Reader's Choice

JUDGING from this month’s books, fiction and nonfiction, a reaction has set in among writers, against the extremist attitudes of the past two decades. They are rallying, it would seem, on the middle ground, an odd place in which to find American writers congregating. For some time past they’ve been traveling up front with the trail blazers, leading the way to sundry Utopias, to Montparnasse or Manifest Destiny, fervently proclaiming new gospels and feverishly debunking the old. The change I detect (which may be just a passing eddy) amounts to an excess of sobriety that has brought with it a sharper sense of responsibility and the makings of a new perspective.
The serious young novelists cannot claim to have found themselves, but they are tired of being “lost.” Their frustration is a burden, not, as in a previous post-war era, a badge proudly worn to bars, bullfights, and bordellos. The best of our reporters and political analysts haven’t much sympathy for the sort of perfectionism which insists on “all or nothing,” which oscillates between dreamy formulas for world peace and peevish retreat into isolation. Most of them are struggling for a compromise between the ideal of world government and the fact of aggressive nationalism. Not knowing the answers — to the inner crisis or the world crisis — the writers have learned enough to avoid the easy answers.

The world crisis

In the nonfiction line-up there are three books that do not offer easy answers and one that does Henry Hazlitt’s Will Dollars Save the World? (Appleton-Century, $1.50). Mr. Hazlitt argues that there is no real dollar shortage; the “so-called dollar shortage” is due solely to exchange controls. If England and France, for example, were to allow their currencies to fall to their real dollar value, exports to the United States (being cheaper) would expand, “excessive imports” would be discouraged, and the balance of trade would be restored, making the Marshall Plan superfluous. This alluring thesis ignores four elementary facts. (1) England and France adopted exchange controls to husband their vanishing dollar resources; Mr. Hazlitt puts the egg before the hen. (2) The “excessive” imports he speaks of are the bare essentials required to sustain life and assist recovery. (3) The reason England and France are exporting little to America is that thexha ve as yet little to export. (4) When controls were virtually abolished in Greece, the results proved catast rophie.
Mr. Hazlitt’s formula for the world crisis boils down to this: “Make our own capitalism free and strong. . . . Expose the fallacies of European statism and socialism by our own contrary example.”
Vera Micheles Dean, author of The United States and Russia (Harvard University Press, $8.00), considers ii folly to impose our concepts of democracy and tree enterprise on countries in which these concepts have no roots. She believes that greater understanding of Russia’s position in the world, and of our own, is the key to a modus vivendi, and sees a hopeful “middle way” between intransigeance and appeasement. Her book is a scholarly Baedeker to the Soviet Union, admirable for the reader in search of factual information, but somewhat naïve in its academic detachment.
There’s nothing academic about Hal Lehrman’s picture of Russia’s Europe (Appleton-Century, $3.75). It’s an impressively documented, brisklywritten record of two years behind the Iron Curtain prefaced by a stay in Greece — a top-notch piece of reporting. Mr. Lehrman interviewed Communist bosses and opposition leaders, attended trials, investigated every facet of Communist “democracy” with the initial prejudices of a “professional” liberal. He came away impressed by the Communists’ energy in tackling reconstruction and appalled by very nearly everything else.
Non-Communists of any prominence — former resistance lighters and labor leaders — wore being herded into jails, the rank and file were denied a “character certificate,” that is, a living. Opposition parties were being brutally liquidated. To express pro-American sentiments or to be seen with foreigners was “treasonable.” Ex-Nazis were being openly recruited for the secret police. Only in Czechoslovakia were human rights respected, and Mr. Lehrman believes that the Kremlin won’t tolerate a “free” Czechoslovakia much longer; Russia’s Europe is “a spiritual gas chamber.” For reporting these observations he was dropped by PM and other journals. He has joined the growing band of liberals who stand on the middle ground between reaction and “the totalitarian Left.”
Mr. Lehrman offers no “what we should do to be saved” chapter, but suggests that “one way not to stop the Russians is by conciliatory discussion and hopeful concession.” The other way not to stop them is to throw our weight behind the remnants of European reaction, which he convicts the democracies of doing in Greece. His conclusions find support from Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs, who has written a lucid, modest, and impressive little book, The Calculated Risk (Macmillan, $1.50), which every Congressman should read.
The main objectives of our foreign policy, Mr. Armstrong holds, should be “to help Europe live and to strengthen the United Nations.” To this end he urges unstinting implementation of the Marshall Plan and suggests a scheme for extricating the United Nations from the overworked and crippling veto: a supplementary protocol, formulated under Article 51 of the Charter and open to all, the signatories of which would agree to resist aggression if (1) two thirds of them decided collective action was called for under the Charter, and (2) if the Security Council failed to act. The “Armstrong Plan,” judging from Senator Vandenberg’s approving comment, may soon become official policy.

The American condemns

“On whatever level one explored the vital culture of the United States during the period from 1896 to 1946, one was likely to find an increasing disillusion. It condemned what actually existed. It affirmed something very different: what ought to be.” The widening rift between the cultural ideals and deepening materialism of American life is the theme of Lloyd Morris’s Postscript to Yesterday (Random House, $5.00). The estrangement between the writers and their environment is the theme of Maxwell Geismar’s the Last of the Provincials (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50).
Mr. Morris tells the story of “the American heart and mind during the past fifty years.” His method is concrete: the cavalcade of ideas is a cavalcade of persons—dowagers, prima donnas, novelists, playwrights, press lords, bootleggers, sages, muckrakers, and messiahs. Mr. Morris’s gently ironic prose is mellowed with nostalgia and enlivened with wit. Postscript to Yesterday is a spirited book with a distinctive savor.
American culture’s “thunderous” condemnation of American life springs, in Mr. Morris’s interpretation, from society’s surrender to the acquisitive code. I feel that he underplays the impact of war on the cultural outlook, but Mr. Geismar’s book tends to corroborate his judgment. The Last of the Provincials is the second (working backward) in a projected live-volume study of American novelists.
I would query Mr. Geismar’s bracketing of Scott Fitzgerald with the “Middle Generation” — Mencken, Lewis, Cather, and Anderson — and his tendency to equate affirmative response with artistic excellence. Nonetheless he shows himself to be an extremely able critic, widely read, unpretentious and rigorous in his standards.
Mr. Geismar is most provocative when he sets about isolating the writer from his legend. Babbitt’s creator, famed as the gadfly of Main Street, emerges as the “cosmic Bourjoyce” himself, a prey to all of Main Street’s illusions. His typical hero is “an adolescent with a paunch”; his substitute for the exploded Horatio Alger tradition is “the vision of Middle Class Bliss.” Lewis’s philosophy, Mr. Geismar concludes, ultimately reduced itself to “the importance of being a middle-class aristocrat ” — a scathing indictment, but one marshaled with copious reference to the defendant’s text.
Mencken, too, the legendary inquisitor of the “boobus Americanus” and the American credo, is pictured winding up as “a Tom Paine of the American Counter-Revolution . . . who hymned ihe praises of Detroit in somewhat rasping terms.” Anderson, Mr. Geismar believes, came closest to grappling with his changing environment. In general, the Middle Generation represented a dissipation and failure of the older Western tradition of social protest. The pattern of “artistic withdrawal and negation” it inaugurated was to be intensified until the socially conscious thirties.

The inner crisis

The serious contemporary novelist has inherited from the immediate past two dominant traditions: that of the crusading intellectual hell-bent on social reform, and that of the lonely individualist dramatizing his despair in a spiritual wasteland, the man who, like Hemingway’s hero, has made a “separate peace” and remains at war with his pride. These strains are apparent in three of the current novels, but new attitudes are emerging.
Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (Viking, $3.00) is a searching account of the liberal’s dilemma of conscience in a world surrendering to extremes of dogma, an important first novel by a distinguished critic. The chief protagonists are John Laskell — the liberal “in the middle of the journey” — convalescing after a dangerous (obviously symbolic) illness; his old friends the Crooms, an amiable couple whose politics reflect the “party line”; and Gifford Maxim, an ex-revolutionary converted to a new orthodoxy.
Mr. Trilling unfolds his theme in delicate shading of behavior as much as in direct argument. The disjointed and seemingly irrelevant action — a blind mating of two bodies, the death of a child, a fight — subtly clarifies the conflict of ideas. The final explosion brings home to Laskell that the Crooms’ “liberalism” is a savage fanaticism and Maxim’s self-immolation in dogma, first of party then of creed, is his refuge from a haunting sense of guilt. To the Crooms’ denial of responsibility and Maxim’s denial of conditioning, Laskell opposes “the human being in maturity, at once responsible and conditioned,” the critical intelligence constantly in modulation. Laskell recognizes that his type of liberalism is in eclipse, but he will not become a renegade or an iconoclast or even a disgruntled man. Mr. Trilling has sounded a new note of dissent, a more realistic and mature one than the frantic reformism of the thirties and the sterile disillusionment of the twenties.
“So many people write about a man trying to find himself, when the big thing, as Al saw it, was for the man to find his other part, the Y to the X of his human equation.” This is our introduction to Pfe Al Figueira, the central character of All the Girls We Loved (Farrar, Straus, $2.75), a first novel by Prudencio de Pereda, These wry, compassionate, sometimes humorous sketches of soldier life before and after combat tread on Hemingwayesque ground, but with notable differences. Pfe Al Figueira and his friends are lost, lonely, hurt inside. “He’s got a cross,” they say of each other. But they neither romanticize their frustration nor muffle it in pride. They talk about it with a “tense, almost hysterical honesty.” They even take it to Major Deering, the psychiatrist.
And what is the trouble with these “ordinary Joes"? Stevenson can’t get “to the first point” with women. Barkely “is worried whether he can do anything with his girl.” Al, too, suffers from “this business of impotence. Each daydreams of his “superior girl,” who’s full of love and understanding and will make him “a full man.” But when they’re with her, manhood takes a holiday. The parentage of these Joes would seem to be Hemingway’s Jake Barnes and — not Lady Brett
— Philip Wylie’s “Mom.” “Too much dream and idealism,” the psychiatrist tells Al, which seems to be a tactful way of diagnosing a case of protracted adolescence, with complications.
This is not intended as levity or condemnation. Judging from what army psychiatrists have disclosed, de Pereda’s theme is a vital one. He has handled it with sensitivity and desperate honesty.
I think he’s among the more talented of the postwar novelists.
That goes also for Gore Vidal, who at twentylour or five has two good novels behind him and is publishing his third. The City and the Pillar (Dutton, $3.50). Jim Willard, too, is stymied by women. He, too, is searching for his “Y” and is possessed by a dream of a schoolboy he loved. And when lhat boy is rediscovered in manhood and contemptuously rejects him — “You’re nothing but a damned queer” — life without the dream, for Willard as for Al Figueira, is not good enough.
“We must declare ourselves,” says one of Vidal’s characters, a homosexual novelist, “allow the world to discover this subterranean life of ours which connects kings and farm boys, artists and clerks.” And another: “I think that the American man, normal or not, has been utterly castrated by the woman he has been made, by his mother, to worship.” Some will see in this book a Manifesto for the Third Sex, a social tract on inversion (with “Mom” under arraignment), a brilliant exposé of subterranean social life among New York and Hollywood expatriates from normal sex. Essentially it’s an attempt to clarify the inner stresses of our time, of which the increase in homosexuality and divorce are symptoms. It should be added that Mr. Vidal has not neglected to provide an entertaining story.
I said at the outset that the novelists don’t know the answer, but they do know that it isn’t escape in booze or travel or disillusion, and that escape into dreams is a one-way passage out of life. The sad young men have learned that there is no “separate peace.” Meanwhile, what has happened to Johnny, the conquering American hero? He survives in the historical novel.
The great big American novel Raintree County (Houghton Mifflin, $3.75), a first novel by Boss Lockridge, Jr., is a whale of a book in every sense. It look six years to write (after several years of research), runs to 1060 pages, has won the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer $150,000 award, is the January Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a sure best-seller. Its merits as literature are a different matter.
The author’s aim, he says, was (in the words of Janies Joyce) to forge the uncreated conscience of his race. Raintree County is the middle-brow Ulysses, the Hoosier War and Peace, the Middle Western Remembrance of Things Past, the freshman’s Faust, It’s the Great American Novel every newspaperman dreams of writing.
It isn’t just the American myth that Mr. Lockridge sets oul to re-create; it’s the myth that governs Life itself. Rain tree County isn’t simply the secret source of American life: it is also the Garden of Eden, and the raintree is the Tree of Knowledge whose golden boughs shed fertilizing blossoms on the land. Raintree County is nothing short of a primer of human Kultur: it refurbishes the Bible legends and the ancient myths, popularizes Freud’s Totem and Taboo and Frazer’s Golden Bough, delves into literature, history, ethics, psychiatry, religion. Every character, every event, is loaded with a portentous symbolism.
John Wickliff Shawnessy, the “unsung poethero” of Raintree County, is the legendary American, symbolically a bastard once removed (“the badge sinister is the bar of vitality”), at once the architect and the conscience of the nation. He is also Adam in search of “the secret of his origin” and “the hero who regains Paradise.”
Then there’s Garwood (later Senator) Jones, the cynical, unscrupulous materialist, who sells democracy short but has a heart of gold; Cassius Carney, the “poet of finance,” who dies of ulcers and success; and the “Perfesser,” the homespun Voltaire who knows something about everything and respects nothing, the perennially sardonic spectator. And there are girls, such girls as dreams are made on, with an engaging weakness for swimming in the nude.
The narrative is told in a series of flashbacks from a pivotal day, an old-time American Fourth. Its high poinls are the Great Footrace (which appeared in Life) and the exciting Civil War sequences. There’s no shortage of love, sacred and profane, plenty of lusty talk, and a solid vein of humor. Raintree County has just about everything in it, including a vast amount of hokum. The book is definitely a tour de force.