A Century Of American Realism

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James was disillusioned with his society, but a good writer always is. The mood of anxiety and bitterness which many Americans feel right now certain American novelists felt as early as the 1920’s—F. Scott Fitzgerald for instance. The Great Gatsby is one of the great American social novels. The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night , and the unfinished novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon , were all immensely prophetic documents as well as beautiful novels. Nowadays we teach them to undergraduates and say: “You see, that’s American life.” But in the 1920’s one couldn’t have said this so easily, though it was already true. In the 1890’s Dreiser and Crane saw things that many a smug American wouldn’t see for thirty or forty years.

How were novelists influenced by World War I?

The basic thing about the First World War and American novelists was that so many of them got into it. When relatively few Americans were actually in the Army, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and many others were in the war. They found in the war a great sense of adventure. Hemingway was so eager to get into it that he enlisted as an ambulance volunteer. He was on the Italian front long before America entered the war. At the very beginning many writers felt this was their chance to get to Europe, to participate in things. All the wonderful works of fiction of the World War—Dos Passes’ 1919 , Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms , even Faulkner’s Soldiers’Pay —can be described conventionally as tales of disillusionment, but actually they are tales of adventure. These writers had a great sense of buoyant confidence; this was their moment. You can see in 1919 and in Hemingway’s stories the great sense of freshness and adventure. They were free of American provincialism; they were free of their parents. (Many, were still young enough to have to worry about parents.) Above all, they had that literary desire to participate in extreme experience.

Take, for example, one of the great works of American literature, The Enormous Room , by the poet e. e. cummings. When cummings went to Europe as an ambulance driver, he was utterly cynical about the French. He refused to say that the Germans were terrible, which the French authorities wanted him to, and because of a critical letter his friend Slater Brown had been writing they both got arrested. Out of this experience came that marvelous book, one of the first great books about the concentration-camp world. But when you read The Enormous Room now, the thing that strikes you is how fresh it is. It’s full of energy. I’ve just reread the whole of Dos Passos’ famous trilogy, U.S.A. The parts about the war are a constant record of carousal—of drinking, lovemaking, roaring through the streets of Paris and elsewhere. Dos Passos obviously had a great time.

When did disillusionment begin to affect their fiction, and why?

When they began to look at the world after the Versailles Treaty, and especially when they began to look at the leadership we were getting under Harding and Coolidge, they felt, understandably, that an awful lot of people had died for nothing.

I think the greatest thing ever written about the First World War by an American is the prose poem in U.S.A. called “The Body of an American,” which depicts in a most sardonic and savage way the finding and burial of the Unknown Soldier. It portrays the unctuous hypocrisy of the government in picking out one corpse to honor from among so many. But the point is that it is also an attempt to describe the physical ecstasy of war, both the danger, which is an ecstasy, and the sense of annihilation —triumphing over danger, and then the losing oneself in it. That’s why The Red Badge of Courage is such a great book; it describes war as if it were a sexual encounter.

Of course Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is very sentimental and romantic about this kind of experience. But then Hemingway always was sentimental, as well as the most self-centered of all American novelists. He was a brilliant lyricist, but he could never write a really fine novel. He captured perfectly one level of the physical experience of war because he was perhaps the most wounded writer of our time. He suffered a whole series of wounds and catastrophes in the war, and he described them with physical immediacy.

You once wrote that Hemingway “brought a major art to a minor vision of life.” Would you elaborate on this thought?

Well, I’ll take the word “major” away; Hemingway produced an original art. He was one of the great painters of prose, a writer of extraordinary freshness. The early stories have a directness and a lyric vibration which is absolutely incomparable. He was the most original stylist of his period. The “minor vision of life,” of course, resulted from his self-centeredness. Hemingway’s career is depressing because he could only return to early experiences. He was very much preoccupied with his own wounds, and with an image of himself as a virile male that obviously derived from a very great anxiety. He was an original rather than a great writer.