Contemporary American Novelists (1900-1920)
Carl Van Doren

Part 3 out of 3

and there, but the principal accusation which Mr. Lewis brings against
his village--and indeed against all villages--is that of being dull. "It
is contentment ... the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful
of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonized as
the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is
slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dulness made God."

Not dulness itself so much as dulness militant and prospering arouses
this satirist. The whole world, he believes, is being leveled by the
march of machines into one monotonous uniformity, before which all the
individual colors and graces and prides and habits flee--or would flee
if there were any asylum still uninvaded. Thus Mr. Lewis's voice
continues the opposition which Wordsworth raised to the coming of a
railroad into his paradise among the Lakes and which Ruskin and Matthew
Arnold and William Morris raised to the standardization of life which
went on during their century. The American voice, however, speaks of
American conditions. The villages of the Middle West, it asseverates,
have been conquered and converted by the legions of mediocrity, and now,
grown rich and vain, are setting out to carry the dingy banner, led by
the booster's calliope and the evangelist's bass drum, farther than it
has ever gone before--to make provincialism imperialistic; so that all
the native and instinctive virtues, freedoms, powers must rally in their
own defense.

Mr. Lewis hates such dulness--the village virus--as the saints hate sin.
Indeed it is with a sort of new Puritanism that he and his
contemporaries wage against the dull a war something like that which
certain of their elders once waged against the bad. Only a satiric anger
helped out by the sense of being on crusade could have sustained the
author of _Main Street_ through the laborious compilation of those
brilliant details which illustrate the complacency of Gopher Prairie and
which seem less brilliant than laborious to bystanders not particularly
concerned in his crusade. The question, of course, arises whether the
ancient war upon stupidity is a better literary cause to fight in than
the equally ancient war upon sin. Both narrow themselves to doctrinal
contentions, apparently forgetting for the moment that either being
virtuous or being intelligent is but a half--or thereabouts--of
existence, and that the two qualities are hopelessly intertwined. There
are thoughtful novelists who, as they do not condemn lapses of virtue
too harshly, so also do not too harshly condemn deficiencies of
intelligence, feeling that the common humanity of men and women is
enough to make them fit for fiction. Mr. Lewis must be thought of as
sitting in the seat of the scornful, with the satirists rather than with
the poets, must be seen to recall the earlier, vexed, sardonic _Spoon
River_ rather than the later, calmer, loftier.

Satire and moralism, however, have large rights in the domain of
literature. Had Mr. Lewis lacked remarkable gifts he could never have
written a book which got its vast popularity by assailing the populace.
The reception of _Main Street_ is a memorable episode in literary
history. Thousands doubtless read it merely to quarrel with it; other
thousands to find out what all the world was talking about; still other
thousands to rejoice in a satire which they thought to be at the
expense of stupid people never once identified with themselves; but that
thousands and hundreds of thousands read it is proof enough that
complacency was not absolutely victorious and that the war was on.

_Zona Gale_

Before _Main Street_ Sinclair Lewis, though the author of such promising
novels as _Our Mr. Wrenn_ and _The Job_, had been forced by the neglect
of his more serious work to earn a living with the smarter set among
American novelists, writing bright, colloquial, amusing chatter for
popular magazines. If it seems a notable achievement for a temper like
Mr. Masters's to have helped pave the way to popularity for Mr. Lewis,
it seems yet more notable to have performed a similar service for Zona
Gale, who for something like a decade before _Spoon River Anthology_ had
had a comfortable standing among the sweeter set. She was the inventor
of Friendship Village, one of the sweetest of all the villages from Miss
Mitford and Mrs. Gaskell down. Friendship lay ostensibly in the Middle
West, but it actually stood--if one may be pardoned an appropriate
metaphor--upon the confectionery shelf of the fiction shop, preserved in
a thick syrup and set up where a tender light could strike across it at
all hours. In story after story Miss Gale varied the same device: that
of showing how childlike children are, how sisterly are sisters, how
brotherly are brothers, how motherly are mothers, how fatherly are
fathers, how grandmotherly and grandfatherly are grandmothers and
grandfathers, and how loverly are all true lovers of whatever age, sex,
color, or condition. But beneath the human kindness which had permitted
Miss Gale to fall into this technique lay the sinews of a very subtle
intelligence; and she needed only the encouragement of a changing public
taste to be able to escape from her sugary preoccupations. Though the
action of _Miss Lulu Bett_ takes place in a different village, called
Warbleton, it might as well have been in Friendship--in Friendship seen
during a mood when its creator had grown weary of the eternal
saccharine. Now and then, she realized, some spirit even in Friendship
must come to hate all those idyllic posturings; now and then in some
narrow bosom there must flash up the fires of youth and revolution. It
is so with Lulu Bett, dim drudge in the house of her silly sister and of
her sister's pompous husband: a breath of life catches at her and she
follows it on a pitiful adventure which is all she has enough vitality
to achieve but which is nevertheless real and vivid in a waste of

Here was an occasion to arraign Warbleton as Mr. Lewis was then
arraigning Gopher Prairie; Miss Gale, instead of heaping up a multitude
of indictments, categorized and docketed, followed the path of
indirection which--by a paradoxical axiom of art--is a shorter cut than
the highway of exposition or anathema. Her story is as spare as the
virgin frame of Lulu Bett; her style is staccato in its lucid brevity,
like Lulu's infrequent speeches; her eloquence is not that of a torrent
of words and images but that of comic or ironic or tragic meaning packed
in a syllable, a gesture, a dumb silence. Miss Gale riddles the tedious
affectations of the Deacon household almost without a word of comment;
none the less she exhibits them under a withering light. The daughter,
she says, "was as primitive as pollen"--and biology rushes in to explain
Di's blind philanderings. "In the conversations of Dwight and Ina," it
is said of the husband and wife, "you saw the historical home forming in
clots in the fluid wash of the community"--and anthropology holds the
candle. Grandma Bett is, for the moment, the symbol of decrepit age, as
Lulu is the symbol of bullied spinsterhood. Yet in the midst of
applications so universal the American village is not forgotten, little
as it is alluded to. If the Friendships are sweet and dainty, so are
they--whether called Warbleton or something less satiric--dull and
petty, and they fashion their Deacons no less than their Pelleases and
Ettares. Thus hinting, Miss Gale, in her clear, flutelike way, joins the
chorus in which others play upon noisier instruments.

_Floyd Dell_

The year which saw the appearance of _Main Street_ and _Miss Lulu Bett_
saw also that of _The Age of Innocence_, Edith Wharton's acid
delineation of the village of Manhattan in the genteel seventies, given
over to the "innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the
heart against experience"; saw Mary Borden's _The Romantic Woman_, with
its cosmopolitan amusement at the village of Iroquois, otherwise
Chicago; and saw Floyd Dell's _Moon-Calf_, which, standing on the other
side of controversy, lacks not only the disposition to sentimentalize
the village but even the disposition to ridicule it.

Mr. Dell's emancipation is the fruit of a revolutionary detachment from
village standards which is too complete to have left traces of any such
rupture as is implied in almost every paragraph of _Main Street_.
_Moon-Calf_, recounting the adventures of a young poet in certain river
counties and towns and villages of Illinois, touches without heat upon
the spiritual and intellectual limitations of those neighborhoods. It
settles no old scores. It relates an unconventional career without
conventional reproaches and also without conventional heroics. Felix Fay
dreams and blunders and suffers but he goes on growing like a tree,
pushing his head up through one level of development after another until
he stands above the minor annoyances of his immaturity and looks out
over a broader world. He has a soul which is naturally socialist and yet
he never loses himself in proclamations or statistics. He can be fresh
and hopeful and yet learn from the remarkable old men he encounters. He
lives and loves with an instinctive freedom and yet he holds himself
equally secure from devastating extravagances and devastating
repressions. Mr. Dell writes as if he had steadier nerves than most of
the naturalists; as if he regarded their war upon the village as an
ancient brawl which may now be assumed to have been as much settled as
it ever will be. At least, it seems scarcely worth wrangling over. The
spirit seeking to release itself from trivial conditions behaves most
intelligently when it discreetly takes them into account and concerns
itself with them only enough to escape entanglements. Mr. Dell leaves it
to the moralists and the satirists to whip offenders, while he himself
goes on to construct some monument of beauty upon the ground which
moralism and satire are laboring to clear.

_Moon-Calf_ is very beautiful. Felix has a poetic gift sufficient to
warm the record with fine verses and delicate susceptibilities upon
which his adventures leave exquisite impressions. Even when his
rebellion is at its highest pitch he wastes little energy in hating and
so avoids the astringency and perturbation of a state of mind which is
always perilous. To say Felix Fay is more or less to mean Floyd Dell,
for the narrative is obviously autobiographic at many points. But were
it entirely invention it would testify none the less to the affection
with which this novelist feels his world and the lucidity with which he
represents it. He has a genuine zest for human life, enjoying it, even
when it invites mirth or anger, because of the form and color and
movement which he perceives everywhere and particularly because of the
solid texture of reality of which he is admirably aware. Hatred closes
the eyes to a multitude of charms. If Mr. Dell suffered from it he
could never have enriched his fabric as he has with so many
circumstances chosen with an unargumentative hand; he could never have
extracted so much drama out of dusty people. Had he been a
sentimentalist he might have fallen into the soft processes of the local
color school when it came to portraying the various communities through
which Felix takes his way. Instead, the story is everywhere stiffened
with intelligence. Felix has no adventures more exciting than his
successive discoveries of new ideas. Even the women he loves fit into
the pattern of his career as a thinking being, and he emerges, however
moved, with a surer grasp of his expanding universe. That grasp would
lack much of its confidence if Mr. Dell employed a style less masterly.
As it is, he writes with a candid lucidity which everywhere lets in the
light and with a grace which rounds off the edges that mark the pamphlet
but not the work of art. He can be at once downright and graceful, at
once sincere and impersonal, at once revolutionary and restrained, at
once impassioned and reflective, at once enamored of truth and
scrupulous for beauty.

When Felix Fay had escaped his original villages and had taken to the
wider pursuit of freedom in Chicago there was another chapter of his
career to be recorded; and that Mr. Dell sets down in _The Briary-Bush_,
wherein Felix finds that the trail of freedom ends, for him, in madness
and loneliness. From the first, though this moon-calf has steadily
blundered toward detachment from the common order, some aching instinct
has left him hungry for solid ground to stand on. The conflict troubles
him. He can succeed in his immediate occupations but he cannot
understand his powers or feel confident in his future. His world whirls
round and round, menaces, eludes, threatens to vanish altogether. Thrown
by dim forces into the arms of Rose-Ann, who seeks freedom no less
restlessly than he, he is married, and the two begin their passionate
experiment at a union which shall have no bonds but their common
determination to be free. Charming slaves of liberty! Felix is at heart
a Puritan and cannot take the world lightly, as it comes. His blunders
bruise and wound him. He punishes himself for all his vagaries. Rose-Ann
is not a Puritan, but she too has instincts that will not surrender, any
more than Felix's, to the doctrines which they both profess: jealousy
sleeps within her, and potential motherhood. She and Felix come to feel
that they have shirked life by their deliberate childlessness and that
life has deserted them. Yet separation proves unendurable. So they
resume marriage, vowing "not to be afraid of life or of any of the
beautiful things life may bring." Among these, of course, are to be
children and a house.

Is this merely a return to their villages, merely domestic
sentimentalism in a lovely guise? Mr. Dell has gone a little too deep to
incur the full suspicion. He has got very near to the biological
foundations of two lives, where, for the moment, he rests his case.
There is more to come, however, in this spiritual history, whether
Felix Fay knows it or not. Let the house be built and the children be
born, and Felix and Rose-Ann, though citizens and parents, will still be
individuals and will still have to find out whether these complicated
threads of loyalty last better than the simple threads which broke.
Felix, in discovering the lure of stability, has not necessarily
completed the circle of his life. Freedom may allure him again.

_The Briary-Bush_, less varied than _Moon-Calf_, is decidedly
profounder. It hovers over the dark waters of the unconscious on perhaps
the surest wings an American novel has ever used. Though it has probed
difficult natures and knows them thoroughly it does not flaunt its
knowledge but brings it in only when it can throw some revealing light
upon the outward perplexities of the lovers. Thus it gives depth and
timbre to the story, and yet allows the characters to seem actual
persons actually walking the world. At the same time, Mr. Dell does not
possess a too vivid sense of externality. In both his novels all facts
come through the mist of Felix's habitual confusion, and in that mist
they lose dramatic emphasis; muted, they are not able to break up the
agreeable monotone in which the narrative is delivered. But underneath
these surfaces, seen so poetically, there is a substantial bulk of human
life, immemorial folkways powerfully contending with the new rebellion
of reason.

_F. Scott Fitzgerald_

_Domesday Book_, _Poor White_, _The Anthology of Another Town_, _Main
Street_, _Miss Lulu Bett_, _The Age of Innocence_, _The Romantic Woman_,
and _Moon-Calf_ would make 1920 remarkable even if that year had not
brought forth other novels of equal rank; if it had not brought forth
James Branch Cabell's richly symbolical romance _Figures of Earth_ and
Upton Sinclair's bitter indictment _100%_. And though most of these seem
somber, there came along with them another novel in which were gaiety
and high spirits and the fires of youth.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in _This Side of Paradise_ also had broken with the
village. He wrote of his gilded boys and girls as if average decorum
existed only to be shocked. But he made the curious discovery that
undergraduates could have brains and still be interesting; that they
need not give their lives entirely to games and adolescent politics;
that they may have heard of Oscar Wilde as well as of Rudyard Kipling
and of Rupert Brooke no less than of Alfred Noyes. Mr. Fitzgerald had
indeed his element of scandal to tantalize the majority, who debated
whether or not the rising generation could be as promiscuous in its
behavior as he made out. It is the brains in the book, however, not the
scandal, which finally count. His restless generation sparkles with
inquiry and challenge. When its elders have let the world fall into
chaos, why, youth questions, should it trust their counsels any longer?
Mirth and wine and love are more pleasant than that hollow wisdom, and
they may be quite as solid.

_This Side of Paradise_ comes to no conclusion; it ends in weariness and
smoke, though at last Amory believes he has found himself in the midst
of a wilderness of uncertainties. Yet how vivid a document the book is
upon a whirling time, and how beguiling an entertainment! The narrative
flares up now into delightful verse and now into glittering comic
dialogue. It shifts from passion to farce, from satire to lustrous
beauty, from impudent knowingness to pathetic youthful humility. It is
both alive and lively. Few things more significantly illustrate the
moving tide of which the revolt from the village is a symptom than the
presence of such unrest as this among these bright barbarians. The
traditions which once might have governed them no longer hold. They
break the patterns one by one and follow their wild desires. And as they
play among the ruins of the old, they reason randomly about the new,

_Dorothy Canfield_

If Floyd Dell seems in _The Briary-Bush_ to hint at the human necessity
to turn back by and by from freedom, Dorothy Canfield in _The Brimming
Cup_ pretty clearly argues for that necessity. Doubtless it is to go too
far to claim, as certain of her critics do, that she had made a
counter-attack upon the assailants of the village and the established
order, but it is sure that she gave comfort to many spirits disturbed
by the radical outbursts of 1920. Already in _The Squirrel Cage_ and
_The Bent Twig_ she had shown an affectionate knowledge of the ways of
households in small communities; and in _Hillsboro People_ she had added
another hardy, kindly neighborhood to the American array of villages in
fiction. _The Brimming Cup_ sounded a deeper note than any she had yet
struck. Suppose, the novel says, there were a woman who had been trained
in the wide world but was now living in a distant village; suppose she
had heard and felt the tumult of the age and had begun to question the
reality of her contentment; suppose, to make the conflict as dramatic as
possible, she should find herself tempted by a new love to give up the
settled companionship of her husband and the heavy burden of her
children to seek joy in a thrilling passion.

Here Dorothy Canfield had an admirable theme and she rose to it with
power, but she permitted herself so easy a solution that her argument
stumbles lamentably. The lover who disrupts the warm circle of Marise's
life is after all only a selfish bounder, a mere villain; stirred as she
is by the promises he holds out of rapture and of luxury, she would be
simply foolish not to comprehend, as in the end she does, that she must
lose far more than she could gain by the exchange she contemplates.
Surely this is no argument in favor of loyalty as against love: it is
only a defense of loyalty, which does not need it, as against a fleeting
instability; and so it is hardly half as significant as it might have
been had the conflict been squarely met, great love contending with
great loyalty. Yet while the novel thus falls short of what it might
have undertaken it has numerous excellences. It is eloquent and
passionate and, very often, wise. Rarely have a mother's relations with
her children been so subtly represented; rarely have the manners of a
New England township been more convincingly portrayed. The setting glows
among its green hills and valleys, its snow and flowers. There are minor
characters that stand up vividly in the memory, like persons known face
to face. The atmosphere is at once tense with desire and spacious with
understanding. Though the materials come from an old tradition they have
been heated with the fires of the scrutinizing mind which burn beneath
the newer novelists.


That memorable year of fiction which saw so many superior books produced
saw them successful beyond any reasonable expectation; and it is
scarcely to be wondered at that the year following--with which this
chronicle does not undertake to deal--should have responded to such
encouragement. If Dorothy Canfield challenged the tendency, Booth
Tarkington saw it and ventured _Alice Adams_. Sherwood Anderson in _The
Triumph of the Egg_ and Floyd Dell in _The Briary-Bush_ proceeded to
other triumphs. Half a dozen competent novelists followed naturalism
into the "exposure" of small towns or cramped lives: particularly C.
Kay Scott with the hard, crisp _Blind Mice_ and Charles G. Norris, rival
of his brother Frank Norris in veracity if not in fire, with _Brass_.
John Dos Passos in _Three Soldiers_, the most controverted novel of the
year, dealt brilliantly with the unheroic aspects of the American
Expeditionary Force. Evelyn Scott in _The Narrow House_ and Ben Hecht in
_Erik Dorn_ attempted, as Waldo Frank had already done in _The Dark
Mother_ and as some others now did less notably, to find a more elastic,
a more impressionistic technique, breaking up the "gray paragraph" and
quickening the tempo of their narratives. At the same time romance once
more showed its perennial face, suggesting that the future does not
belong to naturalism entirely. Donn Byrne in _Messer Marco Polo_ played
in a bright Gaelic way with the story of Marco Polo and his quest for
Golden Bells, the daughter of Kubla Khan. Robert Nathan wrote, in
_Autumn_, an all but perfect native idyl, grounded well enough in local
color, as suggestive of the soil as an old farmers' almanac, and yet
touched with the universal fingers of the pastoral. If American fiction
cannot long escape the village, at least here is a village of a sort
hardly thinkable before the revolt began. No matter what a flood of
angry truth _Spoon River Anthology_ let in, beauty survives. Many waters
cannot quench beauty. What truth extinguishes is the weaker flames.


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