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A Century Of American Realism
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Professor John A. Garraty of Columbia University is the author of a collection of interviews with eminent American scholars, Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians , just published by Macmillan. To give an added dimension to this absorbing series of discussions, he arranged an interview with a distinguished literary critic, Alfred Kazin. In addition to several works of criticism, including his influential On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942), Mr. Kazin has edited the works of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser; he also is the author of two autobiographical volumes, A Walker in the City (1951) and Starting Out in the Thirties (1965). The following interview has been slightly abridged.—The Editors
PROFESSOR GARRATY : Professor Kazin, why do you choose as the topic for our discussion “a century” of realism in the American novel, rather than, say, one hundred and fifty or even two hundred years?
PROFESSOR KAZIN : The American novel, as a realistic form, began just about one hundred years ago when men like Henry James and William Dean Howells, who were very much influenced by European novelists, suddenly began to write realistically about American society. The novel as a form really began around that time. I don’t mean that there weren’t novels before, but they were really what used to be called the “romance.” Melville, Cooper, and Hawthorne were romanticists, properly speaking.
The major difference between James and Howells, on the one hand, and people like Hawthorne and Cooper and Poe is, first of all, that James and Howells thought that the novel was the greatest possible literary form. They were full of admiration for the great European novelists, especially Balzac (the master of them all), but also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and they believed that modern society in all its aspects was the proper subject of the writer. The word “realism,” though it can be very confusing, had to do with this concern for reality in fiction. James and Howells didn’t like to use the word. Only late in his career did Howells speak of the necessity of being a realist, and James hardly ever did. But they were both thinking of reality in this sense of the word, and today Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Louis Auchincloss, and how many other depicters of modern American society have the same point of view. But in the romantic fiction that was published before the Civil War—in Poe’s hallucinated stories, in Hawthorne’s guilt-ridden, fear-filled characters, and of course in Melville’s great apocalyptic novel Moby Dick , the approach is quite different. One gets the lonely individual, very much concerned with his physical fate, in a world ridden by demons and ghosts and ancestral symbols, as in Hawthorne, or with religious problems, as in Melville. Only with James and Howells, roughly a century ago, did this marvelous sense of the world as a place that can be accepted for itself alone begin to appear.
With the new taste for realism in literature came an appreciation of realism in painting and drawing. It is no accident that the art which Henry James all his life loved more than any other was painting. It was allied also to the novelists’ sense that Europe provided the natural environment for a writer. The American writer who went abroad came to see himself as a detached spectator of American life. When he came back, he was changed.
The new realism was allied also to the influence of magazines. Writers like Poe and Hawthorne had made a living, if you can call it a living, by writing for magazines, and in fact much of their best work was in the form of short fiction. But suddenly magazines like the Atlantic Monthly , which had been founded before the Civil War, became extraordinarily hospitable to a new kind of realistic short story. There was a very clear-cut beginning to this trend. It began when William Dean Howells became assistant editor of the Atlantic and met Henry James. They discovered how much they had in common, and they discovered, too, that they could take on the whole of American society as a literary project. They felt themselves part of a movement.
Another aspect of realism was that for the first time a certain kind of American woman became the principal character in novels. Daisy Miller  depicted a type of woman who hadn’t appeared in American fiction, or in American life, before. Almost a century later, when the freedom and the vitality of women clearly exemplify what has happened to American society, it’s a fact of some interest to look back and realize that James’s awareness of this “new” woman is pretty much what distinguishes him as a novelist. When James saw the young American girl sitting on the piazza of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, surrounded by her parents and possible suitors, she stood out for the same reason that she stood out for Henry Adams: in a society full of rather tiresome money-getters, she was a symbol of culture and refinement and the only person who seemed to be interested in beauty per se. This is what Henry Adams meant when he said in his Education that he never knew an American woman who wasn’t better than her husband. Winslow Homer expressed this point of view in a different medium in his paintings of the young American girls walking in their flowing summer gowns on the cliffs of Newport, holding up their parasols as feminine insignia. Of course, the other side of this is that the audience for the novels of James and Howells and other novelists was very much an audience of women. This is still true, to my knowledge. I almost never see a man carrying a book unless it is a textbook or income-tax guide, whereas women still do carry novels and best sellers. The feminization of culture seemed to James of very great importance. Women were his readers; women were his main characters; women were the principal new form which attracted the interest of writers like Howells and James and even Mark Twain, though what they did with women in their books was something else again.
The early realistic writers in America, despite their interest in women, displayed very little of the European realists’ concern with sexuality in their books. What Henry Adams said about Henry James is in a sense true of all of them: James knew nothing about women except the outside. Of course, James never had a wife, but Howells and Twain were married, and they were nonetheless very careful not to touch on any vital aspect of human passion.
Isn’t that related to the fact that American culture was really a subdivision of British culture, and that the period we’re talking about was the height of the Victorian Age? Were English writers of stature dealing with sexuality at this time?
The so-called Victorian attitude toward sex wag really a very temporary interlude in the English literary tradition of healthy licentiousness. The eighteenth-century English novelists were extremely frank and even bawdy in this respect, and even Dickens, when he came over here, made a point of shocking Americans by saying, for example, that he didn’t want his sons to be virgins when they were married. The American attitude toward sexuality was peculiarly American in this period, because of the actual roughness of American society. The literary class was very genteel and very careful; I’m often fascinated by the self-conscious gentility of Howells and James and even of Mark Twain. All of them wrote exquisitely; they were all marvelous stylists. But they were all rather goody-goody when it came to literary culture. Their air of superior refinement was their way of getting away from the roughness of the American experience more than anything else. This was fundamental. The American novel today has certainly gone to the other extreme, but the early realists felt themselves to be a part of that small Brahmin class even Mark Twain, the self-educated printer and frontiersman. And as a result, their work displays a certain tendency to elegance quite different from the aristocratic quality of English fiction in this period. Of course, the English had a much more complex society to describe. The American experience was peculiarly narrow in this sense. That was one of the reasons why James went to England, why he started writing novels about English society.
James and Howells—James particularly—considered Balzac simply the greatest novelist that Europe had ever produced. They felt he could create his splendid imaginative world only because of the great variety of classes in Europe and because of the conflict between the aristocracy and the emerging middle classes. They were trying to show that these class differences could in some way be suggested even in America. Since the whole epic of industrial capitalism dealt with the upward struggle of the middle classes—the effort described by Dickens in Bleak House and by Balzac in Père Goriot —James and Howells tried to find this in American life, too. It was far more difficult because there was less variety in America. When Howells tried to describe a Boston aristocrat in The Rise of Silas Lapham , he produced an elegant but pretty sterile character.
How did “naturalistic” writers like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris differ from James and Howells and Twain? Did their work develop logically out of that of the older generation of realists?
Crane, Dreiser, and Norris were all born within a few months of each other, and two of them, Norris and Crane, died at a very early age. Crane and Dreiser fascinate me because they were both extremely gifted but nonetheless very different. Dreiser was clumsy and verbose, but he wrote very powerfully. Crane was one of the most amazing geniuses we’ve ever produced. The 1890’s represent the great watershed of American history, not only in fiction but in politics—the beginning of open class struggles, of open polarization in American life. A cocky, disparaging attitude toward the bourgeois experience developed; the ethos of the middle class had been exploded. Many of the younger writers were much more cynical, much less hidebound by genteel conventions. Can you imagine Henry James going as a correspondent to the Greco-Turkish War as Crane did? Or having the kind of experience that Dreiser did when he was taken in by a prostitute in Evansville, Indiana, who happened to be his brother Paul’s mistress? Or having the concern with money that Crane had all his life and that made Dreiser, as a young man, steal from the laundry for which he worked? The writers of the 1890’s represented a tougher, harsher, crueler world. Take Crane’s fascination with war. Everybody knows that he wrote The Red Badge of Courage before he ever saw a battle. Yet many Civil War veterans thought that he had been at Chancellorsville. Crane saw the life of America as war, the life of the world as war.
Crane was the son of a Methodist minister; he grew up in a religious, Christian home. His mother was a pillar of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Yet, coming from this respectable, almost traditional kind of American background, Crane found himself always looking at things with a beady eye—finding objects of derision in American institutions. When he came to New York as a newspaper reporter and began to observe the misery and degradation of slum life, he was intoxicated by the literary possibilities of this kind of world. Compare Crane on New York in the 1890’s with what William Dean Howells was writing about the East Side! Howells was a very decent man. He was a Utopian socialist. He was properly dismayed by the fate of Jewish immigrants living in East Side tenements. But he regarded this as something with which he had no personal relationship. He felt rather disgusted by the slum dwellers, although he rose above his disgust like a true gentleman. Crane, on the contrary, was delighted with the life of the Bowery. He was fascinated by what used to be called “fallen women”; he defended prostitutes who were being shaken down by the police so vigorously that the police wouldn’t give him any peace. Unlike James and Howells, Dreiser and Crane both were seriously concerned with low life.
They also had very strong feelings about religion. Dreiser, the first important American writer who was not a Protestant, reacted bitterly against the Catholic Church in which he was raised. He hated orthodox religion and conventional morality. The literary historians make too much of what is called naturalism as a style. It was wholly a social-human question: these writers were a new class of people; they were at war with middle-class values. Crane lived with an extraordinarily vivid and courageous woman, Cora, who had kept a whorehouse in Jacksonville, Florida. They lived in England because they couldn’t have that kind of relationship in the United States.
I know that Howells appreciated and aided some of the naturalist writers. What about Henry James?
Even Howells didn’t like all of them. He was a very generous critic, a great supporter of all new fiction. But there were severe limitations to his appreciation. He thought Maggie , Stephen Crane’s first book, wonderful, but he did not like The Red Badge of Courage for reasons I’m not sure I understand entirely. I think the fact that in Maggie the young girl becomes a prostitute and eventually commits suicide must have pleased his moral sense. But in The Red Badge of Courage , a masterpiece written in letters of fire, the underlying depiction of the violence of war apparently distressed Howells’ peaceful soul.
Howells didn’t like Dreiser at all. Despite his importance, Dreiser is still one of the most neglected figures in American literature. All sorts of literary professors are still afraid of him. But in his own time Dreiser was treated with the most incredible contempt and hostility by the literary establishment. They always, of course, complained about his bad writing, though they didn’t seem to mind it when they read other things just as bad. In point of fact, it was his attitude toward society that they didn’t like—his conviction that there wasn’t, fundamentally, any real design to life.
James and Howells, after all, were profoundly ethical writers. At the end of James’s novels there is always a subtle victory for the human conscience. Goodness wins out, as in The Wings of the Dove or in The Golden Bowl . These books are, in a sense, religious allegories. But in Crane, and especially in Dreiser, there is a strong feeling that there is no design, no meaning. They keep themselves separate from anything they are describing. With them the human being is getting more and more difficult to reach and describe intimately; there are nothing like the marvelous close-ups that you get in James’s novels. In Crane and Dreiser the world is pretty much a cold world. People are described as if they are far off. This coldness toward the world, toward human beings, becomes the limiting fact in American fiction later on.
How can this be reconciled with what you said about Crane’s warmth, his reaction to poverty and vice on the Bowery?
I didn’t say he was warm, I said he was interested. When I spoke of distance in the fiction of Crane and Dreiser, I meant their sense that what they were writing about was far removed from them. We can see the same thing in our own lives. We write about politics and power and the people around us, but we feel ourselves to be engulfed by too many people, too many problems, too many pressures. We are more detached; the world’s become more complex, more overwhelming. Crane was interested in writing about the Bowery for literary and artistic reasons. He regarded the people on the Bowery as aesthetic facts. He was fascinated by the new opportunity, the new material he found there. His concern for prostitutes reflected only his rejection of his father’s morality. That’s why he liked being a police reporter. He liked to hobnob with criminals, precisely because it was a way of shocking the people he’d lived with before. Nothing delighted him more than to feel he was a scapegrace, in some way a naughty fellow. But he wasn’t warm. He didn’t care a hang about Dora Clark, the famous prostitute he defended. He just hated the police and was outraged because he thought that they were being mean to her. He had no feeling of closeness to Bowery bums; he felt that these people were all helpless.
As we know from Crane’s most famous story, one of the greatest stories in the world, “The Open Boat,” he was interested in getting at the facts of experience. It is a description of what he went through in a dinghy after the Commodore , the ship he was taking from Florida, blew up in the water. Sitting in this dinghy, freezing and starving and expecting at any moment to be drowned, he observed everything with a cold, clear eye. That shocked readers, too; he was able to write about thing with merciless detachment.
After all, that is what makes the novelist the novelist. No matter how warm he may feel about people, fundamentally he’s a professional. The professional eye is an extraordinary thing in such writers; it gives them a kind of chilling expertise in describing things which would involve other people emotionally.
The difficulty with that statement to me is that it removes the writer from the society he’s a part of .
I guess I didn’t put that very clearly. Professionalism in any field has nothing to do with one’s own emotions. Any historian who’s studying a subject may be personally involved with in terms of memory of or sympathy, but he tries to get at the facts as far as he understands them. No one, to this day, has given us a better picture of the transformation of American life in the 1890’s than Crane did, in Maggie , in George’s Mother , and even in “The Open Boat,” precisely because he saw clearly what was happening. To use a modern example, I happen to admire Norman Mailer’s book on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night , very much. I think it’s best thing that’s been written about the political atmosphere in which we’ve been living since the Vietnam war started. His book seems to me a triumph of detachment and involvement at the same time.
Were all the early realists gifted with this combination of detachment and insight?
I think so. James and Howells in their earlier work show very clearly what a great age of confidence the 1870’s and 1880’s were for the people they were writing about: the northern middle classes who went to Saratoga and Newport and lived in the best of all possible worlds. Then, bit by bit, one sees in their work a growing anxiety. Howells became a socialist; he grew more and more resentful of the crassness of American society, the exploitation of the poor, the brutality of American corporations. James became more and more struck by the corruption of society, in England and this country. His analysis took the form of sexual allegory—the attempt to get money through marriage, or the betrayal of adultery became symbols in his work of the corruption of society as a whole.
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.
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.
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.
The Depression and the Second World War were intimately related; after all, the Depression did not end until war broke out. Yet the Second World War did not produce many great novels, and for very clear reasons. The middle-class writers of the twenties went from protected, sheltered homes—from a world still full of the belief in American destiny—to the shattering experiences of the war. But the people of my generation who went to the war from the Depression had no illusions. The war seemed to us neither just nor unjust, but merely a horrible necessity. It also follows that the people who wrote after the Second World War were not middle-class, not interested in forms the way Hemingway and Dos Passos were, not as sophisticated artistically, and not very often as original. Steinbeck wrote one or two quite good books, but he was not as interesting a writer as Hemingway or Dos Passos. There is nothing in the least original, artistically, in The Grapes of Wrath ; it is simply a true, forceful book. No new forms were developed. Norman Mailer’s first book, The Naked and the Dead , was modelled on Dos Passos and Hemingway. It was not in the least original, though it’s a good book.
Do you mean that modern conditions do not provide a favorable environment for creative writers?
That is, I suppose, the most important question one can ask about the current literary situation. Novelists, of course, enjoy living well and having money, but they cannot keep from feeling morally and intellectually that things are wrong with our society. There is a contradiction between the enormous wealth and splendor of American life and the sense of anxiety, of something fundamentally immoral going on in our society today. A lot of people are able to delude themselves that they are living in the best of all possible worlds, but the novelist, if he’s a real writer, senses that things are not right. A writer like Saul Bellow, for example, whom I think very highly of, is a very successful American. He has a position of great honor, and he certainly enjoys all the fruits of living in our intoxicating century. Yet his work is full of the most terrible sense of grief, of guilt, of foreboding. Why is this? Because in this privileged world human relationships are deteriorating. Bellow is aware, I would assume, that we have a civilization but not a culture, a society without standards. He recognizes that something about the very nature of modern society makes for great destructiveness. This awareness of man’s destructiveness has become more intense as a result of the Second World War. You cannot kill thirty million people and then expect that the world will go back to normal and that sensitive writers will say: “Life is great.”
Does Norman Mailer’s work reflect something of the same view —that modern society is destructive, that “things are not right”?
Yes. Mailer is an extraordinarily talented man. He has a very muscular, combative kind of talent, and he completely understands and rejoices in the popular side of American life. In what I think is his best book, The Armies of the Night , he says that he even felt a sneaking sympathy for the federal marshals in Washington opposing the pickets (of whom he was one), because he recognized in them the same comic, sardonic talent which he had found among the men he had known in the Army. Like Stephen Crane, he has a great passion for what happens in the street, in crowds. At the same time, of course, Mailer is also a very interesting ideologist. More than any other good novelist that I can think of, he openly declared after the war that the next chapter in the American imagination would have to deal with a whole new attitude toward sex. His point was that white middle-class men had deprived themselves of certain fundamental qualities of passion. In a famous essay called “The White Negro” he compared the active, strong, reckless quality of the Negro, who as a kind of outlaw in American society had to gain his way by forceful means, with the timid and obedient white middle-class American.
As a novelist, Mailer has been extremely erratic. He has shown himself to be almost uninterested in finishing books properly. But I think he is an original, in many ways the most original, American novelist since Scott Fitzgerald. He reminds me always of Crane and Fitzgerald. He’s very sophisticated, but very passionate, very strong, and he also has an extraordinary sense of mischief. The best thing about Mailer is that he has recognized that in our time a strong talent is literally subversive. He has social intelligence of a very prophetic kind.
Twentieth-century America has produced some of the most extraordinary capacities for unhappiness the world has ever seen. And the best novelists have called the score properly on what is happening. The novel as a literary creation deals with the human soul in active relationships, and these are enough to make one despair sometimes. The easy confidence which Americans were supposed to feel has quite departed. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t live with a sense of anxiety and foreboding because of the violent animosities of our time. And this is where the modern novel really succeeds—in describing human beings and their capacity for destruction.