thinks it will improve American life to know the worst. But if the artist demands our moral approval in the one case, he cannot consistently dodge our moral disapproval in the other; and if he insists that moral judgments have nothing to do with his characters, he cannot complain if the reader remarks that his sociology is at bottom moral, and does not belong in the novel.

IV

Nobody writes for posterity, but everybody hopes his own book will endure. Books written out of moral indignation about society do sometimes outlive their day,—Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example,—but they are not usually improved by taking a sociological stand. Social indignation in art is a good servant, but a bad master, as Ruskin pointed out when he said that Bounderby is a dramatic monster and Blackpool a dramatic perfection, for the monstrosity of the one and the inhuman perfection of the other were the direct products of Dickens's social indignation.

Or take the case of Kingsley, who became extraordinarily angry because the Church did not serve society, and society neglected the Church. I defy any reader to warm up the dead ashes of Kingsley's moral indignation in Yeast, the hero of which begins by breaking his leg at a fox hunt (that striking bit of conspicuous waste among the upper classes) and ends by becoming a preacher to the poor; and in the same novel Squire Lavington, Lord Minchampstead, Lord Vieuxbois, the ineffable Argemone, and other pale wraiths from Kingsley's sociological pen haven't a spark of indignant life loft in them. As for Mary Barton, in an effort to express her honest indignation about the poor, Mrs. Gaskell strewed so many deathbed scenes in that book as to provoke a modern smile. Most of us prefer Cranford, which has no sociological attachments. As a prop for enduring fiction, I fear that social indignation is a frail reed.

As for psychological reality—oh well, what's the use? La Nouvelle Héloïse was once a profound revelation of human emotions, but its few readers nowadays find it lachrymose and long-winded. There used to be solemn discussions in the better magazines about the psychological realism of George Eliot, but any practising novelist nowadays will carve you half-a-dozen characters before breakfast more psychologically 'true' than Silas Marner—and yet the Corinna of the later nineteenth century rather prided herself on her profound knowledge of men and women. Mr. Meredith was once a novelist to puzzle the young withal, and even poor old Bulwcr-Lytton rather fancied himself as a psychologist. There are fashions in fictional 'psychology' just as there are fashions in fictional themes, but some writers without a speck of psychology in them seem to surpass the experts when it comes to vitality of character. I don't suppose Mr. Pickwick or Mr. Micawber would know an Œdipus complex from a compound fracture of the tibia, but the two characters nevertheless exist. I don't know whether Shakespeare had a profound insight into the human soul or not,—sometimes I think he did, sometimes I think it is mostly a matter of magnificent language,—but, unencumbered by psychology, he created Hamlet. I am speculating how profound the psychology of contemporary fiction really is. I wonder how much of it is another example of the solemn acceptance of a literary convention.

But the horror school is true to American life—or at least true to important aspects of American life. Is it? Suppose that by the twenty-fifth century a great natural catastrophe has destroyed all vestiges of American civilization, but that an exploring expedition from New Zealand digs in the ruins of the apartment house where I live and finds preserved the contemporary novels on my shelves. These they take back to Auckland, that centre of the Japanese-Eurasian culture of the day, where delighted anthropologists and historians set to work to reconstruct the vanished culture of the United States as we, from brick tablets, try to reconstruct Babylonian civilization or from the remains of Anglo-Saxon literature try to imagine what life in the British Isles was like between Julius Cæsar and William the Conqueror. What extraordinary conclusions they will draw! Not finding anything important in these books about the public school systems, symphony orchestras, medical foundations, the efficiency of our railroad system, our bus lines, or our highways, gymnasiums, churches, philanthropy, humor, health, or a dozen other matters we take for granted, they will solemnly conclude from the evidence that the vanished Americans lived in a state of perpetual insanity; that their whole lives were spent in crimes of violence; that rapine filled the land, thievery was common, every man was unhappy and every woman unchaste. They will draw, in short, a picture of a desolate and degraded culture without order, without government, without a code of conduct (or with one but feebly enforced), without means of subsistence (for all farmers in fiction fail), a land in which gangs of desperate men banded together to loot the few remaining seats of justice, a people that treated, its children with unexampled brutality, a country of greed, famine, selfishness, a nation living in the dark ages of mankind.

Doubtless the test is unfair. Doubtless if I could lift off the hat and look into the skull of the man who is driving last year's car past my window I might find, given the right insight, that his stream of consciousness was compounded of whoredoms and abomination, a lust for cruelty and an insane desire to kill. I sadly know that social justice is not yet attained in the United States. The newspaper daily informs me and hundreds of thousands of other Americans of murder and adultery, violence and death. Lust and cruelty are altogether too rampant in the world. But as a mere reader I protest that lust and cruelty do not operate twenty-four hours a day, even in the United States, that singular country in which I happen to have been born.

I hear a good deal of conversation of all sorts during the course of a year, some of it freely sprinkled with obscenity, but I fancy most of us do not begin breakfast by shouting: 'You ------, pass me the ------ cereal or I'll ------ ------ ------!' I have not, in the course of forty-five years of reasonably diversified existence, known any murderers, and I gather that the number of murderers in actual life is proportionately less than the tally of fictional characters given to homicide might lead me to believe. I never met any woman who was seduced on a golf course, though she may exist. Some of my acquaintances have committed suicide, and one or two have met violent deaths, but most of them seem to live relatively peaceful lives. A few are actually happily married. Most of the workingmen I have talked with have seemed much more interested in the World Series and the Old Gold contest than they were in bashing in their employer's head with a bloody club. I suspect that the plea of the school of violence that its members are faithful reporters of the American scene is just about as true and just about as false as Zola's belief that he, and he alone, had discovered the last secrets of fictional art.

All this may well be wrong. Undoubtedly art changes, and undoubtedly as you get older you are increasingly puzzled by the later manifestations of literature. Perhaps I live a sheltered life—I think I do—and therefore I don't know the proper people. But have I no rights as reader which the novelist is bound to respect? I have no objection to violence per se, I repeat, and a novel without wickedness would be, I suspect, rather flat reading. I am quite willing to accept murders and rape and noble souls breaking their hearts over the girls they have, or haven't, slept with, provided only that the percentage of these things in fiction shall have some faint proportion to their probable percentage in actual life.

It so happens that, along with a good many other Americans, I read detective stories, and detective stories always centre around a violent crime. Sometimes the inhabitants of the country house where the dastard killed the victim are unpleasant people; sometimes the victim deserved to be killed and sometimes he did not; but, under all circumstances, reading the detective story gave me the pleasure of the chase. But I suspect that another reason why readers turn eagerly to the machine-made detective story is that violence is kept within some due proportion to the art of fiction. It is also curiously true that a detective story is almost the last kind of novel in which you can read reasonably civilized conversation as it is carried on by fairly sane and, if you like, ordinary people.

I have no illusions about the art of the detective story, and I think the novelists I have been talking about are much greater artists than any writer of detective stories whatsoever. But as a reader I demand—and I do not think the demand altogether unreasonable that, mixed with whatever instruction and awe, insight and disgust, one of these novelists wishes to give me, he shall also give me a little entertainment, and I am getting to the stage where I am no longer entertained. If the novelists in question want to say that my aesthetics are beneath contempt or that I am filled up with bourgeois ideology or that I am just an old moralist at heart, I shall not combat the charge. I am willing to waive everything I have said as wrongheaded and misleading with one exception: I am not willing to waive my suggestion for a sit-down strike among novel readers—a rebellion against the tedious convention which furnishes us with an unbroken diet of frustration and violence and insanity among a set of characters as stereotyped as any set of characters in past fiction. I think we are entitled to a new deal in novels. When do we get it?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1938/07/relief-from-murder/305947/