New Yorker at Sea

Consider Dave Eggers’ story “Max at Sea” in the recent New Yorker in light of Maxwell Geismar’s comments over half a century ago:

…a negation of the ‘mind’…in favor of the pure and primary world of childhood sensation. That lost world of childhood indeed to which somehow or other, [J.D.] Salinger, like the rest of the New Yorker school, always returns! That pre-Edenite community of yearned-for bliss, where knowledge is again the serpent of all evil: but a false and precocious show of knowledge, to be sure, which elevated without emancipating its innocent and often touching little victims… The root of the matter is surely here, and perhaps all these wise children may yet emerge from the nursery of life and art (208-209)…

More from Geismar in the same book, American Moderns – From Rebellion to Conformity (1958), including the quote above in further context:

The present volume began as a collection of articles and reviews writing in the Nineteen-Forties and Fifties for a more or less popular audience… Some of these articles are in the polemical vein which a critic uses with reluctance when his second nature, or his first, is to inquire, to balance, and to evaluate. The central focus of the volume is on the transitional decade from the Second World War to the middle of the twentieth century – from McCarthy to Sputnik. The historical setting is that of the uneasy ‘peace,’ the tensions of the Cold War, the return to ‘normalcy,’ and the epoch of conformity.

Or was it euphoria? In literature the period marked the decline of the classic modern American writers at the peak of their popular reputation. In criticism there was the movement towards higher and higher levels of aesthetic, or scholastic, absolutism…

There was indeed a state of general inertia in the arts, as the familiar sequel to an age of anxiety: of problems urgent and not resolved, while the surface of the globe, and outer space too, vibrated in the throes of change. The American literary scene of the Forties and Fifties must have presented to the rest of the world an odd and ironic spectacle at times; and perhaps the polemical note was indicated; and meanwhile I trust that this spectacle may also be instructive… (ix-x).

[An] emotional syndrome of fear, terror, obsessional hatred, and perhaps underground attraction, of which [John] Dos Passos is the clearest example, has colored and conditioned our whole intellectual climate during the last decade.

It accounts for our strange concentration of anxiety on the one ritualistic theme of anticommunism, by which every other issue has come to be measured. Thus our crucial domestic battles have been fought out on the popular level, while our intellectual journals have hardly dared to mention them. Our best literary work has come from writers who are outside this intellectual orbit, where panic has slowly subsided into inertia. One notices that Dos Passos himself, settled in the shadow of Monticello, has lost just those attributes of the old republic which made a whole line of country squires – from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt – such a potent force in our social revolution.

Dos Passos, indeed, has become a frightened landlord, guarding his ancestral estate. And as I write these lines, another old-fashioned Southern agrarian, William Faulkner, has just declared that in the final crisis he will have to stand by Mississippi, and shoot down the Negroes in the streets. Well, good-bye to all that (83).

Faulkner had humor, often ironic and bitter, in the series of dramas and tragedies he wrote about the Old South. But the meaning of his humor about the New South, personified in the Snopes clan of The Hamlet (1940) is a very different matter.

Those who are surprised at the recent statements on integration which have come from the Nobel Prize Moralist – America’s literary spokesman before the world – might do well to look at Faulkner’s novels. Not at the rational and moral statements in them, either, but at their prevailing imagery and true dramatic action. The critics who have been celebrating this artist as the foremost symbol of the progressive, modern, ‘civilized’ South have not understood the real psychological forces in his work. Faulkner is, or was, a major artist simply because he revealed the darkest recesses of the Southern psyche: the folds and flaps of fear, ignorance, and prejudice.

But he is a writer who is more than half infatuated with, or strangled by, the psychic demons he has conjured up. Never mind the rhetoric on state occasions. He too belongs with the class of Southern men whom Ellen Glasgow described as having learned to talk and to preach before they learned to think…

The Southern scene does offer great dramatic possibilities for a writer today, and Faulkner is in a unique position to render a true service to his culture, his tradition, and his art. But this writer is not serious any more. The ‘humor’ of the Snopes chronicle is a hasty gag rather than genuine social satire. It almost seems that the artist’s contempt for all phases of modern life, which was clear as early as The Sound and the Fury, has prevented him from learning the truth about the modern South.

Why else should two out of three books produced after the Nobel Prize (with its much-publicized nobility of artistic aspiration) strike us as not only poor, but trivial or cheap? (While the third book, The Fable, is at best mediocre.) This is the real tragedy for Faulkner, for the South, for American letters; and the mass of undiscriminating adulation given to this author recently has been no real help …

So be it; and perhaps it is this dark and recessive fear, rooted in the phobic depths of Faulkner’s own fancy, which has led him to his present position on the racial question. Is Faulkner himself now living among the phantoms that his own dark and fertile imagination has, in the past, conjured up so magnificently? But in the plain light of day, what nonsense it all is!” (101-106)…

East of Eden is a tricky and meaningless parable – on the conscious level – of man’s ‘fall’ through woman’s vice. On the unconscious level – in this case, unconscious to the author – we may feel beneath the novel’s sentimentality, and even below the humanitarian principles which are the remaining link with the best period of [John] Steinbeck’s work, a certain malice and hostility toward human life itself. The good writers often acknowledge this in their own literary vision, and build upon it. The lesser one write romances which both reveal and deny it, and sometimes it comes to dominate or destroy their spirit (166-167)…

Like his closest literary forebear, Dos Passos, [Norman] Mailer has no confidence in human nature itself, and perhaps no mature experience with it. The social values in [Mailer’s third] novel, too, if they are intelligent, decent, liberal, are based on a biological void.

How tragic it is to be without illusions, even if they exist, in a writer’s craft, only to be dispelled. That is probably Norman Mailer’s central flaw, his central need; and meanwhile curious undertones of juvenile malice also appear in his work. He may be the latest type of Bad Boy in our national letters, whose problem is to grow up (178-179)…

In a desperate spiritual revulsion against a devouring infantile egoism, is the answer really to repudiate our whole notion of Western individuality? Is there really no such thing (as Zooey tells Franny) as time or change or growth in our concept of human personality? In the Zen quest for ‘No-Knowledge’ (as Buddy Glass tells his split-half Zooey), is it true that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning ‘the illusory differences between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold?’…a negation of the ‘mind’…in favor of the pure and primary world of childhood sensation. That lost world of childhood indeed to which somehow or other, [J.D.] Salinger, like the rest of the New Yorker school, always returns! That pre-Edenite community of yearned-for bliss, where knowledge is again the serpent of all evil: but a false and precocious show of knowledge, to be sure, which elevated without emancipating its innocent and often touching little victims… The root of the matter is surely here, and perhaps all these wise children may yet emerge from the nursery of life and art (208-209)…

The suffering, the humility, the moral goodness in [Saul Bellow’s] books, the honest and ironic realization of human weakness: these are the traits that appeal to us. But this note of resignation, of acceptance, does not appear in Bellow’s work after the violence and passions of life, as it commonly does in the work of major artists. It appears in Bellow’s fiction instead of the emotional storm and stress it should transcend. The central image of the hero in his novels and stories is not indeed that of the rebellious son, but of the suffering, the tormented, and the conforming son.

To use the phraseology of Salinger, this hero is the good boy, the sad sack; or to use the term of depth psychology, he is the castrated son (221).

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