Convulsive Throes

The Live Goat

by Cecil Dawkins
Harper & Row, 266 pp., $6.95

Eisenhower, My Eisenhower

by Jerome Charyn
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 178 pp., $5.95

Bad News

by Paul Spike
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 152 pp., $5.95

What are the roots that clutch American fiction? Nearly 150 years ago, William Hazlitt seized a gist—or at any rate what an Englishman repeatedly returns to as a gist. No roots; stony rubbish?

The map of America is not historical; and therefore, works of fiction do not take root in it; for the fiction, to be good for anything, must not be in the author’s mind, but belong to the age or country in which he lives. The genius of America is essentially mechanical and modern.

Hence the bulging impotence of Charles Brockden Brown:

His strength and his efforts are convulsive throes—his works are a banquet of horrors. They are full (to disease) of imagination—but it is forced, violent, and shocking. This is to be expected, we apprehend, in attempts of this kind in a country like America, where there is, generally speaking, no natural imagination. The mind must be excited by overstraining, by pulleys and levers.

American fiction is still haunted by the Specter of the Brockden. Such Gothic comics as Jerome Charyn’s novel Eisenhower, My Eisenhower and Paul Spike’s stories Bad News: these hope that all roads of excess lead to the palace of wisdom. For that truly difficult thing, a historical map, they substitute that falsely easy one, a futurist fantasy. They exult in the Americanness of the essentially mechanical and modern; they yank the pulleys and levers. They can never sup too full of horrors; they gag on without gagging. They manifest no natural imagination, but rather a hardened childishness.

Two far better books, those by Cecil Dawkins and Tess Slesinger, constitute more intelligent conceptions of the genius of America. Helped perhaps by the gross mannishness of the mechanical and modern, the male manipulating of these pulleys and levers, American women novelists have mostly reflected a truer terror whether in past or present. In The Live Goat, Miss Dawkins merges history and horror in the story—set in about 1840—of a half-witted boy who has murdered a sixteen-year-old girl and who is brought back hundreds of miles to be hanged. Natural imagination is here sustained by a rich imagining of nature—lost landscapes of jungle plethora and of silky swamp. Instead of a future-mongering, we are given the pertinacity of the past—one which insists on how much of the genius of America is other than mechanical and modern. The horrors are not banqueted upon.

Nor are they in Miss Slesinger’s stories, On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover. Horrors not as a banquet but as canapés. Sterility and chatter, anger and void, not the lurid livid flickerings which elsewhere stir a comfortable Disneyesque terror. Miss Slesinger’s stories were originally published in 1935 as Time: The Present; scarcely any of them have dated at all, and they make their present felt. They know the guilts of intellectuality and of padded comfort, of affluence and of fluency, and they offer no flashy torture chamber but instead a keen sense of an…

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