The Freeman, 26 April, 1922
Readers of Borrow will remember Mrs. Chikno in “Is that young female your wife?” said Mrs. Chikno. “My wife?” said I. “Yes, young man, your wife, your lawful certificated wife?” “No,” said I. “Then I will not visit with her,” said Mrs. Chikno. “I countenance nothing in the roving line.” “What do you mean by the roving line?”I demanded. “Why, I mean such conduct as is not tatcheno. When ryes and rawnies live together in dingles, without being certificated, I call such behaviour being tolerably deep in the roving line, everything savouring of which I am determined not to sanctify. I have suffered too much from my own certificated husband’s outbreaks in that line to afford anything of the kind the slightest shadow of countenance.”
The heroines of so many recent novels have been so “deep in the roving line” that anybody of Mrs. Chikno’s mind can take heart and encouragement from “The Beautiful and Damned”‘ by Mr. Scott Fitzgerald, and “The Briary Bush”” by Mr. Floyd Dell. The heroines are the lawful certificated wives of the heroes, and even though, in Mr. Fitzgerald’s book, the heroine’s certificated husband indulges in an “outbreak” whilst in the uniform of his country during the war, the “roving line” is,nevertheless, not countenanced in either book. On the other hand, for such as are not of Mrs. Chikno’s way of thinking, there is Mr. Waldo Frank’s “Rahab,” where all the ladies are much deeper in “the roving line,” than Mrs. Chikno’s limited imagination was capable of conceiving.
Of these three books, “The Briary Bush” is easily the least important, although it has been seriously reviewed by publications which would doubtless, throw “The Beautiful and Damned” into’ the waste-paper basket. and to which “Rahab” would be only a subject for light mockery. There is no point of comparison between these last two books, except that, in both, the American novel has taken some sort of stride forward; though, in one case, it may be only into the dark and, in the other, towards a cul-de-sac. The author of “Rahab” seems at times to be trembling on the verge of a discovery; at any rate, there is about him sufficient of the marks and tokens of a discoverer to make him interesting. In Mr. Fitzgerald’s book, the American novel has attained quite a notable expression of the highly intelligent commonplace. This really means that Europeans can not much longer, with ease, lookdown on the gaucherie or unsophisticatedness of America; for when a country begins to produce its ownbrand of the highly intelligent commonplace, the death-warrant of the gauche, the naive, the wild and the woolly is at hand. For example, the incident of the hopeful, dreamy, embryo genius of Mr. Dell’s book, who finds himself acceptable to the brilliant and intellectual editor because of their common understanding and appreciation of Mr. Wells, is not likely to happen again in a novel. Says Mr. Dell of the meeting between the above-mentioned genius and the intellectual editor, and of their common devotion to that work of Mr. Wells called : “So it was, once upon a time, when two men met who had both read an obscure book of poems about wine and death by one Edward Fitzgerald.”
Mr. Scott Fitzgerald could never do that – could never utter the names of Mr. H. G. Wells and Edward Fitzgerald in the same breath: none of his young heroes could ever come up to seek his fortune in Chicago armed with one treasured book, that book being a Wells – at least he could not do it with the approval of the author. Mr. Fitzgerald’s heroes would probably bring a Swinburne, and the poems that they would know by heart would be and They would, perhaps, he a little more commonplace than Mr. Dell’s young hero, but how intelligent they would be, and how well they would compare with young gentlemen of the same denomination in other countries! This is one of Mr. Fitzgerald’s real merits: his chief merit, however, is that with him there has stepped into the ranks of the young novelists a satirist; so rare an apparition in this – indeed, in any – country, that he ought to be rocked and dandled and nursed into maturity, or given any treatment whatever that would ensure his free development. He uses his weapon so stumblingly yet that it is hard to know how strong or how finely-tempered it may be. For instance, when he causes his hero to be called “Anthony Comstock Patch” at the request of a reforming, uplifting grandfather, he is indulging in a sort of buffoonery that is not above the level of the popularly called satire of the afternoon columnists: if Thackeray had so dealt with one of his characters, he would have made it seem as if the gods from all time had decided upon this piece of mockery. Again, when be satirizes the hypocrisies of people during the war, be is simply flogging a dead horse, besides taking up what is now a popular occupation. A genuine satirist would never berate unpopular things; and, of all unpopular things, war-behaviour is now the most unpopular.
The story of this book deals with the married life of two young people, of that class which in Europe is called the middle class, but which in America is nearly always called the upper. These two have grown up without any of the discipline which is the training for life invented by the aristocracy, or the prudent worldly-wisdom which is the substitute invented by the petite bourgeoisie:they are peculiarly the product of a commercial civilization. The book deals with a life in America which has had few serious interpreters, and Mr. Fitzgerald bas done it with impressive ability. the story of these two young people and their life in various places including their amazing existence in that uncivilized form of shelter peculiar to New York, the two-room-and-bath apartment, is told with real conviction. They have no occupation and no responsibilities, and tragedy overtakes them – in so far as tragedy can overtake the tender-minded and the undisciplined; for tragedy, like happiness, is the privilege of the strong. Mr. Fitzgerald’s character-drawing is, in the main, somewhat amateurish, and he uses his people indifferently to express opinions quite unrelated to their characters. A certain easy grasp of conventional. technique is his, especially in showing the interplay of the characters on each others’ lives. His best and most consistent piece of character-drawing is that of Bloeckman, whose evolution is indicated with great subtlety. A novelist, and particularly a novelist who is a satirist, has to be on the outside as well as on the inside of his characters, and Mr. Fitzgerald has not the faculty of standing away from his principal characters: with Bloeckman he has done this, and also with the gentleman who appears for a moment to teach salesmanship. Everything in this salesmanship episode is done excellently and the satirist’s touch is revealed in all of it. “The Beautiful and Damned” is indeed an achievement for so young a writer. It is one which, however, would seem less striking in England where they have had the highly intelligent commonplace for so long, or in France where they are the greatest masters of the highly intelligent commonplace in the world. Mr. Fitzgerald is yet young enough to achieve the feat of stepping down from the peaks of his intelligence into that region where the great adventurers among the arts sought for “roots of relish sweet, and honey wild, and manna-dew” ; though I must own that one does not find too many signs of it.
“Rahab” is at opposite poles of thought and experience: it is rarely commonplace, it isoften unintelligent. Its characters give the illusion of people seen in an ether-dream, and they sometimes give the impression of having grown up or spent at least a part of their lives in a drain-pipe. The author seems at times to be deliberately trying to provoke Mr. Comstock’s successor to suppress him; but undoubtedly his book is the most interesting experiment in form that has been produced in American narrative writing. In its content and in the presentation of the characters, the book frequently reaches such a pitch of hot-house sentimentalism and unreality as may possibly prevent its serious reception. Anything is permissible to a writer if he can create the appearance of reality. For instance, when Kipling tells us of , I entirely believe him, but when Mr. Frank tells of the Jew, Loon, the holy man, who seduces Fanny for her soul’s higher good, I do not believe him for an instant; instead I believe he has temporarily taken leave of a few of his seven senses, so unreal – nay, so positively gruesome – is the sentimental sensuality of this scene.
To return to the form of “Rahab”: the story is flashed on us as it is presented to a young caller, a Jew, in the house of Fanny Luve, the Rahab of this story. (In Jewish history Rahab was the mistress of a house of ill fame.) The story is not actually told to the caller, it is presented to him, in part as if it were a moving picture. Like Mr. James Joyce and Miss Dorothy Richardson, Mr. Frank strives to make articulate the unexpressed and subconscious part of the mind. His method, however, is different from theirs, and it seems to me unfair that he should be accused of mere imitation. It must surely have occurred to many people at the same time that, as only three dimensions of the mind were being presented in narrative-writing, some means might be discovered for presenting the fourth. Carlyle, in and in other writings, almost stumbled upon such a discovery. Miss Richardson and Mr. Joyce express the fourth dimension in broken sentences, jerkily jumping from one thing to another as the mind does when we take it only as “the stream of consciousness.” These two writers do this realistically: Mr. Frank’s method is not realistic. He is not a good psychologist, and that intuitive insight into the minds of his characters which is Mr. Joyce’s, is not his. He heightens the unconscious and expresses it non-realistically, and generally in rhythmical language; his dialogue is also non-realistic, and often rhythmical. Like Miss Richardson and Mr. Joyce, he has broken up the sentence. There is no reason for prejudice against this accomplishment of these writers. As some one has pointed out, ill all intimate expression the sentence is broken. Mr. Frank’s rhythmical writing is often very trying, particularly when he attempts to reproduce the rhythm of the Bible. The reproduction of the rhythms of “The Song of Solomon” may be a way of getting a Semitic atmosphere, but it is a temptation that ought never to be yielded to: a miracle that should be left to Solomon and King James’s translators.
If Mr. Frank’s form gives an impression of power and originality, the way he handles his characters and his story shows that he has not the hard grip either on himself or on his material that is necessary in order to produce a good book. The outline of the story is given on the wrapper: it is briefly this: Fanny Luve, the heroine, is first of all seduced – the reader will pardon the early Victorianism of my vocabulary – by a Southern gentleman, who then marries her, and returns to college, where he indulges ”tolerably deep” in the “roving line.” She is next seduced by a casual visitor for her higher comprehension of life and her elevation of spirit. There have been many forms of sexuality in literature, but this one is brand-new and for want of a ready acquaintance with Freudian terminology, I might describe it as imperialistic eroticism – the lady’s virtue, so to speak, being sacrificed for her good. When her husband returns reformed, he fails to understand what has been accomplished for her higher life, and turns her out of the house. She goes obediently, leaving her child, and sets out for New York. Here she makes the acquaintance of various ladies and gentlemen who are “deep in the roving line,” and she finally settles down as the mistress of a home like Rahab’s. She is raided by the agency of a police official, a frequenter of the house, and at the end of the story she and one of her girls are living in a flat together. Certainly a tale to flabbergast Mrs. Chikno! Still it has the material of a powerful book but Mr. Frank treats it with an hysterical, exotic sentimentalism that is hard to endure. He always introduces his Jewish characters with a suggestion of symbolism, and with a propaganda-touch that is unfair to them.
After “Rahab” and “The Beautiful and the Damned,” Mr. Floyd Dell’s “Briary Bush” is a very feeble performance. Since the scene is laid in Chicago, it can at once be surmised that it deals with newspaper-men. In addition, it deals with the married life of Rosanne and Felix Fay, and with the goings-on of various camp-followers of the arts such as are to be found in the Greenwich Villages of all great cities. They talk about not believing in marriage, about not being afraid of life, about the necessity of background for the artist, and about liking to live somewhere where ideas count for something. Felix Fay is the central character as he was in “Moon-Calf” – we have Felix the reporter, Felix the dramatic critic, Felix the playwright, etc. There isnobody so boring in a book as a literary personage; and perhaps this is the reason why all accomplished writers from Shakespeare to Shaw introduce writers and rhymers as clowns or comic relief, and why Rousseau, in his Confessions, hardly alludes to the fact that he ever wrote a book
Mr. George Moore of a certain city that what it really wanted for its painters was not an Art School nor an Academy, but a Café where artists could thresh out their theories of art and learn something from one another. Now, if Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Frank, and Mr. Dell could have sat around a café table every afternoon, each discussing his own art, they might have saved themselves and us a great deal in their books. Mr. Dell would then have discovered that one ought to have more excuse for launching four hundred and twenty-five pages of print than the fluffy idealism of Felix Fay and the hardly-disciplined thinking he has put into this book; and Mr. Frank and Mr.Fitzgerald would certainly have been enriched by a fruitful contempt for one another.