The Crisis in Modern Literature Author(s): Carl F. Strauch Source: College English, Vol. 5, No. 8 (May, 1944), pp.

423-428 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: . Accessed: 19/05/2011 11:44
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" and promised to bury it with the present issue. invades areas hitherto considered peculiarly the domain of literature. professor of English. 36. pp. its spirit continued. who had recentlybecomeco-publisher and co-editor of the Dial.GLEBE AND OTHERS 423 parently decided to revive poetic drama. 241. Io-II. 3 Ibid. Cummingswith his sharp attack on poets talking to themselves.2 Mr. was positive the venture had outlived its useGlebeand Otherswere two of brought together. E. Kreymborg tells the amusing of story in his Troubadour. Williams. and to gain a selected but intelligent hearing for their all-but-unknowncontributors was the purpose the magazine set out to accomplish.Lola[Ridge] toward the tail-end when Krimmie [Kreymborg] came the Dial editor in 1925. and it would not disperse. Here was still another number on top of one How many times was the thing to die and bob up again? they had been askedto acceptas an obituary. Despite Kreymborg's lack of enthusiasm and a general scarcity of funds. 57-78.. Bodenheim. Lehigh Uni- delighted those who preferred Alfred Tennyson to E. Eastman 'Assistant versity. 1931). "Othersis dead. The writers insisted on gathering in Lola Ridge's apartment to read their new work to each other. pp. and reviving them puzzled the subscribers. even before Marianne Moore bethe first to throw themselves delibmagazines erately and with vigor into the fight for experimentalpoetry. coroner's inquest he called Belly Music. Djuna Barnes. who had soured on the movement to a degree that caused him to pounce on an issue he edited with a grieving. that novelists who have addresseda publicwhether that public belong blandly to Booth Tarkington or heatedly to John Steinbeck-are contributing little more 2 The LiteraryMind (New York. assured his readers. yet both attracted favorable attention in the right places. since many of the magazine'spages were filled with one-act plays by Williams. and Saphier. even after the magazine once and for all ceased publication. The postmortem on the part of Lola with her happy mania for appearing among moribund things to managed keepit goinga fulness.3 It is possible. Johns. 254.or science. Some fifteen years ago Max Eastmanwrote a brilliant and amusing book in which he declared that. Moore. it was difficultto make an end of Others. STRAUCH' Modern literature is threatened with nothing less than death. . The significance is of Glebeand of Others no greateror no less than the estimate that one places upon the desirabilityof securingthe reputations of such poets as Williams. as exact knowledge. 212. and Stevens. The Dial's poetic tone was really a continuation of the Others spirit. But. It was during one of these meetingsthat ScofieldThayer. The Others group had been THE CRISIS IN MODERN LITERATURE CARL F. however. 156-57. Neither magazine paid for contributions and neither was widely circulated. how while. literature must necessarily restrict its pretensions to more modest limits. ranting. met many of the people whose work he was soon to begin printing.

4 but the crisis in modernliteraturegoes much deeper.424 COLLEGE ENGLISH to literature than were Mr. but the dethronementof our planet from its centralposition suggests to the imagination a similar dethronement of its inhabitants. the supernatural scheme. evidently." continues Bertrand Russell. man is an animal. was the stage. But he is in grave danger of losing the trick altogether.the naturalproduct of a natural world. P. The problem which Mr. and sought out grounds for brandingit as heretical. In reality. The degradation of man is the now centuries-oldand ever deepeningconviction that his place in the universe is not so glorious as the Middle Ages had thought. that the universe has for man neither meaning nor purpose. when Copernicus' the Revolutionsof the HeavenlyBodies was published. pp. immortality. If Locke was to be believed. the angels and archangels. man's careerwas as unimportant as the position of the planet he inhabited. and no one person can hope to save both man and his literature. .and the like. A baby's brain was not packed before birth with divine certitudes that helped to shape the man's destiny to supernatural ends. "that the Christian Churches. Man came into life without knowledge. and he was born on a planet that 6I5d4 p. Man will want consciouslyand desperatelyto achieve the consolation and create the beauty we have always called literature. 24. man acquiredthese notions in childhood at the knees or on the laps of pious parents."5The theologians of Copernicus' day and even of much later times were aware that the new astronomy wouldbe a powerfulweaponin the hands of those who no longer believed so com4Ibid. Eastman presented he himself solved. the other planets. astronomywas still repugCopernican nant to some when in 1690 John Locke's Human Understanding Essay concerning attacked the notion of innate ideas. 161-294. it was. however. The earth. about four hun- Accordingto pletely in supernaturalism. indeed. that. a conflict between man's hopes for a gloriousdestiny and the scientific probability that. For the origin of the present crisis we On dred years ago. The sublimity of this view of man's destiny is beyond question. I call this threat the degradationof man. 1935). 5 Religion and Science (New York." says BertrandRussell."It is thereforenot surprising. come into this life perfectly and beautifully equipped with ideas of God."6 A conflict between supernaturalism and naturalism emerged.there was being enacted in the life of every Christianthe drama of the salvation of his soul. Protestant and Catholic alike. the truth of the view that theologians shrewdly suspected would be gravely endangeredif the new astronomy were accepted. man did not. Again had supernaturalismbeen attacked. Eastman's private poets. the sun. The universe was growing cold. "Now. "there is nothing in the Copernicanastronomy to provethat we are less important than we naturallysupposeourselvesto be. no better than an idiot. must return to 1543. It is not literature that is threatened by science so much as it is man who is threatened by the view which during four painful centurieshe has been developing about himself and the world he lives in. in sad truth. 25. the center of the universe.and God collaborated as audienceto this most engrossing and thrilling spiritual drama.. felt hostility to the new astronomy.

Darwin. are yet so nearly certain. a literary trick. irrational stream of consciousness.but let us for a momentregard these novels as the harvest not of four years of animal strugglebut of four hundred years of animal philosophy. rather. But in the animal world which we have inherited. Mysticism and Logic (New York. if not quite beyond dispute. the brain was still a rational instrument 7Bertrand Russell. The degradationof man was now complete. looking puzzled. designed to answer questions.And his brainwas the abiding place of horrorand madness. reproducethe psychological life of Romola as a perfectly rational pattern of intelligent and intelligible questions and answers. man. is hardly flattering to our self-esteem. A novelist contemporary with Darwin could. his loves and his beliefs. Man was no longerto be thought of as a special creation to crown God's labors. are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system. and our literature shows how it strikesour contemporaries. all all the inspiration. There was no associative.there were no subliminalhorrors. How cheerless the view is can be seen in this passage from the most eloquent English of the early twentieth century: That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving. It is as though modern writers. and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things. his growth. that all the labours of the ages. ironically enough. Then came Freud. no intensity of thought and feeling. of accidentalcollocations atoms. receive new ideas. all the devotion. is.lacking in the usual directionsof an olderliterary fashion ("he said. like the eminently intellectual George Eliot. The universewas meaningless. the noondaybrightness of human genius. are but the outcome of no fixations.Man was an animal. Locke. Darwin pushed the degradation farther." Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and A Farewellto Arms are products of post-war disillusionment and cynicism. The precise. This scientific probability. what is . the natural product of a natural world. his hopes and fears.and Freud. however true. an animal. pp. Locke. none of the ghastly troopof mental aberrations that afflictmodernliterature." "he answered in pained surprise. turning to those who have revealed the scientificprobability. Copernicus. to be sure.THE CRISIS IN MODERN LITERATURE 425 without purpose cut its dreary path through an unimportant segment of a meaningless universe. and the windowpanes clean. that his origin. Only we today are the full inheritors of this natural world. I918). that no fire. that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand." "he observed thoughtfully"--to show that there is a brainbehind the talk).7 Only the mental life of the mature human being had escaped attack. man was. Supernaturalism was dead. 47-48.exclaimed. "Look! These are the grim results in everyday life of the civilizationwe have inherited from you. The mind was a well-kept and orderly werealways neuroses. and with his magic wand he transformedthe brain into a menagerie of wild and ferocious beasts. staccato dialogue. still had his intellectual pride. However bleak the universe might be. can preserve an individual life beyond the grave. Darwin-these among others in the last four centuries have aided us in arriving at the scientific probabilityabout man and the universe he lives in. and invent philosophies. Some illustrations from contemporary literature may be charged with pathos or more startling vehemence if we keep in mind the natural and animal worldorderof Copernicus.

radation of man cannot go. but an age like ours.. I was fourteen then. for there is no other way of life for them.not aged. studying youth which . 9 Absalom.fourteen in years if they could have been called years while in that unpaced corridorwhich I called childhood. without drink.just overduebecauseof some caesarian lack. Absalom! (New York. in the roundof animalpleasures. permitted a human being in the universe as but from three pages of Jennie Gerhardt of William Faulkner: one can gather the followingevidence of That was the miscast summer of my barren brain behind the talk: "he said. 538-47. perhaps. who are blind to the facts plicit in so much Christian art and literaof death in a natural world ravaged by ture. having achieved a savage zero in philosophy. Tons of books may issue from our presses. I lived out not as a woman. be girl."she said. It is inmasterpiece of its kind. I waited not for light butfor that doom which we call female victory which is: endureand then endure. "she meditated upon this a moment". No other way except. .which was not living but rather some projection of the lightless wombitself. pp..8 which the truths of naturalism are inHemingway's characterstook to lust. indeed. which directly inspired or was imthe Humanists. 1938). from James Joyce ing and drinking and fighting to escape. "he said. p.Thomas Sutpen in Absalom. bull-fighting.. with cold and restrained fury. those. I gestate and complete. since there is neither consolaare still human beings who use their tion nor escape. and Thomas Mann to William Faulkner. there is but one virtue-brains in a way that GeorgeEliot would endurance. Italics of the text.426 COLLEGE ENGLISH more appropriate than this staccato faction. a her face in a quizzical.. Meanwhile. It is that horrible world that in Faulkner'snovels we confront without consolation. 1936). will return to usurp the position in war. interrogative way".Rosa Coldfieldis such a creahave recognized. Dreiser stresses ture. and she realizesthe utmost that is "chemisms" influencesupon behavior.war?The many wars since 1914 may. With Dreiser people for whom. Hemingway conceivable that the old supernaturalattacks. In that world of spittle of words divorced from the brain unmitigated degeneration there are eviand for the most part devoid of reference dently two classes of human beings: except to animal action.without satis8 In The Fifth Column .and physical love? With Hem.trenched... In "A Natural History of the Dead. moved by a curious feeling of ingratitude.without rhyme or reason or hope of reward-and then endure ." In Hemingway's two novels a traditional life had been destroyed. like Popeye in Sanctuary and drinking. ism. (New York. butratheras the man whichI perhapsshould have been..a world our contemporaries have revealed the ly the natural condition of existence. with a sense of disap- pointment". finallystops writingliterature.9 that would be too horrible to be confronted by a man whose vision was not blurred by alcohol. True. Absalom!.. . 144. And beyond this point literature cannot go. and the characters must exist on the animal level. some cold head-nuzzlingforceps of the savage time which should havetorn mefree.." a offered as bloody proof out of life itself Beyond this dismal point-enduring a that on the animal level war is apparentmeaninglessand savage world-the deg- misery and madness of a naturalistic world. ingway one observes a degenerationfar who thrive because they are in their elebeyond any evidence of animal behavior ment and those more sensitive creatures in Dreiser'snovels.

howeverobjective Zola intended to paired the innocenceof Americanliterabe. and set these works aside as too trivial for serious consideration. Douglas or Booth Tarkington. with the difference gone far toward conqueringancient and new tyrannies. board. In Balzac's studies of Parisian and French that Uncle Tom'sCabinhas largerscope and more sharply although melodramatically realizedcharacters. The vogue of John Steinbeckmay inone may look.perversity. is Steinbeck's best contributionto literature. If. They have been great. But who has pamphleteer-novelistwho can give innot been aware that since the beginning dignation a lasting significance.developed excesses and abuses that invated by the love of money. have been great. social tracts the philosophy emerged What hope? Four years ago Professor from the background and stood before Howard MumfordJones suggested that the reader equally with the characters. that the self-esteem. With Upton Sinclair-and I have in mind his four latest novels with their impossible hero.self-torture. the results. I think that at best The Grapes of Wrath will be remembered as another Uncle Tom's Cabin. the philosophy constituted an indictture. in the contrapuntalindictment. however. Lanny Budd-fiction and pamphleteering fall clatteringly apart. this day.The charming Tortilla Flat. we then have a body of contemporary writing one half of which expresses the dismal zero of the degradation of man and the other half of which is mere journalismor pamphleteering--vigorous and often able protest against injustices. man has yielded up the erroneous though sublime view of the Middle Ages.THE CRISIS IN MODERN LITERATURE 427 It will be said. this passing second. readable books for the day. a minor classic. and he has given expression to those worlds. The defects of the other half are weak and generalizedcharacterization and a fanatical obsession with this year. The defects of one half of our literature are hysteria. this month. How one half of modernliteraturehas become pamphleteeringis apparent. he has ment of society. there has also been affirmation. he has amply compensated himself for that loss by developing an exhilarating self-esteem and a robust self-reliance. certain European influences had imand.Man has gone far toward conquering the world about him. as in Edgar Guest or Lloyd C. some will say. as a panacea Professor Jones rec- . and sterility under the baleful influence of a philosophythat has transformed us into Yahoos. in whatever direction If we take the writings inspired by blind optimism or bland acceptance. For literature the results are simply nil. the self-reli- provincial life there was implicit the ance.And here.I doubt of this unhappy century the vigorous. The pamphleteeringhalf of our literature shows that some of the affirmationsof four hundredyears have failed. that if in the last four hundred years there has been negation. enterprise of our civilization has increasingly called forth a literature of attack and indictment? zealousand idealistic muckraker's regurgitation of the files of the New York Times. it. and we have nothing more than a not to say ferocious. is a true.He has discoveredworlds within himself. In John Dos Passos' picaresque pamphlets the revolutionary view of the author has submerged the who are cut out of illustration characters. at any rate. the enterprise have themselves philosophy that men are chiefly moti. It is spire the claim that he. In Zola's tensify the degradationof man. step by step. but seldom literature.

" "fidelity of detail to the vast panorama of American life.10 Weather is one thing." Atlantic Monthly. she praised the novel as "an ambitious first attempt" and called attention to its "charming style." "lucid characterization. the novel was listed among the books received. 1939). AN AMERICAN NOVELIST BETWEEN WARS JOE LEE DAVIS' I Having amassed a rich fund of experienceby travel and unsuccessfulventures in various professionsand a broad if somewhat bizarre culture by private study.and I I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette. decided. CLXIV (November. The novel was published in an attractively bound Assistant professor of English in the University of Michigan. In his Preface to The Song of Bernadette FranzWerfelsuggeststhe thing: althoughI am not a Catholicbut a Jew.but only if we make democracy a climate. In the more prominent book-review weeklies and on most of the Sunday book pages of metropolitan newspapers.428 COLLEGE ENGLISH ommended a reaffirmationof faith in democracy. drew courage for this undertaking from a far older and far more unconscious vow of mine. There is hope in democracy. 10 "Nobility Wanted." He secluded himself on a farm from his wife and friends.a young New Yorker. Even in the days when I wrote my first verses I vowed that I would evermore and everywhere in all I wrote magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man-careless of a period which has turned away with scorn and rage and indifference from these ultimate values of our mortal lot. in the mid-192o's. labored assiduously for many months. but the only critics of consequence who reviewed it immediately and at. For the degradationof man has been a climate for four hundred years. Miss Pufferglib said nothing derogatory in her entire half-column. volume of nine hundred pages. and climate another. like Homer Zigler long before him. A new firm which had already acquired more liabilities than assets finally accepted the manuscriptin the hope that it would be the latter. 649. John Scribblerus had written it. John Scribblerus. 646. with a sketch of John Scribblerus' career on the cover and a blurb that was remarkable for its lack of advertising sense. The publisher himself wrote John Scribblerus that it had all the makings of a best-seller.The sort of thing I mean must not be confusedwith the easy sentimentality of TortillaFlat. and a little good democraticweather here and there in pinpoints of bland sunshinewill not serve. Our conceptionof democracy must be so completeand so great that it will positively exile from our minds and lives and literaturethe very real horrors of the degradationof man.any length were Miss Constance Pufferglib and Professor Cautious Cleverquill. After giving a summary of the plot as detailed as that in the blurb. We must have that warm humanity which has been increasingly absent as this century has progressed. to write "the Great American Novel." "skilfully articulated . and submitted the result to one publisher after another.

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