Fiction of the Forties. By Chester E. Eisinger. (University of Chicago Press, 59s. 6d.) Tradition and Dream : The English and Ameri- can Novel from the Twenties to Our Time.
By Walter Allen. (Phoenix House, 30s.) THESE books live up to their titles very exactly: they both aim at the comprehensive survey rather than the vivifying new thesis, and the aims are not betrayed. Both writers display a balanced fairness of assessment, a generous and tolerant understanding of very disparate styles of writing, and a thorough acquaintance with a vast amount of fiction which in itself seems to justify their right to lead us through the teeming variety they deal with. They both draw up maps: nowhere does the prideful or acrimonious critical ego ob- trude itself. With all that willingly allowed, they nevertheless set me musing a little.
Take Eisinger's book, in which a distinctly American approach to literature is seen to be at work. He has closely studied some 150 novels (my hat off to him there—some of them must have been enough to try a saint's patience), and when he comes up for air he has a picture of the period for us, or what he calls a 'meaningful arrangement.' I have divided the fiction of the Forties into six sections: the war novel, the fate of naturalism, the new liberalism, the conserva- tive imagination, the new fiction, and the search for man and America.' And throughout the book I became aware of what I can only call compulsive classification. He starts with the re- vealing phrase that the fiction of the Forties 'demands a pattern.' And he is willing to pro- liferate categories until every novel rests in a larger home.
Thus the war novel is sub-divided into two groups: 'those revealing patterns of despair and those showing patterns of affirmation.' One has an impression of distinct unease when a novel resists almost immediate pigeon-holing. For ex- ample, a character in one novel 'disturbs a little the sohematisation here established.' And isn't it just a little innocent to remark of Peter Taylor that 'he suggests how arbitrary divisions must come into play in the constructs of literary history, since writers do not always fall conveni- ently under the rubrics critics prepare for them.' Was the lesson new with Peter Taylor? One almost feels that it is the massive scheme of con- taining categories which matters more than the actual fiction. That's not quite fair, of course, but I did get the sense of an enormous reticu- lated screen being wheeled into place between me and the actual written stuff.
Perhaps a give-away phrase is this: 'these reference points help to locate him.' Is there perhaps—and now I include a lot of American writing, sociological as well as literary-critical —an embarrassment, even an awed vertigo, ex- perienced by many Americans when they con- front the boundless and bewildering variety of their continent? Is there a more than intellectual need for 'reference points'? Are they made un- easy by what they cannot 'locate'? I don't mean this to sound too critical. Eisinger is a shrewd and tactful critic. He manages to write many deft, illuminating summaries of people like Mailer, Farrell, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, Irwin Shaw, James Gould Cozzens, Eudora Welty and many others. He is always clear, always in con- trol; and though some of his terminology threatens to collapse into jargon (Bellow's 'para- doxical multilevel style'), he has many neat alerting points to make, as when he talks of the 'American writer's love affair with raw material which tended to overwhelm the efforts of the shaping imagination.'
More than that, he has sufficient political and social sense of the period to draw a meaningful curve from the philistine demand for a nationalistic and positive fiction which initiated the Forties, on to the rejection of social issues and concern with the inner man, as evidenced by the 'new fiction,' and thence to the celebration of the supreme value of the individual in writers like Bellow. He describes the difficulties that liberalism encountered in the period (Trilling's Middle of the Journey is well analysed), and how a new pessimism led to the emergence of a deeply conservative fiction (Cozzens is very fairly considered).
But I simply wonder Whether one can- yet—give a separate identity to the 'fiction of the Forties.' Are criticism and research in danger of breathing a little too hard on the heels of the products of the creative imagination? Have we reached a point where a formidable set of terms and categories are ready to pounce on the writer's words while they are still warm on the page? (I had an eerie feeling that one day I might receive a book called 'Fiction of the Seventies,' subtitled 'An Antici- pation.') Yet it would be churlish not to end by saying that Eisinger has written a genuinely interesting and illuminating book. And to any- one teaching the period it will be invaluable. Walter Allen's book takes on more writers and a longer time and, in a sense, he can point to lines already drawn. His title indicates the broad difference under Which he discusses the fiction of the two countries—the American writer's pre- occupation with the American dream, the English writer's inexorable involvement in tradi- tion. Beyond that he ventures very little schema- tisation and proceeds chronologically, offering critical summaries which are always temperate, informed, lively and interesting. He is a very civilised critic. He does not strain to be original (ten pages on Joyce, eight pages on Lawrence —how could he be?), yet he is never dull or platitudinous. There are some value judgments one might query (did Wyndham Lewis, even at his best, write 'prose as exciting as any written in English this century'?), one or two omissions (shouldn't Philip Larkin's name be in there just before Amis and Wain?), but then he reminds us of so many interesting and half-forgotten writers who are an important and enriching part of the heritage of our time that one is dis- inclined to quibble.
Having faulted Eisinger for a tendency to over-elaborate, it is only fair to say that Allen tends occasionally to the other extreme—a series of rapid summarising portraits, drawn with great humane poise and a flexible authority re- freshingly free from all jargon, but left a bit more unrelated than they might have been. I was a little out of breath by the time I had finished this book. Again, the book will be in- valuable for teachers, as well as very readable and entertaining for the 'common reader': but does a series of assembled portraits yield the sort of historical panorama which I sense Allen is intent on providing? Yet for all the ungenerous musing I have indulged in, the net result of both these books was to leave me with an almost dazzled sense of the amazing wealth and variety of fiction, and fiction of a high calibre, which our times have produced, or provoked. If the novel is under sentence of death as Ortega y Gasset and T. S. Eliot both so authoritatively pro- nounced, -then one can only say—it's a long time dying.