Europe's Faith in American Fiction
The contemporary American writers have made an impact on Europe comparable to the one created by Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, says PERRY MlLLER. Professor of American Literature at Harvard, Mr. Miller writes from close observation of the academic world of Western Europe. He was visiting lecturer at the University of Leiden, and he spoke at many other institutions in Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy.
by PERRY MILLER
IT WAS a relief, I must confess, to get into a world where the people I dealt with took it for granlcd that literature is an index of civilization. In America I have to spend time and energy maintaining that thesis. I don’t complain, but I often wonder, as do my colleagues, whether I might make more progress were I less obliged to prove that my calling is not frivolous. In Europe I did not need to explain my mission; I had come to expound American writing, especially of this century. Not only in university circles but in community after community, the response was overwhelming, and I soon found myself able to charm audiences merely with a magic incantation: Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Faulkner.
Sometimes, earlier names would also serve. In the autumn of 1949, as soon as I was ashore, I was invited to Leeuwarden, ancient capital of Friesland, a town of perhaps 80,000, in contrast with which Des Moines or Albany would seem metropolitan, to observe in public ceremonial the hundredth anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. Solid citizens — bankers, lawyers, the Queen’s Commissioner, and the provincial government— suspended their affairs for an afternoon and gravely devoted four hours (with an intermission for tea) to hearing orations on Poe and readings of his poems. For the first time since I was thirteen, I recited “The Raven” aloud. Translated into Frisian by a poet who appeared to have stepped out of some primitive North Sea saga, it sounded beautiful!
During the intermission came the inevitable question: “What are they doing in America on October 7?” (I believe that a Baltimore newspaper did run a “story,” and that one or two literary magazines commented — that was about all, wasn’t it? What happened in Des Moines or Albany?) Was I to reply, “Yes, we do have a great literature, and I am delighted that you appreciate Poe; but in America, you know, we don’t shut up shop for an afternoon to pay him homage”? They are polite people, and their rejoinder would be more implied than baldly stated; still, it would be clear enough: shouldn’t I go home and proselyte my own people rather than preach to those who needed not my ministrations?
In Europe there is today a tremendous vogue of American writers — mainly of the modern novelists, but including also the plays of O’Neill, Wilder, Williams, and Miller. In the intellectual history of Europe the impact of these writers during the last two decades is comparable to the domination of the philosophes in the eighteenth century, to the contagion of the German romantics in the early nineteenth, or to the later influence of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.
The evidence is voluminous. I stand in no danger of attributing a pro-American bias to Jean-Paul Sartre; yet he has said that the encounter of the French mind with Dos Passos, Hemingway, and Faulkner effected a revolution comparable to that of its meeting with Joyce. Even in Algiers, one of the first publications of the liberation in 1943 was Écrivains et Poètes des États-Unis, reissued at Paris in 1945. Because French opinion still guides the taste of Western Europe, essays of the last five years — of Pierre Brodin, Claude-Edmonde Magny‚ Jean Simon, and above all of Maurice Coindreau (who also has copiously translated Faulkner and Caldwell) — are extensively studied. The direct, influence of the Americans upon the styles and techniques of French writers is already a matter of record: of Dos Passos upon Sartre, of Hemingway upon Camus. In Italy likewise: Vittorini, Berto, Pratolini acknowledge the debt.
But as I experienced it, influences on this more sophisticated level are the least part of the story. Hundreds of ordinary people have read the books; they came to my lectures not to learn about strange names but to test their insights. The most striking evidence is the sale of the novels, either in paperbacked English texts or in translations. Again and again, some businessman, lawyer, or architect — in France, Holland, Switzerland, Italy—would shyly, half proudly and half hesitantly, show me his shelf or his case of American fiction. The shyness was in part deference to my professorial status, which of course is the European manner. But it was also something more touching, full of tact: it was a muted asking whether I, as an American, would resent his gathering impressions of America from these arresting but decidedly uncomplimentary portrayals of the national scene.
The problem thus imposed itself: what should I sav was the real significance of this “school" of writers? What did they mean, not so much for Europeans as for Americans?
For there is a fact about these collections in so many European homes: they are almost entirely concentrated upon those writers whom, for shorthand purposes, I may call violent. The names are always Lewis, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Caldwell, Farrell. There are also copies of James M. Cain and of others whom Edmund Wilson dubbed “the boys in the backroom,”but seldom any representation of those I would call our “realists"—Ellen Glasgow, Edith Wharton, Ruth Suckow, Willa Cather. Henry Miller was everywhere taken seriously, along with Dashiell Hammett. Often I found Sherwood Anderson comparatively unknown; after I talked about him, the local bookstore immediately sold what copies it stocked of Winesburg, Ohio. Occasionally Dreiser was no more than a name, but those who read him at my urging recognized that he also belonged to the literary image which they consider so distinctively American. And for my account of the recent “revival” of Henry James, attention usually was gracious but perfunctory.
Furthermore, I had difficulty explaining that in America there has been a concerted critical effort to sift the authentic from the imitation, and that not all of us suppose, every time the postman rings twice, he is delivering Light in August. In fact, another dimension was added to my problem by what seemed an appalling inability, often an unwillingness, even among those most friendly to the literature, to make a rudimentary effort at evaluation. As long as a book flaunted the stigmata of American violence, it was accepted uncritically as the real thing. There is always, of course, some such difficulty in the migration of a literature (remember how many secondor third-rate French and German writers have had vogues in America!), yet here the issue is slightly different: there exists so remarkable a receptivity to tlie genre that almost anything which pretends to be “tough" will be read. The difficulty is not in getting attention: it is in moderating, in the name of standards, a disposition to embrace everything that employs the clichés of this species of Americanism.
However, if this be a difficulty, it is not an obstacle to communication. After one has at least half-persuaded an audience that some of these books are “better" than others, he still has to face the insistent question: are the novels, particularly the best of them, reliable reports on civilization in America ?
There are, fortunately, European interpreters to help in answering that question. André Gide’s imaginary interviewer asks if one should not conclude from this fiction that American cities and countrysides offer a. foretaste of Hell; to which Gide says, do not believe a word of it, for each of these authors is achieving a consciousness of his own nature by reacting. Jean Simon pleads with us not to be too severe in blaming French taste if it grasps indiscriminately at every such American utterance, because this passionate curiosity proclaims how profoundly America symbolizes French hopes.
But the ordinary reader, the eager student, has not always had the benefit of such warnings. He has simply read the books, and is fascinated. He knows that America will largely determine the future of Europe. Hence my friends and students asked the question not idly but anxiously: these writings, they would say, are all vehement attacks on the American way of life; if we are not to take them as meaning that American civilization is a foretaste of Hell, how are we to take them? If Main Street, The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy, The Sound arid the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath are not factual reports on the workings of the economy, what are they? And if they are accurate, do they not portend what a Europe dominated by America must expect? If so, should not Europe dread that future, and resist?
THERE are certain qualities of the European mind that make such discussions difficult for Americans. Often I had to struggle with literary stereotypes much prized among cultivated Europeans, which stand in the way of their understanding American writing. As with Poe at Leeuwarden: like most of my generation, I have had a long struggle with him; if I have rejected the Foe over whom I swooned at thirteen, I have come painfully to appreciate him as a conscious craftsman, an editor who increased the circulation of his magazines, and above all as a critic of society. 1 presented this Foe in Friesland (and elsewhere), causing only bafflement; I found that the Poe honored throughout Europe is that construction of the French imagination who is quite another being from the historical person. I asked the poet who had rendered “The Raven" into a Frisian even more mellifluous than the original, what in Poe attracted him. He replied, in sepulchral tones that would have become the bird itself, “Ile is ominous.”
In part I blame the academic instruction, wherein literature is often taught as a dead succession of schools, influences, and types, into which schematized conception the reader tries to fit Lewis and Hemingway. Furthermore, classification of writers not only into nationalities but into regionalities comes easy to the European. Hence Faulkner is ticketed as “Southern”; I had hard work contending that his use of Southern materials is incidental, that his work is not an official report on agricultural and racial conditions, and that he is not to be read as one reads Daudet or Giono on Provence.
Not unrelated to this habit of mind is a deeper one, which Guy Métraux put concisely when he said that education in Europe (especially in France) seeks always for “l’homme en général,” so that the pragmatic, empirical, unsystematic temper of American writing is not fully grasped. When studying the American novel, European readers try to annotate the “universal” and “general" traits, rather than to accept a total and a. singular experience.
Then, there is still a deeper worry. Europe is a tired and exhausted continent, living on the edge of despair. It has lost the sense of how an ebullient literature comes into being: it has forgotten what went into the making of a Rabelais, a Rousseau, or a Byron. Readers expect from their writers a documentation of political hopelessness, such as they find in Sartre or in Koestler. They suppose, therefore, that Dos Passos does no more than reproduce a panorama of horrors, or that in the Mississippi of Faulkner, rape, incest, and lynching are daily occurrences.
Let me say, parenthetically, that the novel is, on levels that really count, a more vital factor in Europe’s image of America than the moving picture. Thousands do indeed queue up to gaze at our Westerns and our glamour girls; intellectuals like J. E. Morpurgo lament that the films present only a sybaritic regime. Yet the film-derived idea of America, supposing it widely accepted, is inert. But the fiction, I assure you, is pondered in those circles from which leadership must emerge. A culture that hails Poe as a citizen of the world accords a similar welcome to Faulkner and listens attentively to what he says in Oslo.
DESPITE the conceptions and misconceptions, despite the effort to read Americans within European rubrics, the books exert another sort of fascination. The European student wonders what and why. He has a sense which he cannot deny that in them there is still a quality deeper than sheer violence or sociological documentation. His question is redoubled: are the murders, the sexual obsessions, the disintegration of Hurstwood, the banality of Main Street, the agonies of the -loads — are these the realities? Nor is the question always asked out of anti-American prejudice. Even where the violence or dullness is taken literally, until the image of America seems a chamber of horrors, there is always a recognition of vitality. Even when the American novel seems to say that all is frightful, it curiously and paradoxically intimates a hope. In some inexplicable fashion, it has a resurgent quality. My auditors wauled to ascertain just what this amounts to. They wanted desperately to know.
In the end, the problem came down to trying to explicate not vocabulary or techniques, but the experience out of which these works were written. The books have been exported. Could I, or anyone, carry across the Atlantic the vibrations that engendered them ?
First, I discovered that; I had the task of expounding simultaneously two Americas: of sharpening my own and my students’ discrimination between them. The one that gave no trouble either to them or to me is the America which has derived its thought as well as its peoples from Europe. You can present a coherent, and seemingly complete, history of the intellect in these terms; an empty continent has been steadily furnished with waves of European ideas: Calvinism in the seventeenth century; Evangelicalism, Newtonian physics, and Locke’s philosophy in the eighteenth; in the nineteenth, the romantic cult of nature and of the individual, Darwinian and Spencerian sociology, naturalism; and more recently Marxism, Keynesian policies, and Freudianism. In this view the American element consists of what the native wit makes out of imported materials, and it has generally taken the form of a simplification, or the accentuation of a particular aspect . Thus Jefferson’ s Americanism consists of his substitution, in Lockes triad of life, liberty, and property, of “pursuit of happiness” for the third item. Emerson’s genius amounts to so rephrasing the romantic philosophy of nature that it should lead to the imperative of self-reliance. Edwards is the American form of Pietism; Cooper is the American Scott, and Dreiser is an echo of Zola. Dos Passos and Faulkner must fit in somewhere, just as Wilder’ s plays are adaptations of “expressionism.” Everywhere in Europe there exists a great courtesy toward this America. If you insist that occasionally, as in Whitman, the reworking of imported concepts came close to originality, the praise is unstinted.
Americans who conceive their intellectual and artistic achievement solely in these terms are what Europeans call “nice Americans.” They display a suitable sense of the cultural tradition, and a becoming modesty before its avatars, being themselves professed colonials and provincials. The learned world is interested: it approves of Emerson and Cooper; it also assumes that if a nice American remains long enough in Europe, he will come to appreciate not only the vast accumulation of treasures but how much more complex all problems are than they seem in the bright light of the New World: that admirable as is Jefferson and Whitman’s democracy, it is a hasty oversimplification of innocence.
But is Ernest Hemingway a nice American? Was Scott Fitzgerald? What has that notion of America to do with Sister Carrie, Isaac MacCaslin, or Eugene Gant ?
IT is possible to tell the story of American literature in another way, which pertains to a nation that has nothing whatsoever to do with an extension of Europe. Instead of derivation, there is reckless exaggeration and ridicule; a mythologizing, a cult of immensity. It appears in Franklin’s suave agreement with the Englishman who declared the Great Lakes unnavigable because they are full of whales; yes, Franklin gravely asserted, this is true, for leviathan pursues the cod, and “the grand leap of the Whale in that Chase up the Fall of Niagara is esteemed by all who have seen it, as one of the finest Spectacles in nature.” This America is Natty Bumppo wiping his nose on his sleeve; it is Sut Lovengood tearing down a steep point, in a kangaroo lope, holding his flask high above his head: “If I were jis’ es smart es I am mean, an" ornary, I’d be President ove a Wild Cat Bank in less nor a week. Is sperrits plenty over wif yu?” It is Moby Dick, sliding along the sea “as if an isolated thing,” invested with a gentle joyousness and a mighty mildness, “still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw.” It is Davy Crockett grinning the coons off a tree; it is Huck Finn’s river; it is the Great Bear of Arkansas, a creation bear, who in a fair fight would have licked Samson in the twinkling of a dicebox: “My private opinion is, that that bar was an unhuntable bar, and died when his time came.” It is William Faulkner’s bear: “It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.” It is Henry Thoreau, who found all English literature tame and regarded Concord as a port of entry.
Define the quality of this America as you will, our novels abound in it. It is not naturalism or realism; it is the whale and the bear. Not alone because they are replete with sex and violence do they attract readers in Europe; the worst mistake you can fall into is to suppose they do no more than stimulate jaded palates. Nor is it merely that they are “vital.” Indeed, by contrast with European works, they are just that: in Huxley, Proust, Gide shines a finer intelligence than any that gleams in Lewis or Hemingway, yet beside these they appear pallid, without force. Coindreau and others emphasize the “epic” character of As I Lay Dying; if Jean Simon demurs, he still finds in it “une bouffonnerie macabre.” Yes, vitality is part of the appeal; yet that is not the bottom of it.
I found Thomas Wolfe not so generally perused as the others; but I could excite a strange, responsive look in every group I addressed — as though they were hearing distant, yet joyful shouts — by quoting his famous sentence, “I believe that we are lost in America, but I believe we shall be found.” At home I had never exactly heard trumpets blow when reading that passage; in Europe it became not destructive but assertive. It acquired a ring as it went on to say that the forms we have fashioned are self-destructive and must he destroyed, but that “I think these forms are dying, and must die, just as I know that America and the people in it are deathless, undiscovered,and immortal, and must five.”
What makes such words inspiriting in Europe is that on every side their writers are saying, as Malraux puts it, that a dying (or at least, a menaced) society can no longer confront the future in terms of freedom, but solely in terms of destiny. In the American writer there is a reckless amateurism which bespeaks a fundamental freedom; it is manifested conspicuously in his refusal to take himself solemnly as a writer, his inability to pontificate about “Art,”his determination to appear to the world as a playboy, a deep-sea fisherman, or a Mississippi farmer, who incidentally writes books. For a time, Europeans took the Americans at their own evaluation; but now the suspicion has dawned that there is a deep connection between this insouciance, this fecundity of invention which Continentals imitate, and the assertion with which Faulkner accepted the Nobel Brize, that man will not merely endure, but will prevail. Faulkner’s “man” is definitely not the abstraction en général. “They are obsessed,” Malraux has said, “with fundamental man.”
The stuff of the novels is sordid, terrifying* hateful: village meanness, improbable binges, the brutal impersonality of New York, the passions of a mob. But the treatment is unfettered. In the night of Nigger Jeff, Dreiser saw the tragedy and the grief: “I’ll get it all in!” he cried. “I’ll get it all in!” My audiences often needed tutelage in the structure of The Sound and the Fury — in what Sartre has called Faulkner’s “metaphysic of time” — so as to perceive that it was not just a narrative device, but an experiential sense of history; then they reached for it with avidity. To speak of Hemingway and of “that simplicity sure of itself” (the phrase is Jean Simon’s) was to communicate a sense of joy. Bemused observers like John Lehmann, looking at the prevalence among our novelists of a hatred for their own civilization, ask if the result should not be “eynicism and despair,” yet own to the fantastic otherness. As a teacher, I never found work so ready to my hand, nor the rewards so rich.
THIS is not all my story; nor can I yet enlirely answer that question addressed to me at Leeuwarden or at a hundred other places. As early as The American Scholar Emerson said that the spirit of the American freeman had become tame and insipid. Thoreau lashed out at the impositions of conformity, and called ours a desperate odd-fellow society. Cooper returned from lecturing Europe upon the virtues of democracy to find the democracy in the clutch of politicians he allegorically named Aristabulus Bragg and newspaper editors denominated Steadfast Dodge. Faulkner gives us the Snopsos, and Lewis, of course, discovered Babbitt. If there is an America of the whale and the bear — which is no offspring of Europe — then the European asks about still a third America, which is painfully evident to him, which also seems to have no European lineage: an America that does not glide through the seas with a mighty mildness of repose.
What about this America of men in offices and women at bridge tables, which knows little about the first America; which is ignorant of, or suspicious of, the second; and upon which the second heaps its scorn and contempt? This is not so much the mechanical and enameled America of the films; rather it is one to which the whale and bear are symbols as alien as to Europe itself. It is orthodoxy and complacency; it manifests itself by imposing oaths of loyally: it is timorous, and displays what Lionel Trilling calls “the political fear of the intellect.”
The perceptive European will agree that Faulkner is a great writer, and will make the effort to comprehend him in American terms; then he asks about, the sales, and I have to report how scanty was the circulation of his early and best work, as well as to confess how shockingly little Dos Passos has been recompensed. I have to note that Thornton Wilder suffered from a too early popularity — wherefore the depth of his Ides of March lias simply’ not been gauged; while Hemingway’s novels have become best-sellers only as his work deteriorates. I have conversed with Americans, since my return, who, upon learning that I lectured on the novelists in Europe, inform me that they have lived their lives in this country without seeing anything to justify those denunciations. Meanwhile the European learns that vast segments of our people are reading (when not gazing emptily at television) phony historical romances populated by lushbosomed heroines, are studying how to win friends and influence people (wherefore they learn how to alienate their friends in Europe), and devouring treatises on peace of mind, when everybody knows there is no peace. Europe extends an ample hospitality to Hemingway and Dos Passos: may this not, after all, be the story of Poe once more? Is thal America which has been the target of the Americans’own attack the dominant one? Suppose that the novelists’ representation is not always photographically or sociologically precise: is it not, in the deeper sense of art, true?
The enigma and threat of this third America is not its violence; rather its pusillanimity. There can be seen something splendid in a society that raises up gang wars or such conflicts as In Dubious Battle — as long as there are artists, concerned with fundamental man, to detect the grandeur of the struggle. But the dull uncomprehension of the tourist, the callousness of liberating troops who buy their women with chocolate bars and cigarettes, a strident shouting for democracy which has lost the meaning of democracy — what has this to do with the fanaticism of Sinclair Lewis or with Faulkner’s hymn to the glory of man? If there be a preponderance of Americans who, even after they have been satirized, attacked, and insulted, do not so much as get angry, but at best dumbly contemplate their assailants and at worst stolidly ignore them, what wonder that those Europeans who have caught in our literature a glimmer of hope must thereupon demand whether that hope will be stifled in its own country. Will not the self-destructive forms, as Wolfe called them, destroy the promise?
I aspire to be an honest expositor, and I count myself a patriotic American. Had I to contend in Europe with only the old-fashioned ignorance or obtusencss — with only what Lowell called a certain condescension — my task would have been easy. Fenimore Cooper’s hectoring of Europe was thoroughly in order in 1830; only ten years earlier, Sydney Smith had delivered his famous sneer: who, in the four quarters of the world, reads an American book or sees an American play? The wheel has come a very full circle. The important, point is that we can, through the American novel and play, communicate with free men everywhere. Because this is a literature of criticism in the name of the fundamental man, it is a literature of freedom. Outright censorship, whether by commissar or priest or a board of trustees, can be fought; but Lionel Trilling has named a still more “ominous" opponent. Our literature has vitality, and more than vitality, because it is the record of a civil war — of a fight waged by the human spirit against its direst foes, against monotony and standardization and cold charity. The second of my Americas has, so far, withstood the third. For this reason it signifies hope. So long as it continues to carry the war into the enemy’s camp, we shall not be lost at home, nor shall we fail to encourage those in Europe who urgently need such heartening.