A Century Of American Realism


Disillusionment is clearest in Faulkner’s early work. Faulkner had volunteered for the Royal Air Force before America entered the war; he was overeager to get involved, and he had some bad experiences in those rickety, primitive planes of 1916. His early work is not as interesting as Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s, however. Yet he developed in the 1920’s a whole series of truly Balzacian novels—perhaps the only Balzacian novels in American fiction—about a whole region, the South. He was able to do this because of his marvelous sense of contrast between the popular image of the South and the reality. Of course, he had, unlike the northern writers, many different groups to write about. No other American novelist had such a range of types and classes to choose from- the aristocracy, the low peasant class, and the Negroes and Indians. This gave his work the human contrast and differentiation that didn’t exist in St. Paul, Minnesota, or Oak Park, Illinois.

Certainly any other southern novelist, of whom there were many, would have had the same opportunity?

Mississippi was and is special because it was so poor, because it was so full of illusion. It had been a frontier territory for a long time. In “The Bear,” one of the greatest stories ever written, when Faulkner describes the wilderness and the hunting, you realize that a physical frontier still existed, and the effect is fantastic. There was also tremendous provincialism in Mississippi, and of course the excess of Negroes over whites created for the whites an atmosphere of danger, hostility, and tension. And Faulkner also evokes the feeling, oddly enough, of being close to the Middle West, which in many ways allies Faulkner to Mark Twain and also to contemporaries of his own like Dos Passes and Sinclair Lewis.

It seems to me you’re attributing Faulkner’s greatness exclusively to the environment he lived in .

Not at all! I’m saying that he seized upon that environment. But no one could write about the wild, wonderful world of race passion that Faulkner describes in Light in August if he lived in Richmond, Virginia. Mississippi didn’t create Faulkner. Faulkner had the talent to seize upon what he had around him.

Which of the other writers of the 1920’s seem to you important?

I think that Sinclair Lewis was a very important writer. He was a brilliant satirist and social critic, but above all he had, like H. L. Mencken, a very strong sense of values, a very solid point of view. In his best books— Main Street and Babbitt —but even in Dodsworth , he presented a dissection of American materialism and cultural sterility. Only after the Depression, when Lewis lost that sharp-edged point of view, did he stop being interesting as a writer. Lewis is easy to underestimate; his achievement is very hard to pin down. He had an enormous influence on the American mind. Indeed, many of these novelists of the 1920’s had great impact on their society. Dos Passes, Hemingway, Lewis, and Fitzgerald became creators of a new language, of a whole new vision of society. They made readers aware of two different cultures in America: the middle-class culture, which was satirized so bitingly by Lewis, and the “ideal” culture of the intelligentsia. And to a degree they changed how readers looked at these cultures and thus the cultures themselves. Henry James was widely read and influential in that sense, but he did not shape the beliefs and attitudes of readers the way Lewis, a lesser writer surely, shaped them.

Why was this so?

Because the characteristic point of view of James, and of Howells, was ethical. James’s greatest stories were about individual conscience winning over social institutions. But the characteristic note of Lewis’ fiction was his sardonic, subversive feeling about American mores, which was easy for the reader to catch. It requires a very delicate kind of imaginative sympathy to read James’s Portrait of a Lady , for example, and feel that a basic problem of American society is being described. One must identify completely with Isabel Archer, which takes some doing, to recognize the complex and subtle moral world in which she’s involved. But when Lewis describes Babbitt in his office, fumbling over the writing of a letter and having a secretary finally write it herself, when Lewis portrays the American businessman as essentially an inefficient parasite, almost any American can recognize the type. Very simply, Lewis dealt with social patterns, social fables—with groups . Even Fitzgerald, who was in many ways the most exquisite American novelist after James, was concerned with group behavior, whereas the only group portrayed by James was the American elect.