Criticism has been having its way with James T. Farrell for so long now, that there seems little point in putting more energy into what has been said for the past thirty years. Reduced to its simplicity, it is just that the man can’t write readable stories. Why, in the face of this amply registered opinion, he continues to undertake ever bigger, longer, and heavier narrative projects, is one of the mysteries of the age. It seems like only yesterday that the first volume of a projected four-volume autobiography was being hailed as a paralyzing bore. Now we are already two volumes deep into another four-volume saga, this one dealing with existence in the suburbs of Chicago between 1870 and 1920. What Time Collects must surely be ranked among the most vulnerable titles of the current season; I shall leave each reader to make his own jokes on it, and observe simply that the mixture is here very much as before. The characters are seedy semi-respectables with no perspectives and little shrewdness, the locale is drab, and the prose an odd combination of Victor Appleton and Horatio Alger:
Not only was Jack Pearson handsome and possessed of so strong and hypnotizing a physical appeal but, more, he was destined to be a very rich man. His father was piling up a new fortune in successful speculations on wheat downtown in the Board of Trade building, on Marathon Street. And Frances was far from being unmindful of all the advantages, and the prospects of future splendor that would be hers, were she to become the bride of Jack Pearson. She wanted this to be. She dreamed of it. She began planning to become Mrs. Jack Pearson.
“Far from being unmindful of”—that’s the sort of phrase that gives a real delicate and scrupulous rendering of a jeune fille’s inmost yearnings.
The one new element in the book is an overpowering insistence on the sex-lives of Mr. Farrell’s Valley-City aborigines. There’s little or no love connected with this topic, just sex, turgid, mechanical, and explicit as a textbook of botany. It preoccupies the characters to the exclusion of all other interests, and, being laid on impasto, gives to life in the suburbs of our great Middle West at the turn of the century an eerie coloring. I once owned a little manual of sex-instruction, dedicated to the perfectly sensible proposition that sex should be considered as simply and naturally as any other process. The instruction was therefore conveyed in a set of exemplary dialogues between members of a household as they went through their daily routines and the effect was to make them sound like a set of nuts. Fore-gathering around the breakfast table, they launched with enthusiasm into bacon, eggs, and a rousing discussion of masturbation. While playing a swift set of tennis, they batted around the topic of menopause; and mother, over her pre-dinner sherry, discoursed wisely on the female orgasm. Mr. Farrell’s relentless incorporation of sexual dissection into his leaden-footed narration produces something of this queasy effect.
As for the story itself, it concerns primarily the brief, disastrous marriage of naive Anne Duncan and inconceivably oafish Zeke Daniels. Interlaced are episodes describing the distasteful experiences of Zeke’s mother Frances with heterosexuality and a prurient recollection of her experiments in Lesbianism. Life among the Daniels, though it didn’t promise Anne much to start with, turns out to be a sink of iniquity from which she can escape with only the barest vestiges of self-respect. We seem to be promised at the end of this volume that Anne will get to Chicago itself and there attempt a loftier destiny. No doubt she will, and after 800 more pages she will either have succeeded or failed, if only we can tell the difference—800 or anyhow 1,000 pages more should do it.
Mr. Louis Auchincloss, though also busy and also devoted to the sort of fiction that can be produced like iron ingots, is less—at least so far—automated than Mr. Farrell. The Rector of Justin, his latest production, represents an old fashioned “character study” of the headmaster of an Episcopal boy’s school. Dr. Francis Prescott is seen through a convenient variety of eyes at a number of different stages during his long career. Brain Aspinwall is a member of the Department of English at Justin Martyr, who comes to know the great man only in his dotage but is enthralled by him, and collects reports from others about him. Horace Havistock contributes an account of schoolboy days; David Griscam, a description of the early days at Justin Martyr; Cordelia Prescott is interviewed on her recollections of her father; Jules Griscam, son of David, contributes from beyond the grave an angry memoir; and Brian Aspinwall, as editor, chief snoop, factotum, and master of ceremonies, intersperses insights and lyrical interpretations. This structure, with its heavy weight of documents and second-hand descriptions, with its multiple overlays and contradictory interpretations, gives us a highly qualified picture of Dr. Prescott. Brian Aspinwall is a frank idolater—but such an evident prig, priss, and butt that his judgment is not worth much. We see Prescott as a would-be theological student, we see him as divinity student, and as a parson full-blown; and in none of these roles is his rhetoric anything but fatuous and inflated. And in fact the other commentators give us some disastrous instances of imperception, hypocrisy, and insensitivity on the part of old Prescott. So, fine; the book is an analysis of a petrified old windbag, unwittingly revealed as such by his most devoted admirer. There is in fact a good deal in the novel to support this view of it. The rector has to be deluded into forgetting that his major building program for the school succeeded as a result of a complex swindle. His most intelligent and vital daughter thinks him a sanctimonious fake, and has ample reason to do so; Jules Griscam loathes him passionately for the same reason.
Yet so far as there is an idealist in the book, it is the old man, and much of the work he does carries its own endorsement. So that the book might well be seen as a study in spiritual endeavor hedged in and compromised by a world of money and snobbery. Of course a private New England Episcopal prep school doesn’t stand forth from the beginning as a very distinct alternative to a world of money and snobbery. In fact, there is no single character in the story who seems capable of articulating or clarifying this theme. The final episode of the novel shows everyone as still completely naive about it. After fifty years in the prep-school business, the rector is still wholly unaware of what sort of men his trustees are; the trustees haven’t the faintest idea of what education is about; and so, faute de mieux, the new headmaster, a kind of progressive-education Dr. Slope, remains safe in his administrative saddle. Evidently something, however crummy, is better than nothing. Maybe Brian is supposed to learn from this conflict something about the conditions of spiritual aspiration in the modern world; but he is badly compromised already—to the point actually of inhumanity—and the fable gives him no opportunity to put his lessons to any test.
In effect, Mr. Auchincloss writes, like a latter-day Trollope, a pseudo-critique of commercialism which collapses docilely as soon as one perceives it is being launched from a platform provided by commercialism itself. Like Mr. Auchincloss’s blunted little semi-ethical studies of legal mores, the present novel is fake criticism, moral calisthenics for the already-palpitating. It is a shame, too, for the man has intelligence; but really good novels can’t be written by men who are afraid to ask the questions that hurt. As for the book’s picture of life in our better prep schools, well, perhaps someone better qualified can report if living, breathing people ever spoke the way Brian Aspinwall and Frank Prescott—with their repeated solicitation of the Deity’s help to solve small, severely practical problems—are made to speak in this novel.
R.V. Cassill’s fine new romance The President is stage-set in a small Midwestern academy; its chosen actors, however, are deans, vee-pees, and prexies—it’s all involved with what one calls solemnly the Power Structure, and as these structures are much the same shape wherever you go, it’s not hard to conceive of the story as taking place in an army corps, a bishopric, or a corporation. Royce Morgan is passed over for president of Wellford in favor of a specious opportunist, Winfred Mooney. How he waits and watches and what this judicious process does to him, to the president, and to the two women whom they have entangled in their lives, is the story Mr. Cassill has to tell. On the whole, the two contrasted value-systems are not rendered with any fullness or particularity. Dean Morgan has fewer intellectual commitments—to the arts, to ideas, to specific knowledge—than any dean I’d want to have in my college; President Mooney, though Evil Incarnate, acts it out chiefly in a silver-blonde hairdo, an incautious preference for his own sex, and lower educational standards. The texture of issues is, perhaps, a bit thin; but in Mr. Cassill’s chosen fictional terms, these proportions are exactly right. The struggle is an inward one, between (I suppose we must say) the hollow shell and the well-stuffed shirt. This judgment is not far from that passed on our hero, within the novel, by those who know him best; he’s a man with an appalling sense of responsibility, and his final succession to the presidency of Wellford—late, much too late—merely confirms a sense of his having at last successfully buried himself.
About this pltiful figure of good will and his lamentable playmates, Mr. Cassill writes with whirling energy and explosive metaphorical shiftiness. His style is perpetually inventive; one reads with the joyful sense of something being continually created under one’s eyes. As for insight, I don’t feel that the full measure of his perception is absorbed by either of the two men, one of whom is too perverse and the other too understanding to convey the deeper vitalities. And Priss, the Dean’s morbidly neurotic wife, while she’s a triumph of underground belligerence, is almost too much of a case history to cast any light on the issues and personalities surrounding the Wellford presidency. There is a stage at which all all the novel’s characters threaten to become caricatures. They do not in fact do so; for one thing, the prose is agile and thoughtful enough to prevent it. Yet the reader as he puts down The President may have a sense that, with all its merits, the book has not worked out quite as richly as he expected it to; it’s been a spectacle, a drama, an entertainment, but not a fully authentic moral study. Maybe that’s a square expectation; or maybe, on the other hand, savage Priss has eaten out more of our hero than the author actually intended. Anyhow, when her reality fades from the scene, the book fades too; and the final resolution is made without the sense that anyone has looked at it really hard, and summed up the values involved. For all this, a fine, fierce novel about some aspects of the academic scene usually buried under layers of niceness.
A catechism-passage halfway through Mr. Cassill’s novel tests at least 150-proof Joyce; Mary Lee Settle’s impracticably titled Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday works out to a consistent, overall 86-proof Faulkner. The story in essence is Hannah McKarkle’s (no kidding!) investigations into her charming doomed dead brother Jonathan. It is a story told with multiple flashbacks into the time past of the close family, the extended family, and the entire sordid little section of Appalachia which is Miss Settle’s chosen beat. Indeed, the muddling of past with present is the story; but it will take an alert and almost passionately cooperative reader to undo the tangle which results. Faulkner imposes at least as heavy a burden of decipherment, but rewards us, at his best, with a bewildered, vociferous intensity; Miss Settle’s prose is less radioactive by far. Besides, the charming doomed young man is a fragile, even volatile problem for investigation; the more specific reasons one finds for his condition—and Faulkner at least wouldn’t have been afraid to have the narrator look straight at herself for a while—the less charming and doomed he is bound to appear. Thus the hard work of psychic understanding soon vaporizes away into unconvincing social commentary, and the villain of this book appears as white Protestant bourgeois respectability or technological unemployment or something like that. In a novel ostensibly devoted to him, Johnny himself never figures as much more than a pretext—which, with the proper ironies, might be all right too; but they’re muted out of existence, and the novel struck me as a flawed performance. Eloquent in many passages it surely is, and interestingly, thoughtfully constructed; but not focussed or resourceful enough, to keep the reader content.
July 9, 1964