The American Scene

AMONG the spring novels I have selected four whose intent it is to define the American scene of our day. Three of them are by veterans skilled in craftsmanship, and settled perhaps in convictions; one by an innovator who, like Kipling’s eat, walks by himself. It is with confidence that I turn to Marshall Best, one of the soundest readers in New York City, for an estimate of the effect each writer has produced.
THE American tempo took on a quickened beat in the years leading up to the late stock-market crash, and Arthur Train has caught some of its characteristics in his novel of suburban ambitions called Paper Profits (Liveright, $2.50). It is a Moral Tale of a nice young author whose wife takes his seventy-dollar check from the Atlantic Monthly and turns it into several hundred by secret manipulations with a wildcat stock called Glutex. From this beginning the family abandons its easy-going ways, builds a fortune, moves to a richer suburb, and becomes involved in all the dazzling turpitude of the cocktail age. With Glutex as the villain, and with a sufficient frame of story, many different aspects of the amateur speculator’s life are crowded into its relation, ami not a little of the larger stock-market machinery. Tt has documentary value, chiefly in showing how the stock reports colored the thought of all classes in the days of the Great Bull Market. But it is no more pretentious than this outline suggests, and as literary or human evidence it means nothing.
Joseph Hergesheimer achieves meaninglessness in a different way. His characters in The Party Dress (Knopf, $2.50) are intensely emotional beings, with elaborate notions about life which they discuss in wellphrased monologues. His heroine is a woman in middle life, comfortably married, with grown children, who suddenly awakens to her emotional possibilities. She falls in love with an impossible eccentric whom she and Mr. Hergesheimer label an idealist; he kills himself for honor’s sake when she refuses to wait for a divorce before giving herself to him. The lesser characters are equally involved in their responses to commonplace situations. The scene is again suburban, and the time is strictly contemporary in its confusion of standards. The novel simmers in a sticky tropical heat which puts nerves on edge and keeps passions at the boiling point. Mr. Hergesheimer is a talented writer, and his gifts of language cast a dangerous charm. But he grants his creatures psychological possibilities that would never be evoked in life by the country-club surroundings and parvenu backgrounds with which he provides them.
John Erskine attempts still another kind of comment in his Uncle Sam: In the Eyes of His Family (Hobbs-Merrill, #2.50). He is careful to inform as that this is a portrait of the American Spirit, a translation into fiction of the lanky cartoon figure in top hat and striped trousers. His story tells of one Sam and his brothers and sisters, and of how Sam grew from gangling boyhood to a position of importance and family toleration. In a series of human encounters we are shown how the national temperament might be expected to respond to given situations, and how the temperament of our neighbors might view these reactions. At best this might have been a bit of amiable pedantry: in fact it is a dolefully dull mistake. It shows the folly of trying to schematize anything so rich and diverse as character and opinion in a country such as ours. Allegory of this sort, very much like punning, gives more satisfaction to the inventor than to his audience, whose only profit from it is the vain self-satisfaction of catching the double meaning.
The richness and diversity of national character have been caught by John Dos Passos without half so elaborate an effort. In The 42nd Parallel (Harper, $2.50) he has set out to photograph life in the United States from the Spanish War to the World War—not the life best known to the other novelists and the usual readers of novels, but the vast substratum that reaches down to the level of hoboes and ‘wobhlies,’ and up through chauffeurs and stenographers, the white-collar ranks, salesmen and promoters and real-estate men and interior decorators. His camera has snapped this life in all its variety — its rawness and its idealism, its sentiment and beastliness and innocence, hope, pain, futility, cynicism, thwarted ambition, and sham success.
The story is episodic, but the life of each of the principal characters is given as completely as if it were a novel in itself. Mac is a city boy who serves his apprenticeship working in a print-shop and peddling dubious books; later he takes to the road and rides the
rails, serves in a logging camp, joins the I. W. W., works earnestly as an agitator for a while, establishes a family, and, when it threatens to make him sell out to the bosses, leaves it and lights out for Mexico. Janey lives in Georgetown and becomes a stenographer to Washington officeholders: her values are set by the manners of her employers, her tastes and habits are those of a numberless class. J. Ward Moorehouse enacts a success story for himself, that of a poor boy who marries into dissipation after an adventure in real estate, travels in Europe, ‘comes clean’ by remarrying wealth, and rises with its help to an envious rank as a Public Relations Counsel. Eleanor begins life as a shop girl in Chicago, falls under the spell of bohemian ‘artiness,’ and achieves life’s dream by moving to New York and becoming a successful interior decorator. Finally Charley, a farm hoy from the Dakotas, repeats Mac’s life as a hobo, loving casually and drinking well, and disappears in the end on a troopship for France.
These lives and a hundred others cross at various points, and three of them converge when Janey becomes secretary to Moorehouse, who has found a platonic companion in Eleanor. There is no more plot than this. Instead of assuming the novelist’s privilege to weave the strands together for a conclusion, the author has left things hanging at loose ends, as life is apt to do.
For all its richness of living and its lavishness of everyday details, this story in itself might still have been commonplace. But it is immensely enhanced by a technical device which gives it complete originality. Dos Passes has invented three tricks which enable him to escape being a sociologist in his story-telling and at the same time to fit these particular lives into a more comprehensive scheme of things. The first is a series of interludes which he calls Newsreels, made up of actual headlines and phrases from the daily papers of the times. They appear as scrambled fragments in a kaleidoscope as crazy as the life from which they come, hut actually they are pointed by selection and contrast until they give a strangely complete impression of the thoughts and actions which swayed the public at the moment. Accompanying these is a group of half-lyrical portrait biographies of public figures, representative men in whom have been concentrated some of the traits that are latent in the vast inconsequent masses who read the papers. Edison, Big Bill Haywood, Bryan, Burbank, La Follette their stories are sketched and their importance or uselessness conveyed with an almost intolerable irony.
Lastly are interjected little scenes headed ‘The Camera’s Eye,’ which prove to be subjective impressions from the author’s own life; they keep pace with the chronology of the book itself and thus tie up the objective story with the personal biography of its author.
These innovations alone are enough to distinguish a novel that excites and satisfies more thoroughly than almost any other of its time. It is not a book that would meet the tests that Mr. Griswold set in a recent Atlantic, and those who hold for propriety in literature had best beware of it. It transfers life to the page by avoiding nothing true which is also relevant — and in lives like these much ugliness is relevant. By never forgetting that these lives are important to those who live them, Dos Passos follows them through futility and commonplaceness— to the final futility of the war with an irony and understanding that give them meaning, and with a sense of aliveness that quickens every page.