A Century Of American Realism

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Again and again, looking back upon these writers of the twenties, I see that Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Lewis, Dos Passos, and Hemingway each did something quite remarkable. None of them was like anybody else. There has never been anyone remotely like Sinclair Lewis. That is true also of the romantic Fitzgerald, of the utterly idiosyncratic Faulkner, of Hemingway. Or consider Dos Passos. Today, no critic takes him seriously. But read U.S.A. There is nothing remotely resembling Dos Passos’ method, his tone, his color, his vocabulary. He is absolutely his own man. And that, of course, is a great thing.

Why did so many of these writers of the 1920’s deteriorate in their later careers?

Well, remember Fitzgerald’s great remark, that there are no second acts in American life. If anything, deterioration is the rule rather than the exception. American writers are famous for early brilliance, and then for petering out. Ever since Mark Twain, the successful American novelist has also become a celebrity, a prima donna, and in a way an economic royalist. Mark Twain was a rich man; Lewis and Hemingway and others became very rich through their work. Successful American novelists have a peculiar relation with the public, very much like that of a movie star. They tend to become too much concerned with fame. Hemingway became so interested in reaching a big audience that after a while he couldn’t write at all.

How about Faulkner?

Faulkner did not wear out, but one reason was that he didn’t live in a big city. Remember also that Faulkner did not become successful until relatively late in his career. Unlike Hemingway and Fitzgerald, both of them great best sellers, Faulkner did not catch on with the public. He was able to withstand success because he didn’t have any for a long time.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, from the moment he published his first book, This Side of Paradise , was a great celebrity. He conducted his love affair with his wife—which is a very tragic story—in public. He felt he had to make a lot of money. When he couldn’t make it writing novels, he wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post , being paid five or six thousand dollars for a story he would turn out in two or three days. But he never had enough money or enough praise. So he began to drink heavily. (Liquor, by the way, was a problem for all these writers.)

How did the Great Depression affect American writers?

The influence of the 1920’s lasted pretty much until the middle 1930’s, when the experimental, avant-garde side of the twenties petered out. As to the Depression itself, it produced some good novelists, like James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, and Nathanael West, whose Miss Lonelyhearts is important. But many writers got caught up in ideological issues, which in general lessened their artistic achievements. Only a very great writer like Faulkner was able to withstand the pressure of constant leftist criticizing. Properly speaking, the American novelist didn’t get back to himself, as an independent creator, until after World War II. By and large, the 1930’s was a period in which many writers sacrificed their individuality, became more conscious of society than of themselves.

If World War 1 was the greatest political event of the early twentieth century, warn’t the Great Depression the most important socioeconomic event of the era? Did it not have an impact on literature comparable to that of World War I?

No. The reason why the First World War produced such a brilliant body of American novelists and books was that the writers were all upper-middle-class; the war for them was a great chance of breaking with their backgrounds. What the Depression did for American literature was to awaken literary recognition on the part of people from the immigrant groups in the big cities. The typical writer of the 1920’s was someone from a “good family,” like cummings, whose father was a minister; Hemingway, whose father was a doctor; Dos Passes, whose father was a lawyer. The typical writer of the 1930’s, however, was someone like Richard Wright, whose father was a tenant farmer; Ralph Ellison, whose father was a poor Negro in Oklahoma; John Steinbeck, who worked as a bricklayer.

The Depression era saw a remarkable coming-of-age of Jewish, Negro, and Irish writers. (Dreiser was the first important American writer who was not a Protestant and not, properly speaking, middle-class.) Middle-class attitudes had absolutely dominated American fiction. Suddenly this changed. In literature nothing is more important than childhood—that’s when the vital social experiences that shape us all occur. With the middle-class writer, life provides a sense of balance and poise and subtlety, but it does not provide the direct assault of harsh experience which is so important. After the Depression and World War II there suddenly burst forth a passionate, brilliant school of writers—Jewish, Negro, Irish—who became perhaps the dominant force in contemporary American literary experience.