PROFESSOR of English at Simmons and head of the Bread Loaf School of English, R. M. Gay is a trustworthy reader of the new as well as the old.
READING these four novels (they are very good novels), I was struck by the fact that underlying each was a criticism of life, but a criticism in terms of human sympathy, and that it is this rational sympathy that makes a sound novel one of the most instructive forms of literature. At any rate the novels here considered furnish a surprisingly comprehensive view of contemporary life. Bright Shin will tell you more about a primitive people than a dozen treatises; Heat Lightning gives a somewhat disturbing picture of a representative score of American people of moderate means; Fathers of Their People lays bare the soul of the farmer; and A Modern Hero embraces within its liberal scheme nearly every level of society, from semi-outcast members of a circus troupe to the desiccated aristocracy of a great city.
H. W. Freeman’sFathers of Their People (Henry Holt, $2.50), although it is almost devoid of nature description, conveys a sense of the mild, moist, lush county of Sussex, where its scenes take place. It is a story of men and animals, with a great farm for background, and the love of the soil for its theme. Throughout runs the assumption that hard handwork is a noble thing and that pride in one’s traditions and loyalty to one’s homeland are about the only stable ideals left to man. Young Dick Brundish inherits an ardent nature from his grandfather, and for a time lets his desires run in illicit courses. The three-hundred-year-old farm is apparently about to pass into other hands. But in the end he returns. He too must be a ‘father of his people’ — a destiny perhaps symbolized in his enlistment in the World War in the last scene of the book.
The novel has the same almost Biblical simplicity that charmed readers of Joseph and His Brethren, and, while it has no startling power or great depth, it has strength, fineness, and an eminent sanity. In it the seasons pass augustly - spring ploughing, haying, harvesting, lambing time — man’s battle with weather and the elements. Mr. Freeman might be called the laureate of the English yeomanry.
Julia Peterkin’sBright Skin (Bobbs-Merrill, $2.50) is an idyl of plantation life, which attains drama near the end. The mood of the book is mainly one of humor and sentiment, and its qualities are those we have come to look for — intimate knowledge of the Negro mind, shrewd observation of plantation customs, and a genuine sympathy with primitive emotions.
Here her subject is specially interesting, because it is quite new. Others have written of the mulatto in white society, but here the theme is the double one of the mulatto’s mixed psychology and the attitude of a wholly black population toward her. Cricket, who has a bright skin, is an attractive, puzzling, pathetic figure, and the story of her love affair with Blue, a black boy, is very moving. Although the account is pitched in a minor key, it has quiet beauty, and its leisurely,: somewhat haphazard progress serves very well to put one in the mood of the surface of life it depicts, without ever forgetting the depths of passion underneath. And as a whole the novel has much charm.
Helen Hull’sHeat Lightning (Coward-McCann, $2.50) has a definite theme which is clearly stated more than once. Near the end, Amy, the heroine, meditating upon the events centring in the death of her grandmother, says to herself: ’We distrust what we used to call our consciences. We don’t know what we live by, nor what we believe. That’s why il s so hard to behave well. We have n’t any code. . . . For me, and lots of us, the demolition company has moved in. . . . But there’s no plan drawn for any new building.’ When, however, she finally asks herself what she really believes in, she discovers the answer: ‘Courage, love, loyalty. The scene shifted, but there were no new virtues. Who needed any new ones?’
This theme, if not new, is certainly vital. It is developed in a series of incidents occurring during a week of torrid summer in a Mid-West town, whither Amy has returned home from New York, to gain perspective in her own marital troubles. She renews relations with a large circle of relatives and soon discovers that only her grandmother and her mother are living a really happy and integrated life.
One especially admires the quiet directness and unfailing intuition with which an unusually large gallery of characters is portrayed. And yet pervading the entire book is an electric atmosphere, as of heat lightning before storm, in which people are restive and irritable without knowing why. This is the author’s symbol for our civilization.
Each of Louis Bromfield’s novels impresses one as an experiment in technique. Certainly Miss Annie Spragg, Twenty-four Hours, and now A Modern Hero are about as different as they well could be in ground plan; and if the first vaguely recalled (in this respect only): The Bridge of Sun Luis Rey, and the second. Grand Hotel, the present novel suggests remotely a comparison with A Calendar of Sin. I do not mean that the author has read any of the novels mentioned. I onlymean to imply that he apparently gives more than ordinary attention to plotting and point of view. A Modern Hero (Frederick A. Stokes, $2,50) is, however, less obviously ingenious than his previous books, is more mature, has more body, is richer In experience. It is, in fact, a very fine novel, sustained in interest, notable in characterization, and bitterly though never inhumanly ironic.
It unfolds the life story of Pierre Radier, a circus rider, son of Madame Azaïs, a trainer of leopards, and of a father, a Jewish banker, whom he never sees. Pierre is ambitious and finds means to rise by exploiting women. His is the portrait of a not wholly unattractive egoist, quite aware that he has sold the best of life to obtain the worst and that in seeking social and financial success he has lost the domestic happiness he secretly longs for.
It is a convincing and sobering picture. But in brief review one cannot even suggest the scope of the canvas on which it is painted; for Pierre’s adventures take him, as I have said, into the most diverse surroundings and into contact with the most varied human types. In their sum these scenes and characters show an astonishing knowledge of American society, and the narrative, no doubt by intention, has some of the size and multifariousness of the American scene itself. The greatest strength of the book lies, however, in the portraits of the women who most affect Pierre’s life - Azaïs, Joanna, Léah, Claire, Hazel. Of these the first three are masterly and that of Leah really a masterpiece.
R. M. GAY