I ATTENDED the ceremony at which the National Book Awards were conferred in late January, and as I sat listening to the citations and the modest responses of the winners, I could not help remarking the capricious element in all such judgments. For instance, the committee that nominated “the distinguished novel of 1952” evidently had to choose between The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and the rest of the field. Should they salute this short powerful novel by America’s foremost writer of fiction, or should they seek for a younger author of less perfection whose reputation would be advanced by the Award? The committee split but the majority decided in favor of the latter, and the Award went to Ralph Ellison, a Negro writer whose first book, Invisible Man, is a work of power and feeling, purple passages and some confusion.
I do not say it was an easy choice, but I do regret that again Ernest Hemingway, who is one of our two best living novelists, has been passed by. He has yet to receive one of our major awards. One might have thought he would be given the Pulitzer Prize for his Farewell to Arms — and I have always understood that the judges that year voted in its favor but were overruled by the veto power of President Butler of Columbia. For whatever reason, he was by-passed, and if the honors come now they are late.
When in 1930 Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize in Literature he was bombarded by questions from the press. First, what was he going to do with t he money? He replied that he would use it “ to support a well-known young American author and his family, and to enable him to continue writing.” He was also asked why he had accepted the Nobel Prize in 1930 but rejected the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. The Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Lewis pointed out, was cramped by the provision of Mr. Pulitzer’s will that the Prize be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Lewis added that because of this limitation no prize had been given to James Branch Cabell for Jurgen, to Theodore Dreiser for An American Tragedy, to Thomas Wolfe for Look Homeward, Angel, or to Willa Cather for A Lost Lady. The definition is construed more broadly today, but even so the record is a capricious one.
Nor are the Nobel Prizes exempt, from human fallibility. The inference is plain from the wording of Nobel’s will that he intended his prizes (in 1952 the cash value of each award was $32,900) to help men of genius of young and middle years to carry on their major work, but this is not the way the Swedish Academy has interpreted the gift: they have conferred it as an accolade for a body of work now in its final phase, and the average age of the winners in Literature is sixty-two. Nobel also thought of Literature as a moral force, and his will reads: “one share to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency.” As Naboth Hedin pointed out in the Atlantic two years ago, that phrase became a formidable barrier in the mind of the Permanent Secretary of the Prize Committee. His was a dominating opinion, and as a result of his opposition no Nobel Prize was ever awarded to Tolstoy—nor to Ibsen, Strindberg, or Thomas Hardy. Indeed, he almost kept it from going to Selma Lagerlöf.
What Lewis was like
This ancient question of recognition and reward came to my mind as I was reading From Main Street to Stockholm, Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919-1930, edited by Harrison Smith Harcourt, Brace, $5.00). The letters, most of them written to Alfred Harcourt, his friend and publisher, are a self-portrait of Red Lewis in the full tide of his vitality: they show us his eagerness and his loyalty, his curiosity and his enormous power of assimilation, his generosity toward others (he was always trying to find jobs for his protégés), his worry and fastidiousness about his finances. Here are Lewis’s championship of the young firm of Ilarcourt, Brace and the zest with which he helped Main Street zoom; here is his struggle to find the right, name for Babbitt (“Pumphrey” was his first choice); his discovery of England and his friendship with Wells; his teamwork with De Kruif on Arrowsmith; his love for Vermont and his blasts at. all irritants; his long struggle on the labor novel that would never jell; and the sorry sequence which led In his final break with “Alf.’‘ These are compelling letters.
As an aperitif for the Coronation I recommend The Hour Awaits by March Cost (Lippincott, $3.50), a fragrantly romantic story of the two visits which a Habsburg Princess pays to London — the first in the spring of 1911 just before the Coronation of George V, the second in the autumn of 1921 when she returns to retrieve a damaging love letter of her mother’s and, as she hopes, to rekindle a love of her own. Princess Victoria was twenty-five in that enchanting summer of the Coronation; she was not as beautiful as her mother, nor as frivolous. In such time as she could steal away from the formalities and the Family, she found sanctuary in Kew Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was in the latter that she first heard and saw Mr. Drury, an English don engaged in lecturing to a group on Romanesque Art. She joined the listeners, corrected him on a small point, and so it began. He was a lean, broadshouldered aesthetic, an intellectual snob who certainly had never met a young woman like this. Under the name of Miss Holland, she played the game as long as it would last, and by the time Oliver discovered her true identity, they were shyly and irresistibly in love.
Viccy’s memory of that first visit with its fresh feminine expectancy forms a nostalgic counterpoint to her return in 1921. For now she comes from a defeated, bankrupt country, her parents are dead, and her hands show the stains and toil of keeping the country place alive; but she is still a Princess and she arrives in mothball style with her heart sure of what she has to do. She has money enough for only a single day and night in London, and the novel gives an hour-by-hour recita l of what happens.
Miss Cost knows every mood and aspect of London, and she is equally effective in her picture of the Chateau Maria Sophia as it was in its butterfly existence and as it is when Viccy is scolding and intriguing to keep it going. Miss Cost is at her best with her women. Victoria, her formidable Aunt Therese, Louise who is slipping, Gemma, the opera singer, and Mrs. Crockett, the charwoman, are deftly drawn and plausible. The author is less successful in her handling of men. The Oliver of the first; visit, has no family resemblance to the softy of the second. The change in Albert Francois does not. fool me and would not for a minute have fooled the real Viccy. But this is romance.
Romance is nonexistent in Stay Away, Joe (Viking, $3.00), a novel of an Indian reservation by Dan Cushman, which certainly hits a new low in squalor and shiftlessness. This story of FrenchCanadian-Assiniboin-Indian half-breeds in Montana is billed as comedy. This is the situation: a Congressman arranges for Louis Champlain to receive twenty heifers and a bull from the government. Just why he rates them we never know, but they arrive. Louis has a real old whoop-up to celebrate; in the course of the party l be bull is eaten by mistake; Louis’s son Joe comes back from Korea loaded with money, full of big talk, and hungry for women; several feuds are well begun and all available money is drunk up. Thereafter the book staggers along the various 1 rails leading from the wingding. Mary Champlain, the well-behaved sister who works at a bank and is engaged to a white engineer, is the one redeeming figure in this protracted brawl.
Since no one in the book except Mary has ever taken a bath, done a day’s work, or spoken a grammatical word, the story lias what you might, call atmosphere. Which would be all very well if it had native charm too, or more than one sympathetic character, or momentum. But in spite of the fact that hell pops all the time, I only gel an impression of frantic random action. The author has not. enough control of the story to make it funny, and 1 get very tired of the dialect, the beer, and the dirt.
Theodore Morrison is not only a poet and Director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference but a Harvard professor of some twenty years’ standing, and it is only reasonable that he should make his debut as a novelist with a book about a university. In The Stones of the House (Viking, $3.50) he has explored affairs at Rowley, an imaginary New England institution, with humor, sensibility, and a nice insight into human character.
The novel revolves around Acting-President Andrew Aiken and his chances of becoming permanent president, but it covers a great many other matters along the way, for all the problems of Rowley come to roost eventually in Andy’s office or even in his living room. As he copes with such assorted crises us an overenthusiastic alumnus, a Red scare, and a batty faculty member, Andy wonders, “What good does it do to do good?” The question underlies the whole book, and while it is never finally answered, it permits Mr. Morrison to make some shrewd observations on the nature of good and the ironic sequels possible to the best intentions.
The people involved in Andy’s administrative problems are all recognizable types, and at. the same time distinct individuals. Holsberg, the brilliant, neurotic philosopher, has moments of simple common sense; the inconvenient alumnus has lapses of tact and generosity; young Badger, the problem child, is as nice a boy as one could hope to meet. Air. Morrison has made a readable, lively novel without recourse to one eccentric figure or a single extraordinary event (unless one counts the minor and surely excusable episode of a gun-mad faculty member winging a student by mistake), and this is an unusual achievement.