A President Is Born

by Fannie Hurst. New York and London: Harper & Bros. 1928. 8vo. x+484 pp. $2.50.
THERE are really only two kinds of art, the expressive and the repressed. Miss Hurst is never repressed. And that is one reason why opinions concerning A President Is Born, whether they are favorable or unfavorable, are certain to be strong. Those who dislike it will point out that she slathers on local color as with a trowel; that her cherry pies ‘spurt ruby flavors as the fork digs in’; that she ‘pours sorghum syrup in a great, slow, amber rope, so that ’one’s mouth begins to water in two expectant grooves’; that she loves to speak of cooking that has ‘the kind of tastiness thad pours itself into the palate and quickens the gastric juices.’ For people of low vitality, such pages are agonizing. Such people do not like to read of pie crust which ‘lurid juices make soggy,’ any more than they like to read of a dog whose side has ‘been kicked into a bloody tatter.’ And lovers of fine shades and nuances will say that such a style has the literalness of a moving picture and the incontinence of poor melodrama, and that it is intended to be read by people of no imagination whatever.
Admirers of Miss Hurst — and she has many whose opinion deserves attention — will declare, on the other hand, that the book has a kind of animal power, a joy of living, a gusto, that is very rare in literature; that she is, in fact, the most unliterary novelist now writing. They will glory because she greatly dares in diction and is unintimidated by syntax. She writes for the millions, it is true, but so did Dickens, and he was viewed askance by the ‘refined’ of his day just as she is in ours. Her characters have blood, bone, and sinew; they represent the great American average in intelligence and ideals. Whether we like them or not, they are of our country and of no other, and they are recognized by the millions as of themselves.
The two views perhaps conjointly suggest the strength and the weakness of the novel.
During the past five years we have had more than enough biographies disguised as novels, and it was inevitable that we should have novels disguised as biographies. A President Is Born is an interesting experiment in realistic method, but one can hardly call it a successful method. The novel purports to be the early life of David Schuyler, who at some time in the future — say 1850—was, is, will be president of the United States, the illusion of his future greatness being created primarily by means of footnotes written ostensibly by his sister, after the event. The main trouble with the device is that it necessitates a continuous polite bragging by the sister, which leaves the reader in the frame of mind of Lamb when he replied to a lady who boasted about her rector: ’No, ma’am. I do not know the gentleman, but I’ll damn him on a venture.’ Without these footnotes, we should be interested in David as an unusual boy, certain to go far in a democracy; with them, we build up a curious portrait of a man who is a composite of Bryan, Borah, and Harding, and it is a little depressing.
One wishes the author had not hitched her story to national issues. The history of the Schuyler family is striking and valuable. Henry, the idealistic brother; the Old Gentleman, the irascible but likable father; Stevy, as long as he is a drunkard; even Bek, the woman of iron and sentiment, though her goodness palls — all these catch at one’s heartstrings; and the pictures of household, street, restaurant, school, farm, and suburb are brilliantly painted, though as with palette knife and thumb rather than with brush. The great quality of the book is its kindliness, its warm-heartedness, its enthusiasm for life, and this is so rare a quality nowadays that it goes far to condone any amount of garishness and gush.