“Bellow’s nonfiction has the same strengths as his stories and novels: a dynamic responsiveness to character, place, and time (or era) . . . And you wonder—what other highbrow writer, or indeed lowbrow writer has such a reflexive grasp of the street, the machine, the law courts, the rackets?” —Martin Amis, The New York Times Book Review
One of the supreme fiction writers of the twentieth century, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow was also deeply insightful in his lesser-known roles as essayist, critic, and lecturer. Gathered together in this stunning compilation, Bellow’s vast range of nonfiction reveals the same wit, daring, and wisdom that distinguish The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, and other masterly novels. In There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, as in the novels, the twentieth century comes fiercely to life through Bellow’s unrivaled human understanding and singular style.
Benjamin Taylor, editor of the acclaimed Saul Bellow: Letters, joins Bellow’s better-known essays to previously uncollected works selected from his criticism, interviews, speeches, and other reflections. Featuring Bellow’s commentary on such fellow writers as Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and J. D. Salinger, a remembrance of Franklin D. Roosevelt, dispatches from Paris, Spain, and Israel, and indelible portraits of his hometown, Chicago, this collection brings together writing from every phase of his career. There Is Simply Too Much to Think About is a guided tour of the twentieth century—what we did, suffered, survived—conducted by one of modern life’s most inspiring minds.
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About the Author
Saul Bellow (1915–2005) is the only novelist to receive three National Book Awards, for The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet. In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Humboldt’s Gift. The Nobel Prize in Literature was also awarded to him in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” In 1990, Mr. Bellow was presented the National Book Award Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. He also received the National Medal of Arts.
Benjamin Taylor, editor, is the author of Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay, named a Best Book of 2012 by the New Yorker, and of two award-winning novels, Tales Out of School and The Book of Getting Even. Proust: The Future’s Secret, his contribution to the Yale Jewish Lives series, will be published in autumn 2015. He previously edited Saul Bellow: Letters, named a Best Book of 2010 by Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times and Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. A faculty member in The New School’s Graduate School of Writing, Taylor also teaches in the Graduate Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. He is a past fellow and current trustee of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Date of Birth:June 10, 1915
Date of Death:April 5, 2005
Place of Birth:Lachine, Quebec, Canada
Place of Death:Brookline, Massachusetts
Education:University of Chicago, 1933-35; B.S., Northwestern University, 1937
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There Is Simply Too Much to Think About
By Saul Bellow, Benjamin Taylor
Penguin Publishing GroupCopyright © 2016 Saul Bellow
All rights reserved.
The Adventures of Augie March
Seize the Day
Henderson the Rain King
Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories
Mr. Sammler’s Planet
To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account
The Dean’s December
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories
More Die of Heartbreak
The Bellarosa Connection
Something to Remember Me By
It All Adds Up
Letters (Edited by Benjamin Taylor)
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
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New York, New York 10014
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A Penguin Random House Company
First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015
Copyright © 2015 by Janis Bellow
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
Acknowledgments to the original publishers of the selections in this book appear here.
Some of the works were previously published in Saul Bellow’s It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (Viking Penguin, 1994). They appeared first in issues of Esquire, Forbes, Holiday, Life, The National Interest, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, Newsday, The Noble Savage, The Ontario Review, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The Times Literary Supplement, and Travel Holiday.
“Israel: The Six-Day War” (as “Report on Israel”) was published in Newsday, issues of June 12, 1967, June 13, 1967, and June 16, 1967. © Newsday Inc., 1967. Reprinted with permission.
“Nobel Lecture” is published by permission of The Nobel Foundation. © The Nobel Foundation 1976.
“Machines and Storybooks” was published in Harper’s, August 1974. Copyright © 1974 Harper’s Magazine. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
“Before I Go Away: A Words and Images Interview with Norman Manea.” © Words & Images, 19 Derech Eretz Street, Gedera 7047119, Israel. Words & Images is a nonprofit project dedicated to the documentation and dissemination of in-depth interviews with great Jewish writers of our time who are invited to explore the connections between their oeuvre and their Jewish identity. The project is conducted in conjunction with the National Library in Jerusalem.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
There is simply too much to think about : collected nonfiction / Saul Bellow ; edited by Benjamin Taylor.
I. Taylor, Benjamin, 1952– editor. II. Title.
—Mr. Sammler’s Planet
Prologue: Starting Out in Chicago
What was it, in the Thirties, that drew an adolescent in Chicago to the writing of books? How did a young American of the Depression period decide that he was, of all things, a literary artist? I use the pretentious term literary artist simply to emphasize the contrast between such an ambition and the external facts. A colossal industrial and business center, knocked flat by unemployment, its factories and even its schools closing, decided to hold a World’s Fair on the shore of Lake Michigan, with towers, high rides, exhibits, Chinese rickshaws, a midget village in which there was a midget wedding every day, and other lively attractions including whores and con men and fan dancers. There was a bit of gaiety, there was quite a lot of amoebic dysentery. Prosperity did not come back. Several millions of dollars were invested in vain by businessmen and politicians. If they could be quixotic, there was no reason why college students shouldn’t be impractical too. And what was the most impractical of choices in somber, heavy, growling, lowbrow Chicago? Why, it was to be the representative of beauty, the interpreter of the human heart, the hero of ingenuity, playfulness, personal freedom, generosity and love. I cannot even now say that this was a bad sort of crackpot to be.
The difference between that time and this is that in the Thirties crackpots were not subsidized by their families. They had to go it alone for several years. Or at least until the New Deal (thanks largely to Harry Hopkins) recognized that a great government could buy the solution of any problem and opened WPA projects in many parts of the country. I think it possible that Hopkins and Roosevelt, seeing how much trouble unhappy intellectuals had made in Russia, Germany and Italy between 1905 and 1935, thought it a bargain to pay people twenty-three dollars a week for painting post office murals and editing guidebooks. This plan succeeded admirably. If I am not mistaken, America continued to follow the Hopkins hint in postwar Europe and perhaps in Vietnam.
I know, for instance, that John Cheever has been conducting creative writing courses at Sing Sing. Writers and criminals have often found that they had much in common. And correctional officials seem to understand, thanks to the psychology courses they take in the universities, that it is excellent therapy to write books and that it may soften the hearts of criminals to record their experiences. Politicians, too, when they fall from power or retire, become writers or university professors. Thus Hubert Humphrey and Dean Rusk became lecturers, Eugene McCarthy became a poet and an altogether different sort of politician, Spiro Agnew, a novelist. Interviewed not long ago in The New York Times, Mr. Agnew said that, having suffered greatly, he felt the need to do something creative to recover his spirits and was setting to work writing a novel because he was not yet strong enough to do serious mental work.
But I started out to recall what it was like to set oneself up to be a writer in the Midwest during the Thirties. For I thought of myself as a Midwesterner and not as a Jew. I am often described as a Jewish writer; in much the same way, one might be called a Samoan astronomer or an Eskimo cellist or a Zulu Gainsborough expert. There is some oddity about it. I am a Jew, and I have written some books. I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there. I wonder now and then whether Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and I have not become the Hart Schaffner and Marx of our trade. We have made it in the field of culture as Bernard Baruch made it on a park bench, as Polly Adler made it in prostitution, as Two-Gun Cohen, the personal bodyguard of Sun Yat-Sen, made it in China. My joke is not broad enough to cover the contempt I feel for the opportunists, wise guys and career types who impose such labels and trade upon them. In a century so disastrous to Jews, one hesitates to criticize those who believe that they are making the world safer by publicizing Jewish achievements. I myself doubt that this publicity is effective.
I did not go to the public library to read the Talmud but the novels and poems of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay. These were people who had resisted the material weight of American society and who proved—what was not immediately obvious—that the life lived in great manufacturing, shipping and banking centers with their slaughter stink, their great slums, prisons, hospitals and schools, was also a human life. It appeared to me that this one thing, so intimately known that not only nerves, senses, mind but also my very bones wanted to put it into words, might contain elements that not even Dreiser, whom I admired most, had yet reached. I felt that I was born to be a performing and interpretive creature, that I was meant to take part in a peculiar, exalted game. For there are good grounds to consider this, together with other forms of civilized behavior and ceremony, a game. At its noblest this game is played, under discipline, before God himself—so Plato said and others as well. The game can be an offering, a celebration, an act of praise, an acknowledgment also of one’s weaknesses and limitations. I couldn’t have put it in this manner then. All that appeared was a blind obstinate impulse expressing itself in bursts of foolishness. I loved great things. I thought I had a right to think of that exalted game. I was also extremely proud, ornery and stupid.
I was, in 1937, a very young married man who had quickly lost his first job and who lived with his in-laws. His affectionate, loyal and pretty wife insisted that he must be given a chance to write something. Having anyone pay attention to my writing wasn’t a real possibility. I am as often bemused as amused at the attention my books have received. Neglect would have been frightful, but attention has its disadvantages. The career of a critic, when I am feeling mean about it, I sometimes compare to that of a deaf man who tunes pianos. In a more benevolent mood I agree with my late father that people must be encouraged to make as honest a living as they can. For this reason I don’t object to becoming a topic. When I visited Japan I saw that there were prayer-and-fortune-telling papers sold for a penny at each temple. The buyers rolled up these long strips of paper and tied them by threads to bushes and low trees. From the twigs there dangled hundreds of tightly furled papers. I sometimes compare myself to one of these temple trees.
So I sat at a bridge table in a back bedroom of the apartment while all rational, serious, dutiful people were at their jobs or trying to find jobs, writing something. My table faced three cement steps that rose from the cellar into the brick gloom of a passageway. Only my mother-in-law was at home. A widow then in her seventies, she wore a heavy white braid down her back. She had been a modern woman and a socialist and suffragette in the Old Country. She was attractive in a fragile, steely way. You felt Sophie’s strength of will in all things. She kept a neat house. The very plants, the ashtrays, the pedestals, the doilies, the chairs revealed her mastery. Each object had its military place. Her apartment could easily have been transferred to West Point.
Lunch occurred at half past twelve. The cooking was good. We ate together in the kitchen. The meal was followed by an interval of stone. My mother-in-law took a nap. I went into the street. Ravenswood was utterly empty. I walked about with something like a large stone in my belly. I often turned into Lawrence Avenue and stood on the bridge looking into the drainage canal. If I had been a dog I would have howled. Even a soft howl would have helped. But I was not here to howl. I was here to interpret the world (its American version) as brilliantly as possible. Still I would have been far happier selling newspapers at Union Station or practicing my shots in a poolroom. But I had a discipline to learn at the bridge table in the bedroom.
No wonder a writer of great talent and fine intelligence like John Cheever volunteers to help the convicts with their stories. He knows how it feels to be locked in. Maybe he thinks the prisoners, being already locked in, may as well learn the discipline. It is the most intolerable of privations for people whose social instincts are so highly developed that they want to be confined in rooms in order to write novels. Nuns fret not, perhaps, but writers do. Bernanos, the French religious novelist, said that his soul could not bear to be cut off from its kind and that was why he did his work in cafés. Cafés indeed! I would have kissed the floor of a café. There were no cafés in Chicago. There were greasy-spoon cafeterias, one-arm joints, taverns. I never yet heard of a writer who brought his manuscripts into a tavern. I have always taken an interest in the fact that Schiller liked to smell apples when he was writing, that someone else kept his feet in a tub of water. The only person whose arrangements seemed to me worth imitating was the mystic and guru Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff, when he had work to do, set forth from headquarters in Fontainebleau with his disciples in several limousines. They carried hampers with caviar, cold fowl, champagne, cheese and fruit. At a signal from the master the cars would stop. They would picnic in a meadow and then, with all his followers around him, Gurdjieff did his writing. This, if it can be arranged, seems to me worth doing.
I am glad to say that I can’t remember what I was writing in Ravenswood. It must have been terrible. The writing itself, however, was of no importance. The important thing was that American society and S. Bellow came face to face. I had to learn that by cutting myself off from American life in order to perform an alien task, I risked cutting myself off from everything that could nourish me. But this was the case only if you granted the monopoly of nutrients to this business-industrial, vital, brutal, proletarian and middle-class city that was itself involved in a tremendous struggle. It was not even aggressively hostile, saying, “Lead my kind of life or die.” Not at all. It simply had no interest in your sort of game.
Quite often, in the Hudson belonging to J.J., my brother-in-law, my mother-in-law and I drove to the cemetery. There we tended her husband’s grave. Her trembling but somehow powerful, spotty hand pulled weeds. I made trips with a Mason jar to the faucet and made water splotches about the nasturtiums and sweet williams. Death, I thought, Chicago-style, might not be such a bad racket after all. At least you didn’t have to drive down Harlem Avenue in rush hour back to the house with its West Point arrangements, with its pages of bad manuscript on the bridge table, and the silent dinner of soup and stew and strudel. After which you and your wife, washing dishes, enjoyed the first agreeable hours of the day.
J.J., my brother-in-law, born Jascha in the old country, practiced law in the Loop. He was a Republican, member of the American Legion, a golfer, a bowler; he drove his conservative car conservatively and took The Saturday Evening Post; he wore a Herbert Hoover starched collar, trousers short in the ankle, and a hard straw hat in the summer. He spoke in pure Hoosier twang, not like a Booth Tarkington gentleman but like a real Tippecanoe country dirt farmer. All this Americanism was imposed on an exquisitely oriental face, dark, with curved nose and Turkish cheekbones. Naturally a warm-hearted man, he frowned upon me. He thought I was doing something foreign.
There was an observable parallel between us. As I was making a writer of myself, this exotic man was transforming his dark oriental traits and becoming an American from Indiana. He spoke of Aaron Slick from Punkin’ Crick, of Elmer Dub: “Ah kin read writin’, but ah can’t read readin’.” He had served in the Army—my wife wore his 1917 overcoat (too small for me) and J.J. told old, really old La Salle Street Republican sex jokes about Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling. It was common in that generation and the next to tailor one’s appearance and style to what were, after all, journalistic publicity creations and products of caricature. The queer hunger of immigrants and their immediate descendants for true Americanism has yet to be described. It may be made to sound like fun but I find it hard to think of anyone who underwent the process with joy. Those incompetents who lacked mimetic talent and were pure buffoons were better off—I remember a cousin, Arkady, from the Old Country who declared that his new name was now and henceforth Lake Erie. A most poetic name, he thought. In my own generation there were those immigrants who copied even the unhappiness of the Protestant majority, embracing its miseries, battling against Mom; reluctant, after work, to board the suburban train, drinking downtown, drinking on the club car, being handed down drunk to the wife and her waiting station wagon like good Americans. These people martyred themselves in the enactment of roles that proved them genuine—just as madly wretched in marriage as Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd. Cousin Arkady, a clown who sold dehydrated applesauce on the road, giving dry applesauce demonstrations to housewives in small-town department stores, was spared the worst of it. He simply became “Archie” and made no further effort to prove himself a real American.
The point of this brief account, as I see it, is to evoke that mixture of imagination and stupidity with which people met the American Experience, that murky, heavy, burdensome, chaotic thing. I see that my own error, shared with many others, was to seek sanctuary in what corners of culture one could find in this country, there to enjoy my high thoughts and to perfect myself in the symbolic discipline of an art. I can’t help feeling that I overdid it. One didn’t need as much sanctuary as all that.
If I had to name the one force in America that opposes the symbolic discipline of poetry today as much as brutal philistinisms did before World War II, I would say the Great Noise. The enemy is noise. By noise I mean not simply the noise of technology, the noise of money or advertising and promotion, the noise of the media, the noise of miseducation, but the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crises of modern life. Mind, I don’t say that philistinism is gone. It is not. It has found many disguises, some highly artistic and peculiarly insidious. But the noise of life is the great threat. Contributing to it are real and unreal issues, ideologies, rationalizations, errors, delusions, nonsituations that look real, nonquestions demanding consideration, opinions, analyses in the press, on the air, expertise, inside dope, factional disagreement, official rhetoric, information—in short, the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing of poets in the Soviet Union, says of the Russian noise: “Nowhere else I believe were real people so much deafened as they were here by the din of life—One after another poets fell silent because they could no longer hear their own voices.” She adds: “The noise drowned out thought and, in the case of millions, conscience as well.” William Wordsworth, nearly two hundred years ago, had expressed his concern over the effects of modern turbulence on poetry. He was right too. But in the language of my youth—“He didn’t know the half of it.”
The Fifties and Before
The police come first to your notice in Spain, taking precedence over the people, the streets and the landscape: the Guardia Civil in their wooden-looking, shiny, circular hats, brims flattened at the back, hats that are real enough, since they are worn and seen but, unlike the tommy gun that each guardia has in the crook of his arm, lacking in real reality. Next, gray-uniformed police with the red eagle on their sleeves and rifles hanging on their backs. Even the guard in the park, an old man in the costume of a Swiss chasseur, with a draggled feather, leather jerkin and shabby leggings, holds a rifle by the strap. Then there are the secret police; no one knows how many kinds there are, but you see a great deal of them. On the Irún-Madrid express our passports were examined by one who swung into the compartment and reversed his lapel, showing us the badge of blue, gold and red enamel. He was quiet, equable and unsystematic, sighing while he wrote some of the passport numbers into his notebook and ruffling the pages as if wondering what to do next with his authority. He murmured adiós and withdrew. The train labored on toward the flower-blazing villas of Santander, the wooden walls of the car quivering. The seats were long and seignorial, each headrest covered with lace, and in one of them sat a Spaniard who, as we were passing the harbor, engaged us in conversation, not casually, by design, preventing me from looking at the ships in the silver, coal-streaked evening water. He gave us a lecture on the modernity of Santander and invited us to ask questions on Spanish life, Spanish history, geography, industry or character, and without being asked, wrinkling his narrow forehead and shooting forward his palms like a photographer ordering you to hold still, he began to speak of hydroelectric power, very minute in his details about turbines, wiring, transmitters and whatnot. We were American and therefore interested in mechanical subjects. I was not an engineer, I told him. Nevertheless he finished his speech and sat as if waiting for me to propose a subject closer to my interests. He was a small, nervously mobile, brown man with measuring, aggressive, melancholy eyes. He wore a gloomy brown gabardine suit, shiny with dirt, and shoes that were laced through only half the eyelets. Already we were climbing into the thickening darkness; farms appeared below, remote in the steep green valleys. “You are on a holiday?” he said. “You will see many beautiful things.” He enumerated them: the Escorial, the Prado, the Alhambra, Seville, Cádiz, la taza de plata. He had seen them all; he had been everywhere; he had fought everywhere. “In Spain?” I asked. In Spain, of course, and in Russia and Poland as a member of the Blue Division against the Reds. Essentially he was a soldier; he came of a military family; his father was a high-ranking officer, a colonel in the air force. He threw his hand open to me, displaying a white scar in the palm—his souvenir of Albacete. Just then a young guardia, lanky and sunburned, began to roll back the refractory door, and he sprang from his place, seized the handle and held it. He spoke a few rapid words in an undertone to the guardia and rattled the door shut. Someone, certainly not one of the Spaniards in the compartment, said, “Hay sitio.” There was room enough for two more passengers. But the colonel’s son kept his counsel, and stepping over legs to his own seat, he resumed his conversation—with me alone this time, confidentially; and for a while something of the expression with which he had dismissed the guardia lingered on his face, the roused power of his office. Yes, he belonged to the police and made three trips a week between Irún and Madrid. He liked the job. Being an old campaigner, he did not mind the jolting or the noise—there was singing accompanied by rhythmical clapping and stamping in the next compartment; in his own good time, he put a stop to that. The pay was not enough for his style of life, but he was expecting a good enchufe, or sinecure, to which he felt himself entitled. Fortunately he could add to his income by writing. He wrote fiction, and at present he was busy with a long historical novel in verse. His eyes grew hot and visionary as he began to talk of the poets he admired and to quote, somber and reverent. I reflected that it was probably appropriate, since so many European writers were ambitious to become policemen, that the police should aspire to become writers.
Meanwhile the sky had grown dark and the train threaded its weak light among the trees and rocks or stopped briefly at stations as weakly lighted as itself. Crowds waited in the mist and the passage was filling. No one made a persistent effort to get into the compartment; everyone was turned away by the colonel’s son. We, the Americans, were in his charge and he was determined that we should have a comfortable night, with space enough to stretch out and sleep. But somehow, by pressure of numbers, the vacant places were filled, and sensing our disapproval of such a thing, he did not try to evict the new occupants. He continued to be as solicitous as before. When I broke off a piece of the loaf I had bought in Hendaye, he was horrified to see me eat such inferior bread. I must have a slice of his tortilla. He dragged down his valise, touched the lock, and it sprang open. The tortilla was in a round tin box. Under it lay copies of Green Hornet, Coyote and other pulp magazines. He cut a thick gray slice of the cake. I ate what I could of it, excused myself from finishing and went into the corridor. Most of the people there were traveling between local stations, a crowd of gente humilde, sad, shabby and world-worn, resting between the walls, leaning on the brass rods along the windows, with gloom-deepened eyes and black nostrils; in muffling shawls or berets that fattened their heads and made a disproportion in their long, brown faces; melancholy, but with a kind of resistance to dreariness, as if ready to succumb so far but no farther to it—the Spanish dignidad.
The passengers in the neighboring compartment had become very boisterous, and now the colonel’s son came out and subdued them. I returned to my seat and he to his. Immediately he opened a new topic. Tired of his conversation and of humoring him, I refused to respond, and at last he was silent. Then the shades were drawn, someone turned off the light, and we tried to sleep.
By morning the passage was bare, swept clean. The colonel’s son said, “We will pass the Escorial soon, where the tombs of the kings are.” I was stony to him. We were running downslope in a rush of smoke. The shallow fields, extending on either side to the mountains, looked drought-stricken, burned, desert, mere stubble and dust. We burst into the suburbs of Madrid and into the yards. On the platform the colonel’s son was at my back, and in the sooty arcades and the hell’s-antechamber turmoil of the station he hung on, rueful and anxious at my speed. Presumably he had to know where I was staying in Madrid to complete his report. From the hotel bus I saw his brown face in the spectator throng of porters, cabbies and touts for hotels and pensiones, watching the baggage being lifted to the roof, hot-eyed, avoiding my glance and looking on at the work. Successful!
First and last, the police. In every hotel there are police forms to fill, and passports have to be registered at the station. To obtain a railroad ticket you must make out a declaration stating the object of the journey, and you cannot travel without a triptico, a safe-conduct. No consulate or embassy is permitted to grant a visa without the police salida. The broad face of Seguridad, near the place where the first shots were fired on Napoleon’s troops, dominates the Puerta del Sol with barred and darkened windows. The police license radios. The police go through your suitcase in a provincial rooming house. The woman living in the cave dug in the bluff near the Manzanares is quick to tell you, “We are here with the permission of the policía.” Everywhere you hear that the jails are full. There is regular bus service for visitors from Cibeles, at the center of town, to the Carabanchel prison. On a trolley car near the Toledo Gate I saw two arrestees, an old man and a boy of about eighteen, being taken there. They were handcuffed and in the custody of a pair of guardias with the inevitable machine guns. The boy, with thick hair that grew sturdily down his neck and with prematurely deep creases beneath his eyes, had the precarious nonchalance of deep misery and deep hatred. There was a loaf of bread sticking out of his pocket. The old man was one-armed, filthy and scarred. His feet were coming through the rope-soled alpargatas. He was nearly bald and the lines of a healed wound spread under his thin gray hair. I looked at him and he gave me a gentle shrug of surrender, not daring to speak, but when I got down in Mataderos, among buildings demolished during the civil war, he ventured to lift his hand and wave it as far as the steel cuff permitted.
These were probably common criminals, not Rojos. Hundreds of the latter are arrested every month, and the trials at Alcalá de Henares continue endlessly. Political prisoners released from the overflowing jails are on conditional liberty and show you the cards on which they must have a current official stamp. Most of them are not granted work permits and live as they can in the streets, shining shoes, opening taxi doors, peddling lottery tickets and begging.
At the center of Madrid you occasionally notice shot-scarred buildings, but on the whole there are few reminders of the civil war in the better barrios. On Gran Via the shops are almost American in their luxury, and the early-evening café crowds that sit looking down the broad curve of the street at the mass of banks, churches and government buildings resemble those in New York and Washington bars. Hollywood pictures run in all the better theaters, and the craving for American good things—Buicks, nylons, Parker 51 pens and cigarettes—is as powerful here as in the other capitals of the world, and as in most of the capitals there are no dollars and the black market thrives. The police do not interfere with it. Peddlers go among the tables offering pens and cigarettes. Some of these, especially the pens, are obvious counterfeits; the Lucky Strike packages are beautifully done; the blue tax stamps are perfect; the cigarettes are filled with dung and crumbled straw. A boy comes with a huge gold ring to sell. He gives you glimpses of it in his cupped hands with exaggerated furtiveness, his face frantically thievish. It is a heavy, ugly, squarish ring, and you wonder who would ever buy it. He whispers, “It’s stolen,” and offers it for two hundred pesetas, one hundred, fifty, and then he gives you up with a sad, bored look and tries another table. Women flap their lottery tickets and beg tenaciously. Some of them carry blind or crippled infants and exhibit their maimed or withered legs. One, with a practiced movement, turns the child and shows me a face covered with sores and a pair of purulent eyes. Juanita, my Basque landlady at the pension, tells me that most of these children are hired out by the day to the professional beggars. It’s all business, she contemptuously says.
In the dining room of the pension, the conversation is mainly about movie stars. The comandante’s wife is equally attracted to James Stewart and Clark Gable. The Sanchez sisters, who were born in Hong Kong and speak English well, are for Brian Aherne and Herbert Marshall, British types. Even the comandante has his favorites and adds his dry, nervous, harsh voice to the rattle of the women. The comandante is lean, correct, compressed and rancorous and has a pockmarked face, a shallow pompadour, black eyes. He and the señora do not eat our ordinary bread. A black-market white loaf is delivered to them daily, and at noon he carries it under his arm like a swagger stick. There is a little military rush when they enter, she with small, pouncing steps, wagging her fan, he blind to us all but inclining his head. Even on the hottest day his tunic is buttoned to the throat. I offend him by coming to the dining room in a T-shirt and slippers. He sits down grimly to his meal, taking the señora’s fan to cool his soup. His is the dignidad of gnawing hauteur and dislike, the hateful kind.
There is an important person in the pension, an admiral stationed at the ministry, who never eats in the dining room and who often, in the afternoon, blunders through the dark, curtained rooms in his pajamas. Juanita enters his apartment without knocking and they are obviously on terms of intimacy. The Sanchez girls explain in an embarrassed way that the admiral is under a great obligation to Juanita, who during the civil war concealed and nursed his sick son, or perhaps his nephew, and he swore to reward her. The Republic was unjust to the admiral. He taught at a very low salary in the naval academy. The comandante served under Franco in Morocco and is now head of a military school. He has the reputation of being a great disciplinarian, the sisters inform me rather proudly. They themselves were educated in a convent.
The rest are middle class, people who must be well connected to be able to afford a pension as good as this one, beneficiaries of enchufismo or civil service patronage. (Literally, the enchufe is an electric socket.) An ordinary civil service job—and one must be, politically, as faultless as a sacrificial lamb to get it—carries a salary of five or six hundred pesetas a month or roughly twenty dollars, and since desirable things are approximately American in price (higher, in many cases; a pound of black-market coffee costs two and a half dollars), a man needs enchufes to live comfortably. If, through family influence or friends high in the church or the army, he has several jobs, he makes the rounds of the ministries to sign in and sign out. Occasionally he may be required to do a little work, and he does it para cumplir, to acknowledge the obligation, but as hastily as possible. This is in part traditional. All Spanish regimes have used the same means to keep the educated classes from disaffection. “Modern” government programs receive great publicity. Recently a social-security system modeled on the Beveridge plan was announced, and Sir William himself was invited for consultation. But the real purpose of these programs is to extend enchufismo, for the actual benefits to the sick or unemployed worker under this insurance scheme amount to about three pesetas a day, hardly enough for a loaf of bread. Franco has great-state ambitions, like Mussolini’s, but Spain is too poor; the cost of staying in power is too high for him to realize them. The buildings called the New Ministries, which were to have gone up monumentally at the foot of the Castellana, stand in scaffolding, uncompleted and apparently abandoned.
For middle-class families without enchufes, the difficulties are terrible. One must wear a European suit, a shirt that costs two hundred pesetas, a tie. To appear in the rope alpargatas of the people is inconceivable. It is essential to have a maid. And then one’s wife has to be properly dressed and the children clothed and educated. One must cling to one’s class. The fall into the one below is measureless. Its wretchedness is an ancient fact, stable, immemorial and understood by everyone. The newer wretchedness, that of keeping one meager suit presentable, of making a place in the budget for movies in order to have something to contribute to polite conversation when The Song of Bernadette is discussed, of persisting to exhaustion among the stragglers in the chase after desirable things—the images of the earthly kingdom reflected in every casual American—is nevertheless not the wretchedness. That you see in the tenements and the inhabited ruins, old kilns and caves, the human swarms in the dry rot of Vallecas and Mataderos.
Summer is arid in Madrid, and cloudless. The sound of thunder is very rare. When it is heard, the maids cry out, “¡Una tormenta!” and dart through the pension, slamming the windows. Across the air shaft the blond Bibi calls “A storm!” to me in her tense, warlike voice, wavers behind the smoky glass and leaves the thick drapes trembling like the curtains of a stage on the last cry of a tragedy. Then the rain begins with a plunge, falling with the heaviness of drops of mercury.
In ten minutes it is over; ten minutes more and it has dried. On the hottest days the streets and the locust trees are watered morning and evening. The parks are divided by irrigation ditches and are grassless. The only grass I saw in Madrid, that before the Prado, was kept alive by continual sprinkling. As one goes out from the center of the city the green becomes thinner and thinner until, from the blank, sun-hardened flats of the outlying districts, overlooking the trenches that have sunk and are grown over with brown weeds and brown wires, there is only the scattered green of gardens on the immense plain, each garden with the diagonal pole of a well sweep rising above the Indian corn.
The Manzanares River is almost empty, yet on Sunday, in the section called the Bombilla, where in places the water has collected to a depth of several inches, there are hundreds of bathers and picnickers in throngs at the working-class cafés for miles along the shores, the gente humilde, choking the streets and bridges and lying on blankets on the dusty banks under the scanty acacias. It is like a vision of the first moments of resurrection, seeing those families lying in the smothering dust and milling in the roads. On the city side there are homes in the ruins, fenced round with the wreckage of bombardments and rolls of barbed wire. A few gypsies live in the Bombilla, in wagons. They are not like the Andalusian gypsies; they have a citified, depressed air; the women, filthy and gaunt, sit by their iron pots; the children lie naked on sacking. Goats are tethered to the wheels and axles, and under one wagon I saw two apes crouching spiritlessly. A factory that makes concrete tubes rises on the other side—a long, proudly lettered, modern industrial wall against which there are always a few men relieving themselves. Behind are the usual unfinished public works and miles away, far upland, is the intricate earthen blue of the Sierra that sends down the trickle of the Manzanares, more like the idea than the actuality of a river. It appears to be the idea, the hope of a river that attracts the gigantic crowd from the desert African dryness of the slums. The boys leap high into the air, as if the water were measured in feet, not inches, and the dust clings to their legs when they clamber up the bank. The river flows in a dirty green vein from shallow to shallow; gangs run yelling up and down the sand islands of its bed. A man leads his infant daughter, hardly old enough to walk, down to the water. She has soiled herself and he washes her with a certain embittered tenderness while she clings screaming to his lanky, hairy legs.
Among the trees surrounding the kiosks that sell wine and beer, the huge multitude is dancing, jogging up and down. Three young boys, self-contained, professional, indifferent to the dancers, play saxophone, guitar and drum, imitating the downtown version of American chic. Two drunken men are blowing the gaita, the hairy Galician bagpipes, for a group of drunken-looking friends. Madrid is said to be overrun with Gallegos; Franco himself is Galician, and in the old-fashioned Spanish belief in provincial loyalties they come to the city by the thousands for jobs.
The soldiers in the crowd look thickset and short in their coarse jackets, gaiters and big boots. They bump against the wheeling pairs of girls and try to force them apart. This is done seriously; there is little friskiness or gaiety and you see few smiles. The dancers tramp and shuffle but, though excited and sweating, keep a straight-browed, straight-lipped formality of expression and hold themselves apart with rigid heads and shoulders.
The kiosks and the cafés do not sell food. The people bring their own bread and chickpeas. You can buy a meal at middle-class prices in the bowery beer gardens set apart behind lattice walls and bushes growing in tubs. In one of these places, where I stop for a bottle of beer, there is a huge, time-eaten barrel organ that produces martial-sounding dances with missing notes, clanging bells and queer, mechanical birdcalls. The man who winds it has the pride-bitten look of someone who has come down in the world and gives me a glance of “too good for my destiny and every bit as good as you are.” His wife sits beside him, evidently to give him support in his humiliation, for she does not spell him at the organ. The brass drum inside catches the late sun on its short spines as it revolves. He is bald and small and his cheeks are taut and hard as he faces me; his mouth is bitter. His wife is passive and sits with quietly folded hands.
People complain rather freely on very short acquaintance about the regime: the shortness of the rations, the inferior bread, the black market, the army, the police, the Falange and the church. Madrileños speak of the recent referendum on the law of succession as el reverendum, a priests’ affair. It was conducted with the familiar, heavy-handed efficiency of fascist elections. Workers in the unreliable barrios of Mataderos, Vallecas and Cuatro Caminos received ballots beforehand with a printed sí. Ration books that were not stamped at the polling place to show that their holders had voted were invalid after election day. Nevertheless many people, monarchists as well as republicans, abstained, and even government figures acknowledged that a considerable number had voted no: 132,000 in Barcelona, 117,000 in Madrid, 36,000 in Seville. The socialists interpret the referendum as an attempt by the regime to convince the United States of its stability in order to obtain a loan. Franco has become very confident since the weeks after V-E Day, when it was thought that he had lost together with Hitler. The Germans did as they liked in Madrid during the war and everyone was therefore greatly surprised that Franco was allowed to remain in power after their defeat. But Britain and the United States did not stop selling him the gasoline without which his army, estimated at seven hundred thousand men, would have been paralyzed. And now, with the air of future allies, Spanish fascists tell you that no other country on the continent is so safe and convenient a base for the coming war with Russia. France and Italy are, or soon will be, communist. Spain is a strategic center owing to Gibraltar, and Franco’s reliability as an old fighter against communism is appreciated by America. Besides, everybody knows what magnificent soldiers the Spanish are. It is curious how much national pride is mingled with the cynicism of the people who tell you this. Everyone, whether communist or socialist, has a touch of this pride, and fascists and socialists alike joke explosively about the Italian disaster at Guadalajara: “The order was a la bayoneta and they thought it was a la camioneta”—“To the trucks!” instead of “Bayonet charge!”
There is, judging from the number of political arrests and the frequency and violence of the attacks in the press on Prieto and other exiled leaders, a great deal of underground activity. Several republicans told me that between November 1946 and April 1947 ten thousand people were imprisoned. CNT, UGT and communist newspapers circulate in Madrid and other large cities, but there is little organized resistance except in isolated mountain districts in the north and in Andalusia. From abroad, both the socialists and the communists claimed leadership in the short Asturian coal strike that occurred in May 1947, but little is actually known about it. Many socialists and republicans admit that the communist underground is growing, mainly because the international situation favors it. Of the Western countries only France has boycotted Franco, and it is believed that the border was closed by the French government as a concession to the communists. The victory of the Labor Party did not change Britain’s policy, notwithstanding the pledges of support made by Attlee to the Loyalists when he visited Spain during the civil war as his party’s representative.
Alcalá de Henares, where I saw one of the political trials, is an ancient, decayed town, the birthplace of Cervantes and, in the fifteenth century, famous for its university. Ten men, tramway employees from Cuatro Caminos charged with distributing the communist paper Mundo Obrero, were the defendants. I was told by the son of one of them that they had been arrested sixteen months before. Such trials are theoretically public but they are never announced; embassies and the foreign press are notified by the underground or by relatives of the accused. I came with one of the embassy secretaries in a resplendent green embassy car before which soldiers and Guardia Civil gave way in the antique streets. Diplomáticos, we went unchallenged past the sentries and under rifles up the staircase into the long hall of the courtroom. It was lined with guardia and their machine guns. We sat down at the rear among the families of the accused.
The court was a tribunal of officers, for members of illegal political parties are in the category of criminals endangering public safety and come under the army’s jurisdiction. Looking toward the narrow windows, we could see only dimly. The prisoners were on benches with their backs turned to us. The members of the tribunal had the light behind them and their faces, too, were obscure. In profile at either side of the room were the prosecutor and the officer appointed for the defense. Boots and scabbards shone under the tables.
A clerk hurriedly reads the depositions of the ten. On such and such a night Fulano de Thal met another conspirator in such and such a place and received or handed over money, instructions, papers. One by one the accused, called on by court or prosecutor, rise and acknowledge the confessions. Only one balks at a detail. He does not recall it. He is ordered to look at the signature of the deposition. Is it his? It is, but he cannot remember making the statement in point. Again, more impatiently, does he recognize the signature as his own? He does. Obviously, then, the statement is his. He is ordered to sit, and he stiffly obeys. All the prisoners with the exception of two elderly men rise and stand with a military bearing, infected by the manner of the tribunal. To see them play the soldierly game and stand like hombres honrados to verify confessions exacted, everyone knows, in the cellars of the Seguridad affects me painfully, like the injection of a depressant that thickens the heartbeat. No doubt it is very castizo, purely and essentially Spanish, that the prisoners should conduct themselves like captives in an honorable war, and probably it also sustains them to stand at attention, but I have a horror of this game as I do of the comandante’s bouncing and pivoting game in the pension, his peevish chivalry.
Each of the prisoners answers questions. The defense does not examine them, no evidence is introduced, and there are no witnesses. You become aware, when the prosecutor stands up, of his large hands and powerful body; they give an effect of incongruity to the meticulousness of his uniform. He makes a neat prosecutor’s packet of the depositions: “It is admitted . . . it is admitted . . . according to the statements of Fulano de Thal . . .” Not until he concludes does he become bullish and exhortatory. He puts forth his strong voice suddenly. In cold blood, lifting up his chest, he begins to thunder that crimes “in a foreign spirit” against a whole people cannot be pardoned, and he asks that the leader of the ten be given a twelve-year sentence and the rest four years each. W. whispers that this is relatively lenient. Then the defense lawyer reads a short statement to the effect that in the Christian democracy of the Caudillo’s government there is room for differences of opinion when the expression of those differences is temperate. These words cause a sighing stir in the gloomy end of the room where the families sit. The prosecutor speaks for another half hour in reply, his showmanship at times becoming perfunctory. This is a very minor trial. He towers before the window in the clear morning light of Castile and makes his last summation, reads from notes, and repeats his demand for twelve years and four. The time served awaiting trial does not count. The president of the tribunal now asks each of the prisoners in turn whether he has anything to say before sentence is passed. Six do not. The seventh, however, the leader of the ten, starts to speak; the president says loudly, “¡Cállese!”—“Shut up!” The prisoner persisting, he rises and shouts, “¡Cállese!” startling everyone. “¡Nada de la política! Sit down!” He sits. “Stand up!” The prisoner rises. “You have been heard on the evidence. Nothing else is relevant. There will be no politics here. Be seated.” There is no other disturbance. The trial is over and we file down under the guns with the silent relatives. I see the grieving face of a boy on the stairs and I talk to him. His father is one of those who received four years. Will he be allowed to see him? He does not know; since the arrest he had not seen him till this morning. He is now the eldest at home. There was an older brother but he disappeared in the last days of the war. He has another brother, eight years old, and two sisters. “How do you live?” I ask; he does not reply. Thin and tall, he stands pigeon-toed beside me on the street, drawing his long hands out of his pockets and thrusting them back. His face is narrow and his soft eyes seem almost without whites: all center. I make a low-voiced comment on the barbarousness of the trial. W. has meanwhile taken down the names of the condemned for his report and wants to leave so I say goodbye and we get into the car.
The uselessness of it afflicts me. Poverty and the harshness of the dictatorship make resistance inevitable and the relations of powers outside the country make it vain, perfectly useless. The Spanish problem will not be settled within Spain. Franco wants to bargain with America and the communist leaders, were they in power, would represent Russia. But people continue to struggle in the political spirit of past times, when they were still free within national boundaries to make revolutions and create governments. There is no such freedom now, as a growing number of Europeans are aware. “We liberated ourselves from Napoleon in 1812,” a Spanish acquaintance said to me, “and we manifested the same spirit in 1937 when we fought Hitler. Against him, however, we were powerless. And perhaps we would have been swallowed by Stalin if in the civil war we had succeeded in defeating Hitler. I dread another civil war here for it would inevitably turn into the conflict of greater powers. The doctrines of 1789 are for us like the morals of Christianity: pieties. We are not strong enough to enjoy the Rights of Man. If Russia does not dominate us your country will. We must resign ourselves to remaining subjects and withdraw our hopes of independence from the realm of politics to another realm.”
Nearly every conversation in Madrid eventually turns to the subject of national character, and more than once I was referred by other foreigners to Unamuno’s essay on Spanish envy and was quoted Quevedo’s line, used as an epigraph by Unamuno: “Envy is lean; it bites but cannot swallow.” An Italian explained to me that the Spaniards were half Moorish and that I would not understand them if I forgot it for an instant, and according to a German lady who has lived in Madrid for many years, the great fault of the Spaniards was that they had no real feelings. After her brother’s death several Madrileño friends came to visit her. “They did not console me,” she said. “They sat and talked of their marmotas [maids] and their children. They knew I was in mourning. They really are heartless.” On the other hand, Pio Baroja, with whom I had a conversation, found the German character inexplicable. “At first I could not believe that they were burning their captives in ovens. But then I met a young man who had lost his mother and a sister in that way. And to tell the truth, I found Germany a queer place when I visited it in the Twenties. In Hamburg a nudist family got on the streetcar: father, mother and little ones all as naked as my hand, a family of petit bourgeois carrying bundles and packages like any petit-bourgeois family that has been shopping. And the parents weren’t even handsome. The father had a huge tripa, like a barrel.”
All these discussions of national character were occasions of resentment, and the resentment was particularly strong when it was the American character that was discussed. A traveling salesman said to me, his eyes aswim with poetic heat behind thick lenses, “America is still looking for a soul; our soul is very old.” Others spoke of “American emptiness,” “unhistorical Americans who live only in the future,” et cetera.
But people, of course, feel the sway of American strength and American goods and the loss of their own liberty and strength. Until 1898 Spain still considered itself an empire, and for a nation of traditionalists 1898 is by no means the distant past. The emphasis on national character is an emphasis on value. Take away the ignorant nonsense and there is still something left—namely, an assertion of worth in a world in which worth is synonymous with power, and power has passed to featureless mass societies for which the past has little meaning, and machinery, wealth and organization topple the old dignity to replace it with contempt and discontent.
Between Málaga and Granada, at the railroad junction of Bobadilla, shivering under the heat that darkened the stone hills and olive fields, I went into the station restaurant. It was a buffet doing a feverish business in bread, grapes, tortillas, ham, boiled eggs, jelly sausage and blood sausage, salami, cheese, chicken, a huge abundance without boundaries, spread on thick paper and shining with fat. There were two women and a man behind it. The man was middle-aged, gray-faced, and he coughed continually. Three or four strands of hair were arranged with elegant care over his bald head. He behaved toward me with iron dignidad. I was an American, therefore he refused to speak Spanish. He addressed me in a kind of French acquired, probably, in a restaurant in Madrid or Barcelona or in a luxury hotel on the Mediterranean and ripened during many isolated years in the desert wilderness of Bobadilla. “Les oeufs son’ a cinq cad’un, m’sieu.” He kept coughing softly and could not stop, obviously consumptive. “¿Y qué precio tienen las uvas?” “Cuat’ le demi-kilo, m’sieu.” Great politeness; fiery politeness. Meanwhile he stared at me secretly with his rather vindictive eyes, the cough blurting softly through his lips so that his cheeks shook. By my accent, by the cut of my clothes, the pattern of my shoes, and who knows what unconscious attributes, he recognized me as an American, one of the new lords of the earth, a new Roman, full of the pride of machines and dollars, passing casually through the junction where it was his fate to remain rotting to death. But he faced me at least with the proper dignidad, like the bitter organ grinder in the Bombilla.
The comandante’s dignity is something else again. The comandante is, after all, the tyrant’s friend and the tyrant, too, believes in organization and is trying to trade his way into the new imperium. The señora wears nylon stockings and the comandante owns a marvelous cigarette lighter and I am sure he has a large supply of American flints.
The features of Illinois are not striking; they do not leap to the eye but lie flat and at first appear monotonous. The roads are wide, hard, perfect, sometimes of a shallow depth in the far distance but so nearly level as to make you feel that the earth really is flat. From east and west, travelers dart across these prairies into the huge horizons and through cornfields that go on forever: giant skies, giant clouds, an eternal, nearly featureless sameness. You find it hard to travel slowly. The endless miles pressed flat by the ancient glacier seduce you into speeding. As the car eats into the distances, you begin gradually to feel that you are riding upon the floor of the continent, the very bottom of it, low and flat, and an impatient spirit of movement, of overtaking and urgency, passes into your heart.
Miles and miles of prairie, slowly rising and falling, sometimes give you a sense that something is in the process of becoming or that the liberation of a great force is imminent, some power, like Michelangelo’s slave only half released from the block of stone. Conceivably the mound-building Indians believed their resurrection would coincide with some such liberation and built their graves in imitation of the low moraines deposited by the departing glaciers. But they have not yet been released and remain drowned in their waves of earth. They have left their bones, their flints and pots, their place names and tribal names and little besides except a stain, seldom vivid, on the consciousness of their white successors.
The soil of the Illinois prairies is fat, rich and thick. After spring plowing it looks oil-blackened or colored by the soft coal that occurs in great veins throughout the state. In the fields you frequently see a small tipple or a crazy-looking device that pumps oil and nods like the neck of a horse at a quick walk. Isolated among the cornstalks or the soybeans, the iron machine clanks and nods, stationary. Along the roads, with intervals between them as neat and even as buttons on the cuff, sit steel storage bins, in form like the tents of Mongolia. They are filled with grain. And the elevators and tanks, trucks and machines, that crawl over the fields and blunder over the highways—whatever you see is productive. It creates wealth, it stores wealth, it is wealth.
As you pass the fields you see signs the farmers have posted telling, in code, what sort of seed they have planted. The farmhouses are seldom at the roadside but far within the fields. The solitude and silence are deep and wide. Then when you have gone ten or twenty miles through cornfields without having seen a living thing—no cow, no dog, scarcely even a bird under the hot sky—suddenly you come upon a noisy contraption at the roadside, a system of contraptions, rather, for husking the corn and stripping the grain. It burns and bangs away and the conveyor belts rattle. A double flame twists and roars within the generator. Three broad women in overalls stand at the hoppers and toss the ears of corn upward. A dusty red mountain of cobs is growing under the small dinosaur’s head of the conveyor and the chaff dazzles and trembles upward. The hard kernels, red and yellow, race down the chutes into the trucks.
When you leave, this noise and activity are cut off at one stroke; you are once more in the deaf, hot solitude of trembling air, alone in the cornfields.
North, south, east and west, there is no end to them. They line roads and streams and hem in the woods and surround towns and they crowd into backyards and edge up to gas stations. An exotic stranger might assume he had come upon a race of corn worshippers who had created a corn ocean; or that he was among a people who had fallen in love with infinite repetition of the same details, like the builders of skyscrapers in New York and Chicago who have raised up bricks and windows by the thousands and all alike. From corn you can derive notions of equality or uniformity, massed democracy. You can, if you are given to that form of mental play, recall Joseph’s brethren in the lean years and think how famine has been conquered here and superabundance itself become such a danger that the government has to take measures against it.
The power, the monotony, the oceanic extent of the cornfields, do indeed shrink and dwarf the past. How are you to think of the small bands of Illini, Ottawas, Cahokians, Shawnee, Miamis who camped in the turkey grass and the French Jesuits who descended the Mississippi and found them? When you force your mind to summon them, the Indians appear rather doll-like in the radiance of the present moment. They are covered in the corn, swamped in the oil, hidden in the coal of Franklin County, run over by the trains, turned phantom by the stockyards. There are monuments to them here and there but they are only historical ornaments to the pride of the present.
In the northwestern part of the state, the Black Hawk country near Galena, the land is hilly and the streams have a steeper gradient. This is the region in which Chief Black Hawk, in 1832, made his last resistance.
The principal city of that portion of the Mississippi is Galena, once a great center of trade but now a remote place beside a shrunken river. There is no historical mood about the flourishing towns. Prosperity wipes out the past or, in its pride, keeps the relics dusted, varnished, polished—sentimental measures like the Lincoln residence in Springfield. Entering such houses, you feel the past undeniably; only you feel the present much more. Ulysses S. Grant lived in Galena and his house is a museum, but it is a museum within a museum, for the town itself is one of the antiquities of Illinois and it has a forsaken, tottering look.
Galena is not deserted; it is inhabited and its houses are not in bad repair, yet they blink and lean on their tall hillside in the peace of abnormalcy. The streets are empty under the stout old trees. Of course even the streets of thriving towns are vacant five days a week. The emptiness of Galena, however, will never be filled. The long street of the lower town resembles that of a Welsh village when everyone is down in the pit. On the main street the store windows have no luster except the dull one given by rock samples. Lead enriched Galena in the first half of the nineteenth century. Its harbor was filled with steamboats. The boom started in the 1820s and continued about forty years.
Now if you lift up your eyes from the drab streets at the waterfront, you see on the hill something that confusedly resembles the antebellum South, old mansions of brick and stone, a few of them still handsome, ornamented with wrought iron in something like New Orleans style. Galena is an old, cracked, mossy place and looks a little crazy. An invisible giant tent caterpillar has built over it and the sun comes through the trees as through frayed netting. From an upper street you stare four narrow stories downward into a spinsterish backyard where a cat, in the easy way of all cats, is lying on a small plot of green. Within the long rooms are Franklin stoves, recamier couches, ornate wallpaper, and on the rooftops stand television antennae.
There are many towns in Illinois that have been thus bypassed, towns like Cairo and Shawneetown in the south. They flourished until the railroads made the steamboat obsolete and now they sit, the fortresses of faithful old daughters and age-broken sons who do not go away.
An old resident of Galena said, “The young folks leave. And they don’t come back. Not alive, at least. Lots of them ask to be buried here, but whilst they live there’s nothing for them in Galena.”
Some twenty miles away, across the river, is Dubuque, Iowa, full of vigor and enterprise. The diesel trains run through there with deep, brazen cries, like the horns of the Philistine army, and the city rejoices. There is success, and here is its neighbor, failure. The inhabitant of the failure city bears a personal burden of shame. The old resident would leave too if he were younger; but what could he do now in Chicago or Los Angeles? Here he can live on his old-age money, his Social Security income. Elsewhere it wouldn’t make ends meet.
The residents of the failure town are often apologetic. They talk of history and tradition, fusty glamour or the unrecorded sins and tragedies of the place, as though these were all they had to offer. By and by the old man points out a high hill in the distance and says, “There was a man lynched over there long ago. The whole town of Galena turned out and did it. Afterward they found out he was innocent.”
“Is that so? Who was he?”
“They don’t know. They killed him over there. Then they found out they were wrong. But it was too late to make it up to him then. It was before my time. I only been here fifty years. I came from Wisconsin when I was a young fellow. But they hanged that innocent man. Everybody knows about it here. They each and every one of them do.”
When Illinois was a frontier state it attracted men of strange beliefs from everywhere, dissidents and sectarians, truth seekers and utopians. Those who did not depart were assimilated.
On the Mississippi a few hours south of Galena, the Mormons built a city at Nauvoo in 1819 and erected a temple. After the murder of the prophet Smith and his brother in neighboring Carthage, the Mormons emigrated under the leadership of Brigham Young, leaving many empty buildings. Into these came a band of French communists, the Icarians, led by Étienne Cabet. Their colony soon failed; discord and thefts broke it up. Cabet died in St. Louis, obscurely. And after the Icarians came German immigrants, who apparently sobered up the town. Now, unobtrusively but with steady purpose, the Mormons have been coming back to Nauvoo. They have reopened some of the old brick and stone houses in the lower town, near the Mississippi; they have trimmed the lawns and cleaned the windows and set out historical markers and opened views on the river, which here, as it approaches Keokuk Dam, broadens and thickens with mud. Sunday speedboats buzz unseen below the bend where the brown tide, slowly hovering, turns out of sight.
Nauvoo today is filled, it seemed to me, with Mormon missionaries who double as tourist guides. When I came for information, I was embraced, literally, by an elderly man; he was extremely brotherly, hearty and familiar. His gray eyes were sharp, though his skin was brown and wrinkled. His gestures were wide, ample, virile and western, and he clapped me on the back as we sat talking, and gripped me by the leg. As any man in his right mind naturally wants to be saved, I listened attentively, but less to his doctrines perhaps than to his western tones, wondering how different he could really be from other Americans of the same type. I went to lie afterward beside the river and look at Iowa on the other bank, which shone like smoke over the pungent muddy water that poured into the southern horizon. Here the Mormons had crossed, and after them the French Icarians. The Icarians held together for some years after leaving Nauvoo. But they were absorbed, as everything eventually was absorbed that could not be reconciled with the farm, the factory, the railroad, the mine, the mill, the bank and the market.
Some process of absorption is going on in Shawneetown, on the other side of the state from Nauvoo, where the Ohio and the Wabash rivers meet. This is the country called Egypt, the southernmost portion of Illinois. Its principal city is Cairo (pronounced Cayro), at the southern tip of the state. Cairo is not so thriving as it once was, but Shawneetown has changed even more profoundly in the course of a century. They will tell you there how representatives from a little northern community called Chicago once approached the bankers of opulent Shawneetown for a loan and how they were turned down because Chicago was too remote a village to bother with.
“Well, look at us now,” my informant said to me.
We stood in the midst of wide dirt streets from which the paving had been washed out. About us were deserted mansions, dilapidated huge buildings with falling shutters, their Greek Revival pillars gone gray.
Such is old Shawneetown, in its time one of the great cities of the state. With the disappearance of the keelboat and the steamboat it would gradually have withered anyway, but its ruin has been made complete by the flooding of the Ohio.
A strange, Silurian smell emanates from the mud and the barren houses. The scene is Southern. Whittlers sit on boxes, and the dogs roll in the potholes; the stores sell fatback, collard greens, mustard greens and black-eyed peas. The flies wait hungrily in the air, sheets of flies that make a noise like the tearing of tissue paper. People in the river bottoms tell you that old Shawneetown is a rip-roaring place on a Saturday night; it swallows up husbands and their paychecks. The bars near the levee burst into music and the channel catfish fry in deep fat and the beer flows.
On higher ground to the west, a new Shawneetown sits under the hot sky of Egypt. It is like many another Illinois town, except newer. The state and the WPA created it beyond the river’s reach. It is high and dry, spacious and rather vacant, for many of the diehards refuse to leave their old homes. Half ghost, half honky-tonk, old Shawneetown has a fair-sized population of traditionalists. Like old campaigners they name the years of disaster with a ring of military pride—“’eighty-four, ’ninety-eight, nineteen and thirteen, nineteen and thirty-seven.” The 1947 edition of the Illinois State Guide says that the flood of 1937, which rose six feet above the levee, “marked the end of Shawneetown’s pertinacious adhesion to the riverbank.” Reasonable people, the authors of the guide spoke prematurely. The pertinacious adhesion continues in spite of reason and floods.
Between the new and the old Shawneetowns there is a deep rivalry; the two factions express pity and contempt for each other. Old Shawneetowners tell of many who are held against their will up there, people whose children prevent their return. Some have moved back from the new town, bored by its newness and aridity. Nothing is happening up there. Sensible new Shawneetowners reply, as a fine portly woman with spreading short blond hair did, “If they want to degenerate down there and play hero”—a strange combination of terms—“that’s their own fool business. I have cleaned house after floods too many times. And if you saw what it looked like after the water has been in it! Six inches of silt on the carpets, and just like a swamp. I sat down and cried.”
In old Shawneetown a retired railroad man whom I met on the levee said that his wife was old enough to recall how the victims of ’84 were laid in rows on the sitting room floor. “Right in here,” he said, and showed me the red, ancient house. It had belonged to the first president of Shawneetown’s bank, the very bank that had refused Chicago’s request for a loan.
“We live here in the summer now,” the railroad man explained. “This here is our little grandboy. We raised him up ourselves.” And raised him all too well, I should have said, for at the age of eight he must have weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds. He looked at me with precocious significance, as if the manitou of this place had entered his fat little body.
The trodden earth of the levee makes you feel safe. Below, the river is fire blue. The summery Kentucky shore is green. The banks look supple and full as they decline toward the water. A new bridge of orange steel hangs in the air. The child says, “Three guys fell off it and got kilt.”
“Oh, mercy.” His grandfather laughs. “Only one was, because he hit a barge. The others went into the water and was saved. Three falling is not bad for as big a bridge as this one is.”
From this old man I heard the first sensible explanation of the stubbornness of the old Shawneetowners. He said, “When you have grown up here and see the river every day of your life, it isn’t so easy to move away and do without. And especially only a few miles away.”
Between the Ohio and the Mississippi, Egypt lies low and hollow. Its streams are sluggish, old, swampy and varicose. Spring floods bring fresh topsoil to many areas and the corn is thick. Toward Cairo the farmers make good cotton crops. We are here farther to the south than Richmond, Virginia. To a Northern nose the air is slightly malarial. People’s faces and their postures are Southern and you begin to see things for which no preparation is possible. A young Negro woman, her head tied up in a handkerchief, drives by in a maroon convertible; on her shoulder sits a bull terrier. That is a pleasant thing to see and all the better because of the slight start it gives you. In a river town, a place whitened by the local lime-burning, is a small bar and restaurant. You enter on a calm Sunday afternoon and see what appears to be a clan of working people eating and drinking. Anyone who wants beer may work the pulls for himself. Sliced bread and ham are on the bar and a woman is drinking beer while her baby nurses. North of Vandalia you are not likely to see a child at breast. And yet this is a sight that has no business to be remarkable.
On a road in Egypt a warm wind was booming across the flashing sky and turning the white clouds round, the corn leaves were streaming, and I saw a roadside marker that read Old Slave House. An arrow pointed, as roadside arrows sometimes will, skyward. It said Equality. Two spring-breaking and stone-embedded ruts under low willow branches led finally up to a bald hill on which a corn crop sadly petered out in gullies, ashes, old flivver bodies and various cast-iron relics. On the summit of the hill stood the old mansion or slave house, once the property of John Crenshaw: a brown structure, formerly white.
Because you know it is a slave house, it looks evil, dangerous; it also looks trashy; its brown color is disheartening. The evil is remote because slavery is dead. A sort of safe thrill passes through the liberal heart. But then, the evil is not altogether remote, because nothing has been done to make the house historic. There are no exhibits in glass cases. In a great vacant room the slaves’ shackles lie on the linoleum-covered floor. The white form of a washing machine stands in the background. Its present owners live in the old mansion and it is both domicile and museum.
Slaves were imprisoned at the top of the house in narrow cells no larger than closets. Runaways or freed slaves were kidnapped by Crenshaw, so the story goes, and resold in the markets of the South. Lone sheets of foolscap framed on the walls give the history of the place. The writing is old-fashioned, the ink faded; the details are sinister. Crenshaw tortured his captives on crude devices made of heavy beams. These still lean against the walls. This is a dismal, chalky, low-pitched, aching garret. Many hands have left signatures on the plaster. The wind drives against the walls; the corn stoops in the bald, runneled clay.
The lady of the house has a great deal to tell about it. She is a Southerner and evidently a lover of legend. Mr. Crenshaw, she says, was a fearsome man. It is possible that he had to leave England for his sins and he became a great power in Illinois. His abuses of the black people were so horrible he was attacked by one of his own slaves and wounded in the thigh. The slave was cast alive into a furnace, said the lady, but Crenshaw lost his leg. Her catalog of horrors is very long; possibly endless. Crenshaw bred his captives. Made pregnant by studs, the slave girls brought higher prices. And yet, she said, Abe Lincoln was a guest in this house. She told me this with an air of triumph. When he campaigned against Douglas he came to visit Crenshaw, who was a Democrat. “Politics!” she said.
“And did he know what sort of a man Crenshaw was?” I said.
“Everybody knew. And he was waited on by slaves. But he was here to get the votes. Now looka here at the family pictures.” Brown and yellowed people seemed to return my gaze from the framed portraits. Their hair and garments were heavy, their faces long, severe. In our day we have learned something about charm, the art of self-presentation, and are told to look sunny when we are photographed; but there is nothing to mitigate the austerity of these slave owners. They were masters and looked like masters; they scorned to enliven the expression of their eyes, the sullenness of their mouths. But why should they, the overlords, have looked so dull and sullen? “Now, here,” said my guide, “is Crenshaw’s daughter. She was waited on hand and foot and never even had to brush her own hair until after the Civil War was over.” I must say that she sounded a little envious. Was she not the present lady of the house?
Egypt belongs not merely to the South but to the Deep South. Cairo is as Southern a city as Paducah, in Kentucky across the river. But even in Lincoln’s own county of Sangamon I heard things said against him. In Sangamon the pioneer village of New Salem has been restored. New Salem was Lincoln’s home before it was abandoned circa 1840. He had already moved to Springfield, eighteen miles away. In 1837 he helped to establish Springfield as the state capital.
There is a residue of old grievances still in Sangamon County, for North and South meet here. Northern Illinois was settled by New Englanders, the southern part by Kentuckians and Virginians. Slavery and its enemies, Union and Secession, struggled here. Sangamon County may be said to have been at the very center of this conflict, and despite the public worship of Lincoln’s memory you meet people who say, the feuding blood still running strong in them, “We knew him here. Yes, they called my granddad Copperhead hereabouts, but what of it? Lincoln was for the big cities and the banks.” But it is nothing but a residue. Most of the old differences have long since been composed; it is mainly the historical (feuding) sense that preserves them.
The University as Villain
Are writers greatly harmed by teaching in universities? The first reply that comes to me is that a man may make a damn fool of himself anywhere.
But the question probably deserves more serious consideration. Any number of serious people have given it their best thought. Some believe it is harmful beyond measure, others that nothing can be nicer for both the writers and the universities. I was once told by Nelson Algren, “Some teach school; some would rather run a poker game.” Poker is probably better but not everyone can be so lucky. I am too stupid a poker player to make a living at cards.
Exactly twenty years ago I graduated from Northwestern University. Of those twenty years five or six have been given to teaching, the rest to writing, and I think I am able to weigh the arguments of either side with an equal hand.
In 1952, when I was teaching at Princeton, I met in New York a man I had known in Chicago in less happy times (for me) when he was connected with the University of Chicago and I was connected with nothing. He had been one of Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins’s assistants; now he was near the summit of a huge advertising corporation in New York. We had always been fond of each other and we met with pleasure. He was dressed in such high style that I could hardly keep from touching his tweed. He had a fine red, conservative straight face and was smoking the biggest and shiningest pipe that Madison Avenue had to sell, so there was no need for me to ask how he was doing.
“But what are you up to these days?” he said.
“Well,” I told him, “you’ll find it hard to believe, but this year I am teaching at Princeton.”
It had never occurred to him that I might be connected with anything so classy and because of his respect for higher learning, probably absorbed from the chancellor, he was upset. So I was very sorry and I said, “It’s only temporary.”
“What do your academic colleagues think about this?” he said.
“Oh, it’s probably a joke to them, but they still have most of the joint to themselves. What’s the matter, Mack? Why does this bother you?”
“Well,” he said, “writers have always come out of the gutter. The gutter is their proper place.”
I can’t think just now which of the one hundred Great Books of the Western World contains this historic idea. But perhaps the books were not to blame at all. And in justice to my friend I must make it clear that he was not upset because of the academic colleagues alone; he viewed the matter also from my side—a little. He seemed to feel that society was right to build universities to shelter men of learning and to pay them and protect them and keep them. It could not, however, do this for writers. It could not be friendly to them without softening and taming them and making them fat, checking their necessary vices, damaging their freedom and harmfully curbing their madness.
But I have seen full-blown lunatics in universities, too, and as for the vices, they may be found on the campus not less than on the Bowery. It seemed crazy to explain to the executive of a large corporation how powerfully pervasive life could be; and I didn’t think it would be suitable to tell the chancellor’s former assistant that his implied view of professors was not flattering. Were they fat, tame and lazy, or did they take no harm from the special protection of society? Were they too good for the gutter, or not good enough for it? How was it that a philosopher might live in the tour d’ivoire whereas a writer belonged out in the marais de merde by which Flaubert thought the tower to be surrounded?
Sharp questions. Too bad they didn’t come to me then. But I like to continue old debates in my mind and today I can tell Mack that the old tower ain’t what it used to be. From its remoteness there now come things like rocket-launched satellites that loop over us, the writers, as we sit in our gutters playing poker.
I will certainly hear it argued that professors of physics and professors of literature are altogether different, and it must be conceded right away that the differences are great. For the professor of physics is reinforced, as animal psychologists might put it, by a sense of being needed (by the Air Force and the Navy and Oak Ridge), whereas the professor of literature is likely to feel that the dull canal, all that remains of the once sweet Thames, is his only portion, and that he is foolishly watching the rats in the vegetation while he ponders the problem of Hamlet’s uncle, unrelated to the gas tanks behind him and Sputnik overhead. Professors of humanities often have a keen sense of their inferiority to the great mass of Americans. Is the real realer where the mass is thicker? So they seem to believe. Perhaps, too, it is their feeling that there is something shameful for grown men in sitting with a parcel of kids in a corner. Callicles in the Gorgias accuses Socrates of doing just that. To which Socrates replies that if you follow Philosophy you must give it what it calls for. It is true that in the English departments to which writers find their way, there are sometimes to be found discouraged people who stand dully upon a brilliant plane, in charge of masterpieces but not themselves inspired, people who are to literature what Samuel Butler’s clergymen were to religion. But belief does not end with the Reverend Pontifex nor literature with Professor This-or-That. If the professor will not give it what it calls for, somebody else will. And the writer, if he is a lively soul, does not need to feel so depressed. If he knows his own mind and if the university thinks it can get along with him—well, why not?
He will very often find good conversation in university communities, and he may find a Whitehead or an Einstein as well worth writing about as saloonkeepers or big-game hunters. Everything depends on the amount of energy he has the boldness to release, regardless of the restraints of his environment. Is he more likely to achieve this boldness in Greenwich Village; in the air; on the water; in the “literary life”; in the mines; on an assembly line?
If you, the writer, love rough company and need to knock around, why then, do as Walt Whitman did, go into the streets, ride up and down Broadway or go and dig clams. But under no circumstances should you select any of these things deliberately and do them for the sake of writing. What an idea! You must give the thing what it calls for. But there is no prescription to follow.
A man’s life from the standpoint of Experience—and it is a notion about Experience which is at the heart of the gutter position—is made up from varied and balanced experiences of a specified sort. There are people who are intensely proud of having met the specifications and who have made very special efforts in the fields of sex, drunkenness, violence and even poverty. Not to have met these specifications can be, for them, a source of shame. The shame of never having been down and out! I have heard young fellows boast that they had been on the bum and that they have been run in for panhandling (not that there were no checks from home). I have even been envied my good luck in having grown up during the Depression.
Now I don’t want to make jokes on serious matters, and it is serious when people feel that they must be able to demonstrate that reality has happened to them, certified and approved reality in the form of Experience. Have they met life, not fled it? That’s fine. Very good. But Experience in this aspect is something resembling a merit badge; something like a commodity. Let us admit it, Experience with the capital E is something of a writer’s commodity and the reason for this, I think, is that modern fiction has taken it upon itself to show experience as ever new and ever valuable. The very form of fiction is that of experience itself. Everything is to be viewed as though for the first time. The representation of things is imperative, for the things of a modern man’s life are important. They are important because man’s career on this earth is held to be important. Literature has been committed to the assertion of this importance for a long time. Unquestioned value. But what is the source of the value?
For some time now the whole fictional enterprise has been running backward. It is not importance that illuminates the facts. The facts as facts are assumed to be important. We bring forward characters, enumerate the facts and try to put it over on everyone that such numbering or naming is all that is necessary.
“He opened the door.” Did he, now?
“She lit his cigarette.” So what?
It is assumed that these declarations are important or will seem so. But why? Documentation, observation, details of action cannot by themselves give life, no matter how authentic or faithful to experience they may be. You can’t construct a tree with twigs. You cannot give importance to events by the authority of Experience, merely.
The life of a civilized man is, increasingly, an internalized one, and toward this internalized life writers have been encouraged to take a gross and foolish attitude. They are the playboys of Experience. More Lord Byron? More Kipling? More Noa Noa? More Zola? These are very old-fashioned postures. It is ridiculous for writers to continue them.
Well now, does it harm writers to teach in universities? I am not sure the question is a real one. It is to some extent a postural question. It assumes that by doing the right things we get the desired results. Those right things are conventional. Leave your hometown; don’t leave your hometown; don’t write for the movies; travel; don’t be a sissy; don’t tie yourself down—and you will turn out fine. But the wind of the spirit is capricious. I have known men of foresight who avoided every trap of bourgeois life, some after the manner of Rimbaud, and some after the manner of Baudelaire; I have known faithful followers of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence-men, semper fidelis, grown old and wrinkled and red-nosed and cat-whiskered and bad-tempered. But that wind! It bloweth where it listeth. And in the end a correct posture can give you nothing more than the satisfaction that comes of fidelity to good form.
It is not easy to find the right way. You must learn to govern yourself, you must learn autonomy, you must manage your freedom or drown in it. You may strain the will after Experience because you need it for your books. Or you may perish under the heavy weight of Culture. You may make a fool of yourself anywhere. You may find illumination anywhere—in the gutter, in the college, in the corporation, in a submarine, in the library. No one man holds a patent on it. No man knows what it is likely to tell him to do. For this reason universities and corporations may find the illuminable type unreliable from a personnel point of view. A writer may do better in the anxiety of the gutter; he may do better in the heavy security of the college. Despite the purity of your posture he may do well. It’s up to the spirit, altogether, and the spirit prints no timetable.
The Sharp Edge of Life
The great issue in fiction is the stature of characters. It starts with something like the Psalmist’s question, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Responses range from “a little lower than the angels” to “a poor bare, forked animal.” The struggle of the novelist has been to establish a measure, a view of human nature, and usually, though not always, as large a view as belief and imagination can wring from observable facts. The artist tries, Nietzsche once wrote, to exaggerate the value of human personality. This is a secular notion, for on the assumption that God exists a religious writer would deny that such exaggeration was possible. But novelists have been largely secular men in secular, doubting times. If we consider the humanistic art of the Renaissance that Nietzsche probably had in mind, and its near-divine creatures, we can agree with him. It made the human image very great. But even then there were doubts about the unaccommodated poor bare, forked animal, and since then the value of man has depreciated. We see the doubt in Don Quixote. Are nobility and great virtue delusions? Can there ever be a time when ecstasy will be the daily spirit and men and things be set in diamonds? Cervantes investigates what it means to will the highest and to insist on a superior reality. This contrast of a superior reality with daily fact is the peculiar field of the novel.
In the nineteenth century heroes appear as revolutionaries, great natures, born aristocrats, but the original humanistic doubt has made terrible progress. The great Russian novelists insisted on the Christian measure; even so, Dostoyevsky created the antihero of Notes from Underground as well as Prince Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov. As the external social fact grows larger, more powerful and more tyrannical, man appears in the novel reduced in will, strength, freedom and scope—until, in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the hero is not even an antihero like Dostoyevsky’s, great by reason of his ressentiment, but merely a man of no importance, a ridiculous social creature. And if man is of no importance, how is the novel—how, for that matter, is any human activity—justified?
Now we have an anarchy of views in a “free” field. At one end Céline, denunciatory, and at the other someone like Bernanos asserting, but unable to prove concretely, that there are saints still. As for American writers, a good many of them hold before us a decent but exceedingly limited ideal: forbearing, stoical, but of no great capacity, not very passionate, not very strong in thought. This hero is rather abstract, exhibits collective rather than personal traits (I am thinking now of a Steinbeck hero) and shows what is wanted more than what is seen, heard, known. It is almost as though many American writers felt that to confront actuality might be dangerous to our social sympathies, and they do not let the facts gather freely about their superior reality, such as it is.
Many writers have sought justification in the art of writing itself, following Flaubert. For him experience pressed hard against a heroic conception of literature that he felt bound to try to save. Henry James in his criticism of him ideally states the problem for all modern writers. Is one obliged to treat what James calls the “middling” as Flaubert, angry and disappointed, treats it? Because Flaubert, hating common life, displaced his enormous energy from subject matter to style. If literature was a heroic enterprise, it had to be so in spite of the degeneration of life. Flaubert’s aim was an aesthetic one: the creation of beauty as a reply to the punishment and pain of degraded existence. Thus for him, and for those who followed him, mastery over language comes to represent mastery over human difficulties, and method in fiction is a symbolic triumph of sense, order and harmony over them. In this way value is supposed to be kept.
James complained that if Flaubert “imagined nothing better for his purpose than such a heroine” (Emma Bovary) “and such a hero” (Frédéric Moreau), “both such limited reflectors and registers, we are forced to believe it to have been a defect of his mind.” James understood this difficulty so well because he himself suffered from it and carved out for his work a reality that he controlled too absolutely. It was superior but unchecked; it existed by fiat. The way in which he “wrapped” characters was despotic. This despotism brought with it a kind of mercy—the despot’s mercy toward his subject. But the system was hermetic, closed to the great disturbances with which Flaubert tried to cope. I do have a great deal of sympathy for James’s objection to the “limited reflectors.” Why not have, in art, the largest mind available? Indeed, why have any other? Why be middling with the middling subject? Flaubert was not, but he armored himself too greatly in his art to act freely. James shunned it; the largest mind cannot be hermetic to reality.
But what kind of category is “middling experience” and what kind of reality does it denote? In Tocqueville we read, “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests, in one word so anti-poetic, as the life of a man in the United States.”
I feel, before a statement like this, that the first thing to be said is that “the life of a man in the United States”’ is, to begin with, “the life of a man.” It is not so hard to understand the dislike, even dread, that Tocqueville must have felt before an immense, uncertain new development in human life. Yes, there is pettiness, paltriness, insipidity; there is crime, too; and with these terms the characterization of the life of man in a democracy has not even begun. The truth is deeper, more mysterious and in some ways perhaps even more terrible. The nineteenth century knew Homais but did not yet know Himmler.
This is the problem at the point where the modern novelist must enter it, in a present that is as fearful and as marvelous as presents have always been. The idea that we are at the degenerate dwarf-end of history is one that he must reject as he rejects his own childishness. Writers have a conservative tendency, in the literal meaning of the word, and are hostile toward the future. The future may destroy or ignore their premises, their beliefs, their assumptions, all that they have received from the past. There is a justified hate of the petty, insipid, paltry, but there is this element also to be taken into account, the conservative one.
The task of a novelist is still, as I see it, to attempt to fix a scale of importance and to rescue from styles, languages, forms, abstractions, as well as from the assault and distraction of manifold social facts, an original human value. I do not believe in a hierarchy of feelings descending in a line from aristocracy to mass civilization. Let the aristocratic dead bury their dead and the democratic dead their dead, too. I believe simply in feeling. In vividness. Where feeling is synthetic, ideals of greatness are merely dismal. Only feeling brings us to conceptions of superior reality.
A point of view like mine is not conducive to popular success. I believe with Coleridge that some writers must gradually create their own audience. This is, in the short run, an unrewarding process. The commercial organization of society resists it, and let us face it, there is widespread disgust, weariness, staleness, resistance and unwillingness to feel the sharp edge of life.
We have for hundreds of years had an idolatry of the human image, in the lesser form of the self and in the greater form of the State. So when we think we are tired of Man, it is that image we are tired of. Man is forced to lead a secret life and it is into that life that the writer must go to find him. He must bring value, restore proportion; he must also give pleasure. If he does not do these things he remains sterile himself.
Laughter in the Ghetto: On Sholom Aleichem
The Adventures of Mottel the Cantor’s Son, just now translated and published in English at the height of a new vogue for the work of Sholom Aleichem, was the great Jewish humorist’s last novel. It was begun in 1907 and Aleichem was writing the last chapter when he died in 1916 at the age of fifty-seven.
This delightful account, given by a boy of his family’s emigration from the old-country village to New York, is characteristic of the work of its author. Sholom Aleichem wrote for the family circle and his attitude was that of an entertainer. Hebrew was the language of serious literature among the Jews of the Pale; Yiddish the secular language and the language of comedy. A popular writer, a caricaturist and a sentimentalist, Sholom Aleichem had much more in common with Dickens than he had with Mark Twain, to whom he has often been compared. He was a great ironist—the Yiddish language has an ironic genius—and he was a writer in whom the profoundly sad, bitter spirit of the ghetto laughed at itself and thereby transcended itself.
The Jews of the ghetto found themselves involved in an immense joke. They were divinely designated to be great and yet they were like mice. History was something that happened to them; they did not make it. The nations made it, while they, the Jews, suffered it. But when history had happened, it belonged to them inasmuch as it was the coming of the Messiah—their Messiah—that would give it meaning. Every male child was potentially the Messiah. The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological and religious allusions. The Creation, the Fall, the Flood, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the sages and the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothesline or a pair of pants. This manner of living on terms of familiarity with all times and all greatness contributed, because of the poverty and powerlessness of the Chosen, to the ghetto’s sense of the ridiculous. Powerlessness appears to force people to have recourse to language. Hamlet has to unpack his heart with words, he complains. The fact that the Jews of Eastern Europe lived among menacing and powerful neighbors no doubt contributed to the subtlety and richness of the words with which they unpacked their hearts.
Mottel the Cantor’s Son is a gay, not an oppressive book. Against the grim background of the ghetto and in the presence of death, the small boy continues to play. Almost nothing can take place that he is unable to make into an occasion of happiness; with boundless resilience he tells, after his father’s death, how quickly he learns the prayer for the dead, how well everyone treats him now that he is an orphan. When the springs come out of the sofa, he winds them around his neck to see whether he can choke himself. When the last of the furniture is sold, he has more room on the floor for his games. His brother Eli, the new head of the family, is stern with Mottel, but the boy has an inexhaustible power of enjoyment and cannot be affected. He plays in the fields, in the brook, in the filthy yard amid the rich man’s stacks of lumber. All places are alike to him. He declines to suffer the penalties the world imposes on him.
The comedy of the book emerges from Mottel’s ingenuous descriptions of his elders. Eli, now the support of the family, has concocted a powder for killing mice from directions he found in a book on how to make a fortune quickly. Eli’s wife, Brocha—her name in Hebrew signifies Blessing, and she is anything but a blessing—keeps raising the price of this powder.
“‘If you have to eat pork,’ she says, ‘the lard may as well drip down your beard. And if you’ve become a rat-chaser, at least take money for it.’
“‘But where is justice? Where is God?’ Mother interrupts.
“My sister-in-law replies, ‘Justice? It’s here!’ and points to the oven. ‘God? He’s there!’ and slaps her pocket.”
The mouse-powder, containing hellebore, is unusable; it makes everyone sneeze and the victory is with the mice. But the matter must be discussed upon the summits of principle. Gogol would have been intrigued by this idea of a fortune to be made in mouse-powder. Indeed, Sholom Aleichem seems to have learned a great deal from him. Only, Gogol’s humor is wilder, more inventive and lavish; Sholom Aleichem’s is drier, sadder. His characters have the immediate problem of survival. Poor, hungry and living in fear, they must survive, but not by adapting themselves; adaptation is forbidden and they must remain what they are. Mottel learns early in life to perform difficult feats of equilibrium, and Pinney, one of the immigrants, is quite explicit about this matter of keeping one’s balance. Demonstrating balance, Pinney makes himself and the onlookers seasick, but this confidence in the existence of a remedy is typical of them all.
As a novel, Mottel the Cantor’s Son is not entirely successful; it is loosely constructed and undramatic, but it contains more remarkable characters than any five ordinary novels and it has its pages of incomparable comedy. The translation by the author’s granddaughter, Tamara Kahana, is excellent: breezy, free and witty. I suppose any reader who knows Yiddish will mutter to himself in that language as he reads the English; here and there he will come upon a phrase too literally translated, and stiff, and bereft of flavor. He will, however, understand Miss Kahana’s difficulties.
Dreiser and the Triumph of Art
Dreiser is not very popular now, unfortunately, and the late F. O. Matthiessen’s Theodore Dreiser will not restore his popularity though it defends him with some real feeling against the usual charges of crude writing, faulty thought and ridiculous prejudices. Part of this biography is disingenuous, the political part; Matthiessen pretends to see no difference between radicalism and communism and refuses to see that communist William Z. Foster is not the heir of socialist Eugene V. Debs. Dreiser understood many things better than he did politics; so probably did Matthiessen. But Dreiser would not have made, in the writing of a novel, an error of the kind Matthiessen tragically allows himself to make in this study. It is true that it was left unfinished but there is no hint in it of a possible different treatment of this political problem; there is only the pitiful obstinacy of a “position,” that marvelous dishonesty of modern politics. Through it you sense Matthiessen’s confusion and pain.
His admirers grant that Dreiser was a great novelist who wrote badly. But it is very odd that no one has thought to ask just what the “bad writing” of a powerful novelist signifies. Matthiessen says that his groping after words corresponded to the groping of his thought, “but with both words and thought borne along on the diapason of a deep emotion.” This is something of a start, but Matthiessen does not attempt to go very deeply into the matter.
Dreiser’s novels are best read quickly. You pass rapidly through the pages, almost as if you were reading a newspaper, but great things remain. Occasionally you are arrested by a powerful phrase, but Dreiser is never entirely free from the habits of a feature-story writer, the old-fashioned sort, like Brisbane, who has fed on Gustavus Myers and Ingersoll and on Congressional rhetoric. When he is at his worst he is not even a slick feature-story writer. His passion for the subject failing him, Dreiser can never rest on writing itself; he has not that skill. But there are a few modern writers whose passion for the subject is so steady. And then his journalistic habits are often useful; by means of them he captures things that perhaps could not be taken in other ways—common expressions, flatnesses, forms of thought, the very effect of popular literature itself.
I think it is fair to judge a writer in part by the way he breaks through his first defects, the stiffness of his beginner’s manner, his romanticism or sentimentality or modishness, his early thicknesses or thinnesses. In writing, as in personal history, what a man overcomes is a measure of his quality. An individual of any category or class performs an important and a fascinating service when he drives beyond the ordinary limitations of his type. Dreiser is, before our eyes, a newspaperman deepened, serious, finally showing a capacity that unites him with men of a very different sort who started out in a very different way. Each comes to the essential accompanied by all his accidents. A writer in America is likely to be an “irregular.”
Excerpted from There Is Simply Too Much to Think About by Saul Bellow, Benjamin Taylor. Copyright © 2016 Saul Bellow. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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What People are Saying About This
Praise for THERE IS SIMPLY TOO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT, edited by Benjamin Taylor:
"A nonfiction collection celebrates the centennial of Saul Bellow's (1915-2005) birth. Nobel Prize winner Bellow was a prolific writer of nonfiction: essays, reviews, interviews, talks and memoirs. Organized by decade, the 57 pieces in this volume, edited by Taylor (Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay, 2012, etc.), trace both Bellow's writing career and his outspoken opinions on politics, literature and intellectual life in America during the second half of the 20th century. After publishing Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), "two very correct books" that he thought would establish his credentials as a novelist, Bellow won his first National Book Award in 1954 for "a speculative biography," The Adventures of Augie March. Critical acclaim for that novel established his reputation; many more prestigious awards followed, as did opportunities to publish his views. Some of the most interesting pieces here are autobiographical. Born in Canada to Russian immigrants, growing up in Depression-era Chicago, Bellow knew early in his life that he wanted to be a writer. "I felt that I was born to be a performing and interpretive creature," he wrote, "that I was meant to take part in a peculiar, exalted game." As a young man, he looked up to such critics as Edmund Wilson, who supported him for a Guggenheim Fellowship, but by 1975, he had changed his mind dramatically: "Critics use strength gathered from the past to pummel the present," he announced scornfully. Nevertheless, Bellow found himself in a critic's role throughout his career, deriding novelists who were didactic and those more interested in being intellectual over telling a good story. He also bristled at being categorized as a Jewish writer: "I was a Jew and an American and a writer and I believed that by being described as a ‘Jewish writer' I was being shunted to a siding." This comprehensive collection illuminates Bellow's sense of his own identity and his changing world."
“This rich . . . collection of Bellow’s reviews, essays, speeches, and interviews illuminate his lifelong exploration of what it means to be an American, a Jew, and a writer. As assembled by Taylor, the pieces succeed in showing that Bellow’s calling was, in the novelist’s own words, ‘not to preach but to relate.’”
— Publishers Weekly
Praise for SAUL BELLOW: LETTERS, edited by Benjamin Taylor:
***Selected by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times as a Top Ten Pick of 2010***
***Selected by Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post as a Best of 2010***
"It comes as no surprise to find that the greatest novelist was a great correspondent as well. I hungrily read the book through in three nights, as though I'd stumbled upon a lost Bellow masterpiece only recently unearthed."
"In the Letters, as in everything he wrote, Saul Bellow never dipped below a certain level—and that level is stratospheric."
"Magnificent . . . The man is all here in this book, in his stunning, almost baffling plentitude. . . . Taylor has selected and edited and annotated these letters with exquisite judgment and care. This is an elegantissimo book. Our literature's debt to Taylor . . . is considerable."
—Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review
"Arresting, seizing the reader by the lapels and refusing to let go . . . Bellow is a gifted and emotionally voluble letter writer. The Bellow that floats to the surface in this volume is a close spiritual relative of the heroes who populate his fiction."
—Michiko Kakutani,The New York Times