A Novel of Protest

PARTLY a woodcut in black and white of a small Midwest city, in the already old tradition of Howe’s The Story of a Country Town, partly a tract on the theme of social injustice, but mainly the story of ardent youth combating bigotry and selfishness, Josephine Johnson’s new novel, Jordanstown (Simon and Schuster, $2.50), is in a good sense young. I know that young writers hate to be called young; but I mean no condescension. I only mean that if she had been older she would have written her novel differently. Very much in earnest and actuated by an intense and of course laudable hatred of selfish stupidity and intolerance, she has so generalized her story that it leaves upon the reader an effect of romance that seems inappropriate to so grim a recital. Her poor people are so miserable, her rich people so smug, her climate and weather so deplorable, the general life of the town so dismal, that one suspects that the book represents a suffering sensitivity in the author rather than a balanced picture of life in a certain place and time. A more mature experience knows that poor people find happiness somehow and rich people know misery sometimes, whatever their circumstances, and that both happiness and misery are more understandable and more poignant by contrast with each other. And perhaps that style which was effective in Now in November is not so well suited to this new material. I suspect that in dealing with social struggle a novelist would be well advised to use a style as bare and prosaic as possible. Certainly the use of devices like italicized passages to register unspoken states of awareness, appropriate enough in a psychological study, seems out of place in a tale which, to carry full conviction, should appear to record nothing but facts.
Young Allen Craig, a grocery clerk, gives up his position, invests his small fortune in a newspaper, and launches a campaign against entrenched privilege and the despotism of wealth. As usually happens, he loses in the unequal struggle. The Meeting Hall for Workers which he builds is destroyed, he and others are imprisoned, and his best friend, Dave, is killed. But at the end he is still unbeaten, preparing to renew the fight.
The author’s poetic imagination shows best in the gruesome scene on the town dump; her human insight in the reminiscences of old Stefan, when he longs for the garden of his boyhood; her narrative powers in the struggle with the sheriff’s men. But one misses the clairvoyance and the sustained tone that her other books have made one expect. It is a saddening fact that we live in a time when every young writer of serious intention is almost compelled, for the ease of his soul, to utter a social protest. Miss Johnson has uttered hers.