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James T. Farrell

American Literature Marches On

An Essay by James T. Farrell

(September 1946)


From New International, Vol.12 No.7, September 1946, pp.218-223.
Copyright © September 1946 by James T. Farrell.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I think that we can gain some insight into the conditions of contemporary culture in America if we can see it in the light of some contrasts and comparisons with Russian literature in the nineteenth century. Marxists have framed what is called the historical law of uneven and combined development. They analyze, evaluate and picture society on the basis of hypotheses which are describable as norms, norms of development and of historical evolution and change. This aspect of their methodology is to be found in the basic work of all Marxian thought, Karl Marx’s Capital.

His analysis of capitalist society as a form of society (evolving under definite historical conditions, revealing its own inner and developing dynamics, and working according to its own laws of development, of growth, change and decay) is all laid out in the account which Marx gives of what is called “pure capitalism.” In his introduction to the first volume of Capital Marx remarked that the instrument for the great development of physical sciences was that of experimentation, but that in the realm of political economy, the scientific weapon was abstraction. By abstraction, Marx did not mean pure theory, irrelevant to and irresponsible of fact. Abstraction meant (to him) what it means on its face – to take aspects out of life, and by a process of synthesis and analysis to look at them closely, see what they show in themselves, and then, to link them together with other abstractions in a chain of categories which provide us with a system of hypotheses that permits us to re-enter the realm of crude, direct primitive fact in life, and to see in this welter, the tendencies that are in motion, that are evolving in a manner which permits generalization because of the uniformities which these tendencies express. To continue, Marx did not regard capitalist society as one lump, a lump to be seen, described and analyzed. To the contrary, he looked at the phenomenon from different standpoints, he cast on it an eye which could see from a number of perspectives, a number of intellectual posts of observation. In this way, he analyzed “pure capitalism.” Pure capitalism is a synthetic account of capitalism, which reveals it as evolving in terms of its own dynamics without being impeded, without counter tendencies, obstructions, confusion, or new emergences to interfere with that pure development.

One of the correctives to a literal application of this analysis of pure capitalism is the Marxian law of uneven and combined development. This law seeks to frame the terms in which capitalistic society evolves and changes, not in the terms of analysis, but on the stage of history. It tells us that in history, societies change not according to an absolute of evolution, but in patterns of different deviations from that norm. The norm is, thereby, a criterion, a hypothesis, a means of measuring change. The phenomenon of uneven and combined development is seen in the many glaring contrasts in the world between progress and backwardness, in the contrasts between the employment of the most advanced technology side by side with the use of the most primitive tools. The backward, the semi-colonial countries, the late comers onto the arena of world power, such as Imperial Japan, illustrate this phenomenon clearly. In the social structures of such societies, the contradictions are glaring: capitalist relationships have been imposed on the relationships of past societies, and there is a tension of opposites in the very structure of such societies. The logical tension which Hegel wrote of years ago, and which he saw in a world of spirit, i.e., of concepts, becomes, as it were, an actual and an acute social tension based on this unevenness of development.

Goethe wrote in Faust to the effect that gray is theory, but green, forever green, is the tree of life. This greenness, in history, is often a poisonous color, a terrible form of poison ivy, to continue the metaphor. And one task we must try to meet here concerns this grayness of theory and greenness of the tree of life. We need to find avenues whereby gray theory and green life are not separated, but rather, where the one leads us into knowing what the greenness of the other is. The greenness of life in history is a wild color, uneven, full of shades and reflections, an impressionistic landscape. Looked at, in itself, it is senseless. But to accept the premise that life is senseless is to negate, in advance, the very role of intelligence, and with that to deny the possibility of human control. Societies have evolved and changed without human control and direction. Direction and control have been fragmentary, episodic. In consequence, this unevenness of development has been most pronounced. Uneven development means that there is not an all-sided and consistent regularity in the advances made in civilization, so that the implications of new technological instruments are not implemented in all relevant fields; the changes in society effected or brought into reality by these new instrumentalities are not evaluated, coordinated, and put into marching step with other changes. Combined development means that the old and the new are pressed together and exist side by side. And we see the most advanced machinery and the most backward tools used in the economy of the same country – as was notably the case in Imperial Japan, and in nineteenth century Russia.

19th Century Russian Literature

The significance of this law in culture is that it provides us with the hypothesis for the analysis of what sociologists, philosophers and many others in our own age call “cultural lag.” Inasmuch as men are not merely what they think they are, but, more importantly, are what they do, we can observe a whole series of ambiguities, confusions, false problems, contrasts of old and new ideas, clashes of philosophies and philosophical systems in the culture of any period. To relate the culture of a period, a society with its social structure, its level of production is now a commonplace. Marxists have always tried to do this. Anti-Marxists, and non-Marxists are always doing this, too, although they frequently try to issue formal denials that this is the case. Looked at broadly then, nineteenth century Russian literature can illuminate some problems of contemporary culture. In the nineteenth century, Russia had an almost a-historic past. It had been a feudal land without a thirteenth century, without the tremendous development of feudal civilization in the West. It had entered modern history, modern civilization. Its social structure was contradictory. On the one hand, it was feudal: on the other hand, it was capitalistic. In the course of the nineteenth century, there was a relatively tremendous development of capitalism in backward Czarist Russia. This did not only precondition a tension in the interests of classes and groups: it was, also, reflected in ideological and cultural tensions. More than mere machinery, and economic relationships on the pattern of the West, were introduced into Russia. There were also – ideas. These were the ideas of the Great Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, of the rights of man, of western individualism. Herein was laid the social or material basis for a period of the most intense ferment. Intellectual ferment is possible only if there is an awareness of problems, and if this awareness of problems is sensed to a degree sufficiently widespread so that it is clear that a social and historic condition exists which involves and even threatens the entire sense of the self. In other words, an awareness of problems must not be purely formal, and be stated in the language and concepts of political economy, philosophy, sociology, etc.: it must also be psychologically felt in personal problems, tensions, inner hopes and doubts, in problems concerning what man is, what is his place in the universe, what is the relationship of social classes, what is the relationship of men to men, of men to women, what is the role of women and so on. All sides of the nature of the life of man must be involved in this awareness: in consequence, there must be an awareness that the entire self is involved. Such was the case in Czarist Russia. The most sensitive spirits of the time felt just this.

Part of World Literature

We see in nineteenth century Russia, then, a contradictory social structure, and a period of intense ferment. In Russia, the Russian problem was not the sole one posed. The problem of Europe, and with this, that of the past and the future was posed, posed in an all-sided way so that it involved not only social relationships and political forms, but also moral ideas, concepts of the universe, of purpose in the world in general, and of the purpose of man in particular. Uneven and combined development was to be seen in culture as well as in economic structures. All of the fears, the anxieties, the hopes, the confusions, the moods which agitated advanced cultural nations in the West, notably France, these were also registered in Russia. Ideas were imported as well as machinery. Napoleon did not conquer Mother Russia. But the Napoleonic Invasion make irreversible the fact that forever after, Russia had to be a western nation, rather than an eastern one, lost in Oriental fatalism and going on endlessly from generation to generation sans change, sans technological inventions.

There is a marvelous all-sidedness in Russian literature of the nineteenth century. Its development was, unquestionably, as high as has been that of literature in any period of human history. The great Russian writers – and most notably Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – became world writers. Russian literature, saturated with pictures of life in Russia, rich in its presentation of Russian types, describing the Russian land, Russian characters, moods and customs, became overnight part of the body of what we call world literature. We cannot account for this in the sense that we can really account for what we call genius. But we can account for it in the sense that we can state what material prerequisites existed in Russian society, and in the relationship of Russia to the West – prerequisites without which Russian literature could not have taken the character it did take, with its serious, penetrating and all-sided probing into those problems which agitated, not only the most sensitive and conscious spirits of Russia, but also, the most sensitive, alert, aware spirits of the entire western world.

Theme: Integrate Ideals and Actions

At one place in Anna Karenina, the character, Levin, is described as seeing his times as topsy-turvy. In general, nineteenth century Russia was topsy-turvy. The character of its topsy-turviness was that the struggles, the tensions, the problems agitating this land were a forecast of the twentieth century. Technologically backward, if compared with the West, Russia became, in the summits of its culture, the most advanced of nations. One way of interpreting literature is by describing it as an imaginative trial of the consciousness of man. In imaginative representation and re-creation, man goes through the trial of his times, the trial of his past and his present, and in doing this, he anticipates his future as best he can. One feature, then, of the uneven character of nineteenth century Russia is revealed in its tremendous cultural development. This development is evinced not only in literature, but also in politics, in political thought. In general, the ideas of the West were grasped immediately, intensely, and they were pondered over and discussed. Practically every major writer and thinker of Western Europe, during this century, had a profound influence on some person, some group or groups in Russia. Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Stendhal, Balzac, these and many others were read and studied with a care rarely matched in any other country. Often, the intensity with which western culture was felt and worked over is evinced by the fact that it was acted on. We see suggestions of this in Russian literature, in the succession of characters who are described in such convincing human terms, and who modelled or tried to model their lives, for good or for ill, on a philosophy, a set of ideas. The major theme of Russian literature of the nineteenth century is a moral one – that of revealing in various ways the effort of men to find consistency between their ideals and their actions. As nowhere else in this century, the meaning of literature was lived, lived in life. The effort was made to put ideas, to put values into practice. In passing, this is one of the important facts to be observed in the life of Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian literary genius.

America – Capitalist Paradise

Whereas Russia was a backward country, America was an advanced country. Whereas the introduction of capitalism into Russia was marked by the most disrupting of social contradictions, capitalism in America developed in a more “normal” fashion, in a fashion which is, I think, the closest approximation to the “pure capitalism” which Marx described that we can find in any country. Marx’s analysis, it is true, was based mainly on England: but American capitalism is more “pure” in this sense than even English capitalism. The American continent offered a new world to man. This new world was exploited, under the aegis of capitalism, without the impediments of the feudal past which stood in the way of capitalistic development in Europe. Often, various historians and others have commented on how many of the early settlers were nothing but the rag-tag of Europe, the prisoners, the ignorant, the dangerous, the dissidents and so on. Snobs who make this comment do not understand the significance of such a fact. In a new world, with free conditions of development, even the rag-tag, the human refuse of an old continent could develop, could show ingenuity, courage, daring, inventiveness, and could contribute to the making of a new world. Even the despised of humanity could, and usually always can, make a mighty contribution to creating a new world if they are given conditions of free development. America developed historically into the closest approximation to a capitalist paradise that mankind will ever know. And if we see this first, we can see precisely what it will mean when we say that American capitalism has been a success. The vision of the founding fathers of the American republic, the profound historic vision of Alexander Hamilton – a man so misunderstood by contemporary liberals – has been realized, more than realized. But it is a commonplace to say that man wills, and that what he gets is not an exact realization of what he willed. Again, we can say, gray is theory, but green is the tree of life, and that in history, there is often a noxious poison in some of the rich greenness.

Alexander Hamilton – lest some of our contemporary business men, newspaper owners, practical men and others forget – was a highly developed theoretical man. No man who is devoid of theoretical grasp can have a profound political vision of the future. The vision of Alexander Hamilton was that of the free – i.e., capitalist – development of an entire continent. No man of his time had a more profound vision of the American future. We say this now, however, with the future he visioned really behind us. The understandable gloom, despair, confusion, anxiety which we felt in immediate reaction to the perfection of the atomic bomb now incontrovertibly attests to this simple fact: the future of American capitalism, the realization of a great statesman – Hamilton – is behind us. This is the kernel of meaning in the commonly and currently discussed statement, “Modern man is obsolete.”

American capitalism has been a success, and the development of American capitalism has been one of the most important historical developments in the entire history of mankind. With the exception of events such as the Great French Revolution, and the Russian Revolutions of the century, no historical subject as much demands the most intense, the most serious, the most honest and through study as does that of the history of American capitalism. The rise of America, the development of American capitalism has permitted mankind to solve – for all times – some of the most important of all problems confronting man. The organization of production on a scale that can satisfy all of the major needs of mankind has been perfected in the United States. In passing, we might add in irony and bitterness, that in America, under capitalistic aegis, mankind has also solved the problem as to how he might destroy himself and the planet known as the earth when and if he wishes, and perhaps, even without wishing. The success of American capitalism, in the historic sense, shows us, in another focus, the same phenomenon of uneven and combined development. In passing, it might be here suggested that it can’t really be described as a fortuitous fact that so many social scientists, philosophers, cultural critics and others in America wrote continuous analyses and polemics based on the phenomenon called “cultural lag.” This cultural lag reveals the character of unevenness of development in America. The heights of cultural development in America are to be seen in technological improvement, in inventiveness, in the organization of means, methods and techniques of production, in scientific development – especially the practical application of scientific development.

At the same time, the development of what we call humane culture has lagged. This is evinced in literature, the most profound of the modern forms of humane culture. Alongside of French and Russian literature of the nineteenth century – in particular – the greater body of our own writing is relatively more shallow. At the same time, we see this same phenomenon evinced in the way that European – especially English – culture was for so long imitated, in the hostility that has been successively manifested for many generations against writers from the mid-west and the west who – regardless of all else – had what might loosely be called a native American flavor. In line with this fact, we can note the recurrent irony to be found in the fact that in the major political democracy in the world, there is such cultural and literary snobbery. Successively, writers from the plebeian heart of these United States have, generation after generation, run afoul of this snobbery. They have been treated with condescension, described as crude, as barbarians, as bad writers, as uneducated, as raw fellows; they have not been able to measure up to the pseudo culture of a sterile genteel tradition. Again and again, without one evidence of concern about the problems the American writer faces, about the relationship between his real environment and his style, about the obstacles he has faced and still faces, he has been arbitrarily measured against the background of European writers who grew out of a much deeper, much more sophisticated, much more profound culture. Critics – sometimes critics whose major trait is merely that of a holy cultural petulancy – have thrown the great cultural traditions of Western Europe into the face of the struggling American writer. This can be both snobbish and meaningless.

American Aesthetics Utilitarian

By and large, the culture of a society cannot really rise above its origin. By and large, there is, and there must always be, a most intimate relationship between culture and the society out of which it grows. By and large, negatively or positively, the culture, the literature of a society will be an imaginative trial of consciousness of man in that society. And American literature has been precisely this. Speaking most broadly, the theme of American literature has been the so-called American Way of Life. If we would express what is the real philosophy of the American Way of Life, our procedure should not be that of analyzing the statements – especially eulogistic, patriotic and ceremonial statements – which praise and contain laudatory descriptions of the American Way of Life. Rather, we should look at the quality of life, the aims, the wants, the actions, the things men do, and the values they want to realize among the different social classes that go to compose the population of these linked States. If this is done – and in passing works such as Middletown by the Lynds will give the verification of social science to my statement – it can be said that the philosophy of life in America to be deduced from the plane of action, of living, of struggle can be described as Benthamistic. It is often a rather primitive Benthamism. If one but cursorily looks at the phenomenon of commercial advertising, the character of advertising appeal, one can see that this is the fact. By and large, Americans live on the pleasure-pain principle that Bentham formulated, and they abide by a morality and an aesthetics of utilitarianism. This fact again introduces us into the subject of cultural lag. The criticism of American civilization, based on what we now call cultural lag, has been the most common one made by a variety of American critics, critics of different points of view. The way that this criticism has usually been phrased is that there is a contradiction between ideals and actions. Jane Addams said this; so did the late Herbert Croly. This is the burden of the writings of the younger Van Wyck Brooks. It is at the heart of the comments on America by John Dewey, and the writings on America of his distinguished colleague, the late George Herbert Mead. From a different standpoint, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford have said this also. The basis of Sinclair Lewis’ criticism of America in Babbitt – a criticism weakened by that undisciplined inclination of Mr. Lewis to confuse his own personal irritations with ideas – is, again, just this.

Commodity a Work of Art

Especially since the end of the First World War, one of the dominant motifs of American writing – both serious and “popular” or commercial – has been that of leisure. There are many more accounts in American fiction of the way Americans spend their leisure than there are of the way that Americans work. If we go back to the fiction of Henry James, we can note this. The Jamesian world is mainly one of people on vacations. One of the aspects of James, in fact, is that he introduced into world literature, the vacation attitude and the vacation consciousness, and related this to American attitudes. The sharpest, perhaps the bitterest, of modern American satirists is Ring Lardner. An analysis of his stories will patently reveal the same phenomenon. On the one hand, he writes stories of people trying to have a good time when they are not working; on the other hand, it is usually the case that when he describes a character at his or her occupation, that occupation is of the kind that relates to leisure, to the pleasure and the entertainment of others. Thus, he shows us a caddy at work; or he describes ball players, prize fighters, song writers and theatrical producers at their work. The major motif of the late F. Scott Fitzgerald was social disillusionment, that is, the disillusionments of people who enjoy much leisure, and who finally became bored with it. The characters of Hemingway are seen, mainly, in a tourist world. The occupations of his characters are of secondary importance: when he shows characters at work, we see prize fighters, newspaper men in foreign countries, waiters, bull fighters and so on.

Directly, or by implication, the motifs, and the actions of characters in a great preponderance of American fiction deal with aspects of the enjoyment of life, with what people do and what happens to them when they are on vacations and can spend money, or develop their awareness, with how they play cards, make love, go to parties, talk in social gatherings and so on. This can be generalized in the statement that a dominant theme or motif, then, of American fiction is that of leisure, and with this, that of how to use or how commodities of one kind or another are used. Some of this fiction is couched in the tones of glorification of the American Way of Life: other works of this kind are critical. The Hollywood hero, the hero of the plot short story, is almost always happy at the end, and involved in his happiness, in most instances, is the fact that he has gained access to the commodities he will need to enjoy the fruits of a Benthamistic paradise: often, the hero of serious and “realistic” fiction is unhappy, and he finds that commodities are not enough. Sinclair Lewis has criticized the low cultivation of Babbitts and Main Streets: he then later wrote a novel with the theme that a hotel was a work of art. Leaving aside literary criticism of this novel, it is suggestive of my point here: a commodity is a work of art.

Culture Superfluous

A common reaction to these aspects of the so-called American Way of Life has been that of using culture as a form of snobbery. We have already noted this in passing in our reference to how eastern critics have treated writers from other areas with such recurrent and usually predictable condescension. In fact, most American literary criticism reeks with snobbery, although it is often concealed behind democratic phrases. In the last analysis, this snobbery is based on a class idea of culture: culture as something which is the special prerequisite of people with (a) peculiarly sensitive capabilities of appreciation, or (b) the income to possess objects and the time to read books that others cannot possess or appreciate, or (c) a combination of these. A reason for this snobbery is that culture has never had the same meaning in America as it has in Europe. Building, exploiting a new continent, most Americans had little need of the culture that concerned Europeans.

If we go back to Mark Twain, we can note – for instance in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – how he criticizes what went for culture in the immediate background of the frontier – romanticism revealed in the adventures of kings and dukes. Tom Sawyer concerns himself with this, and builds a fantasy life out of it. Or we can see a related indication of this in Booth Tarkington’s Penrod. The minister who is cultivated is also effeminate, and the ladies dote over tea and poets. The sissies among the boys like to read. Penrod, however, is the real boy, and his father is a man in a man’s world who (unlike the minister) smokes a cigar and has little use for poets and books. In Frank Morris’ The Pit, the artist, Corthell, is removed from the business of making money, and concerns himself with his impressions and art objects from Europe. When the Great Bull of the Pit, Mr. Jadwin, is too busy to pay attention to his wife, the artist reads her Browning and other poets. Snobbish conceptions of culture are related to the fact that those who were doing the work of exploiting the resources of the American continent, who were making money, who were gaining power, had, with rare exceptions, little need of culture. Often, they let their wives attend to this realm, and they sent their sons to eastern colleges where some of it could be imbibed. And the sons and daughter and wives could make the Grand Tour of Europe, look at Rome, at castles, at pictures and at medieval armor, and thereby, they could get culture, and the business man could buy a lot of this culture, and put it in his house. Men, with little more cultivation than that contained in the three R’s, could become millionaires, powers in the nation. Since there was little need for culture, it did not become important.

Realistic School

At the same time, optimism is an attitude related to the role of culture in capitalistic America. For decades, there was tremendous hope and optimism in America. Marching capitalism, after all, had an entire continent to develop and exploit. With this, there was opportunity. There was, in American class relationships, an extraordinary fluidity. New generations produced new financial kings and speculative barons. The sons of successive waves of immigrant rose on the social ladder. New lands, new jobs, new opportunities were open on all sides. The Success legend was no myth. After all, the statement that a child born in a log cabin of a working man could be President of the United States was not a mere fiction: Abraham Lincoln was so born. Briefly, opportunity was open on the planes of business, and in the field of politics. The country once thronged with the so-called self-made man. Socially, life offered a more open universe in America than anywhere else in the world. When, under such circumstances, you could get a bird in your hand, what need was there to concern yourself with two of them in the bush?

The growth of the so-called realistic school of writers in America has charted the course of the change in the American dream, of the decline in the basis for this optimism and hope of success. As such, realism has been a means of counting the cost of American civilization. In Dreiser, the successful man is insatiable: he can win neither a sufficiency of power nor of love. In Sinclair Lewis, the Babbitt has no inner life. His life, and hence his character, is formed in terms of commodities that he owns, gadgets that he can put into his house, and in a religion of service. In Ring Lardner, the glamor of the sporting hero is shown to be inglorious when the man is looked at. The sons of the rich in F. Scott Fitzgerald became sad young men, and they don’t know what to do. Sad horns do not play forever. Concommitant with this, we note that other emphases tend to drop out of American writing. A major theme of writers like Henry James, of Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage, of Harold Frederic in The Damnation of Theron Ware can be described as that of awareness. Rather than awareness, development, the realistic novels of the twentieth century usually deal with movement, geographical movement and social movement from class, and with this, the consequences of what happens either to those who have moved, geographically or socially or both, or with what happens to their children. Another emphasis that we find rather rarely in American fiction is that of friendship. It is striking to observe how little there is friendship (friendship such as that portrayed between Pierre and Andrey of War and Peace) in American fiction. One of the reasons why Clyde Griffiths, of An American Tragedy, ends as he does is because he has no friends. He has no one to talk to, no one whom he can really trust. The characters of American fiction are unduly competitive, or else, they possess the color of their milieu. In one way or another, many of them are strikingly aggressive. They are American individualists.

Describes Man In Commodity Culture

In this context, how strikingly can we see the difference between individualism in American literature, practically since the post-Civil War period, and individualism in Walt Whitman. Whitman, one of America’s first figures of world literary importance, was the poet par excellence of individualism. And yet in Whitman, individualism is social, friendly, comradely, inclusive, non-aggressive. Walt, alone with a blade grass, alone on the shores of the bay, wherever he goes, is surrounded with friends, with a feeling of friendship. No matter where he goes, he is not alone. The entire universe is an arena of love and friendship, love and friendship which are not tainted with the slightest sentimentality. Contrast this with the attitude of Mark Twain, another great American writer. In his last years, he looked at the “damned human race,” and he saw man, alone in a dreary waste of space. In this same contrast, let us consider the boasting of Walt Whitman, and the boasting of many characters in twentieth century American fiction. When old Walt boasted, he did so because he felt that he was like all other men. He boasted because he belonged to the great human family, a brotherhood of men who lived on the earth bravely and who joyously opened their senses to all of the possibilities of life: To him, living, life and death were adventurous. How different this is from the boasting of, say, Babbitt. Babbitt has a vanity of things, a vanity because he belongs, not to the human family, but to an organization of business men who are the best of good fellows, the like of which is practically non-existent anywhere else. They call each other by their first names as if it were a ritual they must perform because a resolution was passed requiring such a ritual. Many parallel illustrations also could be cited here, and these would only give added confirmation to my analysis.

Let me then repeat – American literature – regardless of precise literary evaluations of specific writers – has been a treatment of the American Way of Life. It has been an effort to explore, to reveal, to criticize, to eulogize, or to state the tragedies and disappointments of men and women living in the closest approach to paradise that capitalistic civilization can or will ever produce on this earth. As such, it is an account, however incomplete, of the story of how man tries to live in a commodity civilization. The notes of dissatisfaction, the notes of personal irritation, the tragedies so often told, all of these are related to this one central fact. For America has gradually been producing a culture of commodities. In this culture, the commodity itself tends to become a value superior to all other values. Serious American realism is, really, an account of what happens to men when the commodity is the real summum bonum.

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