IN Virginia Woolf’s brilliant essay, A Room of One’s Own, she indicates very adroitly some of the differences between men and women writers. Speculating on this, I remembered that last fall Houghton Mifflin divided a $25,000 prize between the sexes. Inquiry showed that 20,000 copies each of Mary Lee’s it’s a Great War and William Scanlon’s God Have Mercy On Us! had been printed — and that t he latter was the first to need reprinting. This surprised me, for I believe that the judges and the reviewers favored the lady in the case.
For further comment on some of our young male novelists I turn to Mary Ross, an expert surveyor of fiction.
NOVELS BY YOUNG MEN
NOTABLE exceptions notwithstanding, there is from time to time an uneasy suspicion that among the novelists women manage to get more than their fair share of the laurels; that, to put it baldly, fiction is in danger of going feminine. Just why women have made more headway here than in other fields of art, except acting, is one of those riddles which, so far as I know, are still unsolved. But they have, to the extent that current. novels in both the writing and the reading are preëminently a woman’s game. Possibly it is from this tendency that has come the reaction of those whom Mr. Malcolm Cowley terms the new primitives—young writers, chiefly men, who have abandoned the ‘misty mid-region of the soul in favor of ‘definite, brightly colored fields of reality,’ whose work is full of sensuous impressions and ‘abounds in simple emotions and judgments of a very simple sort,’ whose language, forsaking the literary tradition, catches the echo of poolroom, beauty shops, and Pullman smokers. The four novels before me might fall, broadly speaking, within Mr. Cowley’s definition. They deal with brightly colored realities —a newspaper office, a London public house, shanty boats on the Mississippi, prize-fight arenas: places to which the lady novelist has little access. There is no sign out, ‘Men Only,’but there seems to be a general understanding that words will not be minced or manners softened to truckle to the so-called feminine taste.
Scoop (Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly,$2.00) is a quick unassuming story of a newspaper reporter by James S. Hart and Garrett D. Byrnes, who themselves have done time on an Eastern daily. ‘Snakes’Shiel gets arrested for drunken driving, and while he is in jail his nose for news starts him on a trail which eventually uncovers the corruption of the political ring in power, earns fabulous kudos for Snakes and his paper, and leaves him flat (but still a newspaper man!) by bringing about the death of the girl whom he came to love while he was getting his ‘scoop.’ It is brisk, vigorous, credible, and as romantic as are newspaper men themselves: if they were n’t, they would n’t keep on being newspaper men, much less write books about their kaleidoscopic world. And undoubtedly it will appeal to young men from the provinces who want to see how life ticks in a City Room.
Mississippi, by Ben Lucius Burman (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.00), is a first novel which comes heralded with enthusiastic endorsements. After reading these willy-nilly (folded about the book jacket), perhaps I expected too much, but certainly this story of white trash on the shanty boats and their feud with the steamboaters seems to me neither ‘magnificent’ nor ’in the category of great achievement.’ Rather it is quaint, curious, and a little pretty, achieving pathos where tragedy seems to be intended; full of interesting detail, but youthfully naïve when it comes to characterization. I ’ll still take my Mississippi front Mark Twain.
The Midnight Bell, by Patrick Hamilton
Little, Brown, $2.50), is a fourth novel by a young man who has yet to see his thirtieth birthday, it is the story of Bob, who is waiter in the Midnight Bell’s Saloon Bar, Ella, the barmaid, and yellow-haired Jenny, who slips in when she needs cash and out when she has got it. Here again is ‘low life,’ but this time it is not distorted by romantic oversimplicity or sentimental prettiness. Mr. Hamilton knows his background so well that he can afford to subordinate it, while the story springs not from plot and counterplot, but from the subtle and very human interactions of this strange triangle. Jenny’s hold on Bob is that which Somerset Maugham has signalized in Of Human Bondage — the almost helpless addiction of a man to a woman in spite of all that reason and experience can tell him. Mr. Hamilton makes the relation understandable and moving; his book has dignity, restraint, and humor.
By far the most original and the most powerful of these four books is W. R. Burnett’s Iron Man (Lincoln MacVeagh, The Dial Press. $2.50). Like its predecessor, Little Caesar, it is cut out of whole new cloth, in this instance the loves and hates and ideals of a middleweight champion. Here is the laconic talk of men who hang around a training camp, ‘big shots.’ ‘gate crashers,’ bums, prize fighters, trainers, managers, arid in the spotlight Coke Mason, the ‘chump,’ honest, loyal, incredibly ignorant and innocent, defenseless except for his bandaged hands. There is an inarticulate epic in the love between Coke and Regan, his boyhood friend and the manager who saw him through from mechanic’s helper to champion; agony in Coke’s forced choice between Regan and Rose, Coke’s fly-by-night wife; and tragedy which runs clear and deep in the final betrayal and downfall of the ‘big boy.’ Almost surely, I think, would Mr. Cowley accept Mr. Burnett as a new primitive; but to the reader there is the more interesting fact that this book is not only new, but strong and beautiful. If more men would write like this we should have not only more male novelists (fiction again showing it can deal excitingly with things that are preëminently male), but also more novel readers, male and female.