C.L.R. James 1950

Two Young American Writers

Source: Fourth International, Vol.XI No.2, March-April 1950, pp.53-56. C.L.R. James used the pseudonym G.F. Eckstein.

With single books Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) and William Gardner Smith (The Last of the Conquerors) have had, the one a brilliant, the other, a distinguished success. These young men, further, have shown that they are repelled by Stalinism, without cultivating any illusions about bourgeois democracy. Here is the unmistakable sign of a new wave of radical intellectuals. Their appearance raises again the question of the relationship between young writers and the politics of our troubled times.

Mailer’s book describes the course of a small task force on a Pacific Island during World War II. The misery of the men, the decadence and corruption of the fascistic officer caste, these emerge not from preaching but from the interplay of event and character, panoramic, yet built out of a rich detail. With tremendous courage, Mailer traces the civilian background of each of his numerous soldier characters; the crimes of American capitalism in the war appear as the intensive expression of the mean, cheated, degrading lives to which it condemns the majority of Americans in peace. In itself, and still more, as the work of a young man of twenty-five, this book is evidence of an amazing talent.

Mailer and Melville

But it is more than that. In his strength as well as in his weaknesses, (and he has grave weaknesses), this talented writer is a profound expression of American civilization. His true analogue is not the host of war novelists of this or the last war with whom he is automatically included and compared. He is organically related to another American writer, a man of genius, who, ten years before the Civil War, produced perhaps the greatest of American novels – the Moby Dick of Herman Melville. So close is the continuity that to examine the two books together affords crucial insights into Mailer and provides a concentrated picture of a century of American development.

Whatever else Melville’s book is, it is rooted in a meticulous study of a representative group of Americans, not soldiers this time but sailors, the common seamen, skilled harpooners, mates and captain of a whaling vessel. While Whitman sang paeans to great individuals, Melville in 1851 drew the individualism of American capitalism to the end. The maniacal captain, Ahab, leads society (the ship) to its destruction. So that there should be no possibility of misunderstanding, an “imperial” sky-hawk (the American eagle) is caught in the flag and affords the final view of the disappearing Pecquod. Melville is repelled but fascinated by Ahab, a man maniacal but heroic in his will to achieve his purpose.

Mailer’s task-force is also representative of American society as a whole. And the central character of Mailer’s book is Sergeant Croft, the man of will, effective and dominating. If the passion in Ahab seeks to overcome the white whale, Croft seeks to overcome the mountain. If to a far lesser degree, Croft, like Ahab, is torn by internal rages. Croft, a sadistic killer, is not the heroic character that Ahab is, but, like Melville, Mailer is fascinated by the will to achieve and the power to dominate of this evil man. Thus, with an interval or a century, American society in crisis projects out of itself imaginative symbols of its conflicting forces which create an almost identical pattern of central character and consequent relationships.

But 1947 is not 1851. If Melville visualized no embodiment of a force to oppose Ahab, it was because there was none at the time. Melville was no active politician and did not concern himself with the problem that the Civil War could solve. He penetrated so deeply below the surface of capitalist society that it took nearly 75 years before the crisis of world capitalism could make people begin to see what he was driving at. Hence the dynamic character of his imaginative vision. But Mailer? Imaginatively he has not moved an inch beyond Melville and that is because he does not in 1947 see the clash of contemporary forces as Melville saw them in 1851. Mailer’s book, politically speaking, is suffused with a sense of the social crisis as actual. He is familiar with the ideas of Marxism. But a writer creates from levels far deeper than his consciousness of political ideas. And in this book can be felt the whole retarded political development of the United States.

Revolutionary traditions have been overlaid by tremendous economic expansion. To this day America has no mass proletarian party. That the proletariat as a class is a candidate for the resolution of the antagonisms of capitalism, this concept, for most American intellectuals, is a European phenomenon from which America has been excepted. The CIO in 1936 was a visible sign that this was not true. But Mailer wrote in 1947. Less than a dozen years is a very brief time for so far-reaching a conception to become an integral part of the national consciousness and thus an unconscious heritage of the artist.

Precisely because he is unable to present artistically a counter to Croft, the book falls short of genuine dramatic power. The point is so important for Mailer’s future as a writer that it demands illustration, particularly because the Stalinists, taking advantage of the confusion of bourgeois thought, continue to make the most outrageous approximations between a writer’s political beliefs and his artistic creation.

A stage of civilization is coming to an end only when another is growing up within it, whence arise violent interlocked contradictions, dramatic conflict of representative personalities, or insoluble conflicts within the single personality.

The Orestes of Aeschylus is a man torn between the blood-feud morality of the aristocracy and the constitutional law of the new Athenian democracy. Dante, representative poet of religious medievalism, was so much aware of the new secular age that Engels called him the first modern man. Shakespeare, politically an adherent of the radical aristocracy, was fascinated by the individualistic passion of the new bourgeois man.

To take a now familiar example of a pattern constantly repeated in the mature Shakespeare: It is against the background of the typical feudal virtues of loyalty, honor, discipline, as expressed by Horatio that Hamlet engages in the dramatic but perilous search for inner conviction, freedom of choice, which distinguish bourgeois man in his progressive stage. Two centuries later Balzac, admiring the aristocracy, hating the new bourgeois and condemning socialism, yet was so stimulated by the clash of opposing forces that his gigantic creation is as fresh today as when it was written.

Most gifted writers are content to deal with only one aspect of a civilization; in our day Joyce, Eliot and Proust described one side of bourgeois society, the decay of its values; at the opposite pole, Silone in Fontamara, Malaquais in Men from Nowhere do fine work by isolating clinically forces that directly or indirectly are in opposition to official society. But for the last half century, no imaginative writing has appeared comprehensive enough to convey the sense of active opposition of fundamental forces and fundamental values.

Sergeant Croft and Captain Ahab

This is what Mailer has attempted. He is not a mere recorder of decay, nor is he a clinical student of some restricted section of the mass. He attempts to portray a whole. He shows us on the one side a fascistic counter-mobilization in General Cummings, the plotter of fascism, and Croft, its living instrument. But on the other side there is, artistically, nothing, a mere mass of men. Near the end of the book, Red, the worker, has his chance to mobilize the men against Croft. He fails miserably. But he has failed long before that – in Mailer’s imagination. Croft is a perfectly realized creation. Red is not. And in literature that is what counts. The book is therefore artistically unbalanced.

Melville constantly posed Ahab’s struggle to prevent revolt among his men. He posed also the conflict or opposing forces within Ahab himself and with a truly cosmic grandeur, he makes the whole the symbol of man’s eternal struggle in his attempt to master nature. Though his theme is ultimate destruction, he develops and integrates the various strands of his conception with the radiance and exuberance of conscious mastery. When he was finished, he wrote to Hawthorne that he had written a wicked book and felt as spotless as a lamb. But the situation today is too urgent for Mailer to envisage calmly the destruction of society. The problem which Melville imaginatively envisaged is now actually here.

Mailer is conscious of the violent contradiction between his political hopes and the reality he achieved in Croft. He therefore vents his rage on Hearn, the soul-sick intellectual. He humiliates him physically and intellectually before the fascist general. He places him in direct conflict with Croft and sends him to ignominious defeat and death. But in the book as conceived by Mailer, Hearn can offer no artistic balance to Croft and Cummings. In Moby Dick Melville treats his soul-sick intellectual, Ishmael, with genial contempt. Melville would not place upon any such person the main responsibility for checking Ahab.

Let us look at Croft again. This is a character that grows. At every crisis it is he who expands to meet it. But nowhere does Mailer ever seem to have visualized a collective, cooperative action arising from masses or groups of men, all to one degree or another burning with resentment. Hence the emphasis on Hearn’s individual failure; hence too the unreal character of Red’s failure: “If one man would move, they all would. But nothing happened. He kept telling himself to jump at Croft – and his legs wouldn’t function.” It all depended upon Red. And his legs shook. But even Oliver Twist was bold enough to ask for more.

A sense of the collective gives iron strength to many a leg which by itself would not only shake but crumble. Profoundly true and profoundly glorious is that moment in Fontamara when the peasant boy in prison, faced, with torture and blows, suddenly realizes that come what may, he must keep silent and not betray his companion of whom he knows little and understands less. It is the modern individual above all who can find himself only as part of a whole. Mailer who saw so much must certainly have seen revolts individual and collective. It was in that very Eastern theatre that at the end of the war the great GI revolts against being kept from home took place. But though he probably would have defended and supported them, they awakened no organizing impulse in his imagination.

I sense here a type or rather in this case, a stage of mind very familiar among American intellectuals, seeking an answer to social chaos or crisis in administrative efficiency, that stops short at the abstract analysis of economic forces and cannot make the leap to Marxism which is the doctrine of the struggle of the proletariat to achieve the classless society. Mailer has the great virtue of sincerity. He refuses to have any part in the synthetic radicalism of the Stalinists and their “proletarian” literature. There are depths in the dialectic of revolt and creation, of individual and mass, which Mailer has not plumbed. What is most hopeful is that he refuses to pretend.

* * *

The reality of revolt is precisely what Smith, the Negro writer, has. Smith in his book presents no collective conception of society. But for him as a Negro, the perspective of freedom, in relation to the Negro as he is, is a permanent part of his consciousness.

The novel describes the experiences of a Negro regiment in occupied Germany and the writer, as if relieved from the pervading blight of American race prejudice, expresses the lyricism of young people making love even in that unpropitious environment. Smith is a natural writer. In a few pages of flashback to his youth in Philadelphia, the easy style becomes hard and firm, and indicates what we can expect from him when, after this interlude, he returns to his native environment. American race prejudice puts a brutal end to the idyll. But before the book is finished, a Negro soldier, maddened by persecution, shoots an officer, and jumping into a truck, seeks some sort of existence different from that which tortures him-the most convenient place is the Russian zone. The sense of universal social crisis so omnipresent in Mailer’s book is absent from Smith’s. Smith’s book is in every way a much slighter work. Yet, for historical reasons, understanding of revolt comes easily to the Negro writer.

Revolt and violence are deep in American tradition. If it comes so easily to Smith, it is because of the special situation of the Negroes as Americans in American society. It should be noted that while Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1852, was sweeping the United States and the world, Melville in 1854 wrote Benito Cereno, where the revolt which did not take place in Moby Dick is the center of the story and is a revolt of Negro slaves. The leader, Babe, is a heroic character to whom Melville (within the narrower range) gives the formidable qualities of Ahab without his conflicts. With a matchless irony, which to this day escapes his critics, and a perfection of realization of his conception which was rare with him, Melville struck a blow at prevailing conceptions of the Negro, which remains unsurpassed in modern literature. The revolt failed but at least it took place and Melville lavished all his forces upon it.

Mailer will yet have to find this, a social conception for the future of man in which his imagination and observation can take root and flourish, and project characters of the power of Croft in opposition to him. One such character in The Naked and the Dead would have made this novel one of the supreme masterpieces of the century. Find this road Mailer must. Because if he doesn’t, his talents will not expand.

Crisis of Contemporary Art

The miserable self-torturing and psychoanalytical preoccupation, the sense of isolation of contemporary writers is familiar enough and proof sufficient. Far more significant is the career of Melville after Moby Dick. Having sent society to its doom, Melville became immersed in incest, mother-fixation, hatred of the father, ending many years later in the morality for morality’s sake of Billy Budd. The historical premonitory curve he traced in his decay is a tribute to Melville’s essential greatness and his incorruptible integrity.

But those who today, 1950, are trying to claim Melville for their psychopathic preoccupations are as presumptuous as Schlesinger and his followers who are trying to claim him for their “new” liberalism. If Melville sent the Pecquod to the bottom of the sea in 1851 and then retired into himself, it was only because, as Moby Dick shows in many places, he had sought desperately for potentially triumphant forces of revolt, and failed to find them. The man who drew Babo, Bulkington, Queequog, Daggoo and Tashtego, Steelkilt and the carpenter, would have understood the modern proletariat.

Yet today all opposites are balanced on a razor’s edge. And many fine writers hate sunk into the morass of self-analysis. What to do? We are here on the shore of an uncharted sea. However much his work is the expression of social forces, an artist’s development is a very individual thing. Shakespeare in his thirties obviously went through some soul-shaking personal experiences. Gaugin went to the South Seas. Who can imagine what Dostoievsky’s imprisonment meant to him? It seems pretty certain that the study of Shakespeare, particularly King Lear, was one bridge by which Melville crossed over from the gay romancer to the philosophical insight and creative power of Moby Dick. It seems also that there was a version of Moby Dick written in 1850 before the reading of King Lear in which neither Ahab nor the white whale appear. It was obvious that social forces around Melville had not changed so violently within that period as to account for these profound changes in his artistic conception. All we can say is that Melville had changed, or he had absorbed new ideas, got rid of old ones. We have here only results, the ultimate sources and impulses are lost in the mysteries of personality. A writer must find his own way.

Yet a few remarks can be made. Artists do make violent leaps from one level of penetration to another, and have often struggled consciously to do so by ways suitable to the structure of their personality and their experiences. Today we can go even further. We live in an intensely political age and theory and historical experience show us that the condition of any artistic development is an uncompromising hostility to the values of Stalinism and to those of American bourgeois society. Whoever capitulates to either of them is lost, and lost utterly is the creative writer whose imagination, like Mailer’s, is active in social terms. Nor can resistance be merely passive or confined to a narrow political activity. There can be felt even in the pro-revolutionary writings of Malraux a tension of political activism which is characteristic of the impatient intellectual and foreshadows disillusionment and violent revulsions following upon defeats. The primary condition of strength and endurance is to see the enemy in all its amplitude. A Babel of self-contradictory tongues, professional, journalistic and unashamedly amateur, serve by their combined obfuscation no purpose except to protect the tottering foundations of a decayed bourgeois culture from serious examination. Against this heterogeneous body going everywhere except forward, the Stalinists, armored and equipped like a task-force, apply their “stand and deliver theory” of culture. Each side poses an “either-or” and seeks to encompass the whole field. Perhaps it is in the systematic and truly philosophical opposition to the decay and perversions of these two barbarisms that young writers, fortunate enough to begin where Mailer and Smith begin, can find their way to those deeper levels which will nourish and not desiccate their talents.


Last updated on: 12 April 2009