CULTURE, Aldous Huxley once observed, is really a classy form of “family gossip.”Huxley’s remark furnishes a pointer to the special character and appeal of Van Wyck Brooks’s richly textured “history of the writer in America,”the fifth and concluding volume of which has just been published, The Confident Years: 1885—1915 (Dutton, $6.00). Mr. Brooks’s series — and this is not said in a spirit of depreciation — is not essentially a work of literary criticism but a cultural history or a classy piece of “family gossip.”
In Mr. Brooks one finds united, to an unusual degree, the talents of an indefatigable scholar, historian, psychologist, biographer, genre-painter, sociologist, critic, and literary artist; and though he is possibly not pre-eminent in any one of these capacities, his combination of gifts, and the immense powers of assimilation and synthesis that go with it, make him pre-eminent as a chronicler of American cultural activity. He brings the cultural past to life in all its interrelated aspects; illuminates it by an act of vivid re-creation.
Mr. Brooks tells us what forces in their background, experience, and reading shaped the writers; how they looked and what they wore; where they traveled and why and how their paths crossed; what they tried to express in their work and how they were received by their contemporaries. And always the writer and the book are seen within the larger context of the times, concretely evoked in telling dabs of local color.
The Confident Years covers a period of intensive cultural ferment and Mr. Brooks has to crisscross a wide area, including the Atlantic Ocean. His chronicle— fashioned with magnificent fluency, coherence, and learning — moves from New York across the continent, lingering in the West to focus on Ambrose Bierce, then Frank Norris and Jack London; shifts to England, where Bret Harte and Henry James are living ("though one positively heard the silence of non-intercourse between them" ), where Henry Harland is editing the Yellow Book and Frank Harris is in the limelight; returns to O. Henry’s New York and then moves into Edith Wharton’s; discusses Dreiser and the growth of naturalism; visits James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow south of the James; scrutinizes the cultural upsurge in Chicago just before the First World War, the heyday of iconoclasm in Greenwich Village, the broadsides hurled at the “ Booboisie" by the sage of Baltimore. Finally it surveys the great stirring in American thought and letters that was under way around 1915.
The weakest strand in Mr. Brooks’s history is the straight literary criticism. His treatment of Henry James in this volume, as of Melville in a previous one, shows a certain alienation from complexity and the tragic vision, from work with the richest depths; and he is apt to overvalue crude energy and fiction with a crusading or uplifting bent.
Mr. Brooks’s concluding reflections on the trends in American writing have a signal pertinence at this moment. He shares the fairly prevalent feeling that the novelists of our time present an inordinately murky and defeatist picture of American life, but unlike some commentators he does not proceed to the deduction that the novelists are guilty of a sort of trahison des cleres: that they are, in the fashionable cliché, “un-American.” Quite the contrary. He suggests that the bitterness of the novelists grows out of the peculiarly American faith that the world can and must be improved —a faith whose opposite he sees and deplores in t he pessimism about human nature and the nostalgia for medievalism represented by T. S. Eliot. The American writers’ anger and seeming despair, argues Brooks, are a protest which implies an affirmation — which implicitly affirms a “forward-looking dynamism,”democratic in temper and hostile to the constrictions of any orthodoxy. And this outlook, in Brooks’s final summation, is held to be the very essence of the American tradition in letters.
John Dos Passos’s new novel, Chosen Country (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), retraces, with a different outlook, much of the ground he covered in U.S.A. In place of the radical protest — the vision of the American “system” as an impersonal, inexorably destructive machine — there is now an affirmation of “The American Way.”
Chosen Conntry closes with the marriage, in the nineteen-twenties, of two admirable young people who, as the saying goes, are “made for each other"; the story, which reaches back to the eighteen-fifties, shows what has gone into the making of these two Americans. Jay Pignatelli and Lulie Harrington (whose union clearly symbolizes the harmonious merger of two diverse strains in the American nation).
Jay’s father, Jim Pignatelli, the son of an Italian immigrant, is helped through his law studies by the commander he fought under in the Civil War, and he rapidly rises to be one of the country’s most highly paid attorneys. Married to a sickly woman, he falls in love with an impoverished young widow from one of the first families of Kentucky; she becomes his mistress and bears him a son. Ezekiel Harrington, Lulie’s father, is a college professor, who comes from a family of dissenting ministers established in America since the Revolution. After his wife dies, he immerses himself in scholarship, and fits children grow up in Chicago under the care of an aunt. These family histories, unfolded in all their ramifications, encompass a large and varied segment of American life. After describing a summer in Lulie’s happy adolescence — days filled with canoeing, fishing, and the exciting companionship of “The Tribe “ — the story follows Jay to the First World War. His wartime experience and subsequent involvement in the radical movement, which enlists him in the defense of two Italian anarchists accused of a bomb outrage, strikingly parallel parts of U.S.A. But now Dos Passos’s protagonist is never seduced by the Comrades and the whole radical movement is seen from a critical perspective.
Chosen Country is a greater success than the three other novels which Dos Passos has written since his political switch from Left to Right. It has not the oppressive sourness of The Grand Design. There is more élan in the narrative, more warmth in the major characterizations, more concern with really showing the attractive aspects of American life. The troublesome thing is that Dos Passos’s change in outlook does not suffice to prevent a sense that he has done all this before, and, from the artistic standpoint, more impressively. I was continually reminded of the far greater power of U.S.A., which is surely one of the masterpieces of American fiction since the First World War. The affirmation of Dos Passos’s maturity lacks the passion of his earlier revolt - the passion that gave U.S.A. its pulsing vitality.
Brownsville and “Beyond”
“Now let us try,” says Louis in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, “before we rise, before we go to tea, to fix the moment in an effort of supreme endeavor. This shall endure.” To fix the moment and (in Mrs. Woolf’s phrase) “compose the truth of it, the whole of it,” the writer must capture, with infinite exactitude, a given set of sense impressions and the thoughts and emotions they arouse; and this, precisely, is what Alfred Kazin brilliantly achieves in many of the pages of his memoir, A Walker in the City (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00). The book as a whole is symphonic in pattern: a symphony in four movements in which a variety of motifs are subtly orchestrated.
In A Walker in the City, Mr. Kazin, one of our most gifted literary critics, evokes a fragment of his adolescence in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The book’s circumference (to drop the symphonic metaphor) is the concrete texture of life in an all-Jewish tenement district. Its center is the search for identity of a young American Jew—the son of poor immigrants from Poland —intensely aware of his Jewish roots and aware, too, of a separation from the tradition of his parents.
At the circumference, then, this is a book of images and sounds and smells: the great line of pushcarts on Belmont Avenue, with its reek of herring and pickles in great black barrels, with its market women crying, “Oh you darlings! Storm us! Devour us!"; the old women squatting in front of tenements in shapeless flowered housedresses and ritual wigs, like the priestesses of an ancient cult ; the rich Sabbath dinners in the gleaming kitchen, with the candles lit; then the evening gathering around the cutglass bowl of fruit and nuts and the elders’ talk of remembered pogroms and the shining promise of Socialism; Kazin’s father gasping with delight at records of Caruso — “Oh that Italyener! What a power he has, that Italyener!"; Kazin’s wonderfully courageous mother, forever toiling at her sewing machine, guilty when she lingers a moment at the window to enjoy the bustle of the street as evening sets in.
To young Kazin, Brownsville was the end of the line: everything outside it was the awesome and glamorous “Beyond.”Gentiles were creatures “as fantastic as albinos"; and the alrightniks, the middle-class Jews who inhabited the “Beyond,”were as alien and remote as Gentiles. Voracious reading fired Kazin’s imagination with the American past; and, as he passionately attached himself to this past, he began to feel his way, slowly and with bewilderment, back into the American present, into the great world beyond Brownsville.
A Walker in the City, clearly, is written out of a deep necessity - a mixture of tenderness and rage — and written with a kind of fanatical integrity. This makes it seem (to the outsider) a bit overintense and too self-conscious. I also felt, perhaps unjustifiably, that in spite of the straining for truth and the artistic perfectionism, some sentimentality and overcoloration creeps into Kuzin’s vision. Even if this is so, his small, beautiful memoir is an impressive achievement, which transcends the particularity of its subject. For the yearning, so poignantly expressed by Kazin, to enter into a larger and seemingly alien world is a characteristic drama of adolescence, irrespective of place or social setting. Every adolescence has its “Beyond.”
The Dark Continent
It is a far cry from the sidewalks of Brownsville to the mountain recesses of Nyasaland, but there is a distinct kinship of theme between A Walker in the City and Laurens van der Post’sVenture to the Interior (Morrow, $3.00) — a memorable account of exploration in the dark continent of Africa and the dark continent of man’s inner being. Like Kazin’s book, Colonel van der Post’s has as its central strand a man’s quest to understand and harmonize two divergent strains in his life.
After an adventurous stretch of soldiering in the British Army, Colonel van der Post, a South African, had settled in his home in England, when the British Government asked him to investigate the possibilities of growing food in two unmapped areas of Nyasaland. He accepted, conscious that his decision was prompted by an unresolved conflict. He had spent one half of his life leaving Africa for Europe, for which his father, a transplanted Dutchman, had an exile’s yearning; he had spent the other half leaving Europe for Africa, the home of his mother and her Boer ancestors.
The Colonel’s mission took him up the towering mountain, Mlanje, then to an escarpment known as Nyika, which few other white men have seen. His description of these treks is an enthralling adventure and a haunting evocation of the physical face of Africa. The mountain — with its antique cedars, its blinding mists, its sudden murderous storms or “Chiperones,”its mystery and sinister beauty—becomes a living presence, seen and felt in all its awesome majesty. It becomes, too, a symbol of the continent and its black-skinned people; and this continent, these blacks, are seen as representing a side of life (the side D. H. Lawrence honored as “the dark God”) which the white man has locked out of his awareness at the cost of a baneful split in his being and his civilization. The white man’s repressive treatment of dark peoples reflects, van der Post suggests, a repression of unconscious truths about his own nature.
This insight, deeply experienced in the venture to the interior, furnished a resolution to the author’s personal conflict. He returned with the understanding that Africa, which had stood apart from him as a disturbing magnet, was something within him and within every man, and that it could and must receive its due.
Colonel van der Post belongs in the select company of contemplative men of action — adventurers with a streak of mysticism, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Orde Wingate, and SaintExupéry. His beautifully composed book catches the spirit of a continent and imprints it on the reader’s mind. It casts a beam of light, too, into the sources of the hate which is bedeviling the West from Suez to uttermost Asia.
A civilized man
Two Cheers for Democracy (Harcourt, Brace, $4.00), a collection of sixty-eight pieces on miscellaneous subjects, is the first full-length book to come from E. M. Forster since Abinger Harvest in 1936. The opening section deals with the political and moral issues raised by the Nazi brand of totalitarianism. The second and much longer part contains essays on “Art in General"; essays on a wide diversity of individual writers — from Gibbon to Gide, Voltaire to Virginia Woolf—and reviews ranging from Auden to Eliot to Mrs. Miniver. The book closes with articles on “Places,” in one of which the author of A Passage to India describes a brief return visit to India in 1945.
Few of these papers rank with Forster’s finest work; a good many are, for a writer of his distinction, rather routine stuff or so slight as to be little more than notes. But the easy grace and lucidity of his style; his humor, his good taste, the wise humanism of his outlook, make the going consistently rewarding. And the book, taken as a whole, is far more impressive than its individual components. It is an eloquently modest statement of a supremely civilized credo: of a liberalism quietly aglow with moral courage.
His mentors, says Forster, are Erasmus and Montaigne as contrasted with Moses and St. Paul. He deplores the recrudescence of a yearning for certainty —of what Koestler has called “the bug of longing” — which has made men fanatically embrace absolutes and party lines. The virtues Forster prizes are those which the high tension of our time is tending to do away with: tolerance, good temper, kindliness, intellectual honesty. “This is an age of faith,” he writes, and to him “faith [is] a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the sniff.” He dislikes Causes, too, and Programs (which usually “mean pogroms”), and he distrusts Great Men — “they produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood.”He believes not in “people" but in the individual; the individual is invariably his touchstone.
Forster finds his solid sources of value in personal relationships and in art - in personal relationships, because they are founded on the supreme value, love (he would sooner betray his country than his friend); in art, because “it has to do with order, and creates little worlds of its own, possessing internal harmony, in the bosom of this distorted planet.”Democracy gets two cheers — one for admitting variety, one for permitting criticism — but Forster withholds a third because democracy encourages the cult of mediocrity; encourages that anti-snob snobbery which fosters vulgarity by making mass approval the supreme arbiter. There is, Forster firmly believes, an aristocracy among men (which has nothing to do with birth or success) an aristocracy of the sensitive, the courageous, and the humane. There could be no clearer, no more inspiring example of the worth of this kind of élite than a man like E. M. Forster.