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New International, Summer 1955


Michael Harrington

Fictionalized Biography


From New International, Vol.21 No.2, Summer 1955, pp.129-132.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Faithful Are the Wounds
by May Sarton
Rinehart, New York City, $3.50.

As an individual, a personality, the late F.O. Matthiessen was an appealing figure. The author of one of the most significant contemporary studies of American literature, The American Renaissance, he argued for a conception of the scholar as a man of commitment, of action (see, for example, the posthumous collection of essays, The Responsibility of the Critic). Indeed, it was Matthiessen’s own personal commitment which led him to a “Christian socialism,” into the Wallace movement, and ultimately played a part in his tragic end. His suicide note defined his despair as a result of the contradiction between his values and the trend of America today.

Now, in Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton, we have a fictionalized treatment of Matthiessen’s life. Or rather, as this discussion will make clear, a novel built around the incidents and values of his life, yet independent of biographical intent, a work of art. In analyzing the book, in making such distinctions, it is necessary to raise larger questions of social criticism.

First, some general considerations. It is possible to have a political novel, a roman à clef, in which motivation is derived from ideological analysis. Darkness at Noon has this quality to a certain extent. The logic of Rubashov’s actions is, more often than not, dictated by a rationalistic, one dimensional, image of man in which the political-philosophical is controlling. His affair, for example, is a medium of political development rather than romance. This same characterization could be applied to the actions of Thomas in Murder in the Cathedral, except that the ideology in this case is religious.

But it is also possible to have a novel in which politics is a background, a setting, but not the center of motivation. In Man’s Fate the social struggle is primarily the medium of individual release and self-consciousness, thus reversing Koestler’s pattern. And in Dicken’s Bleak House, the courts perform a metaphorical function, standing for a certain attitude toward the world, and it is the latter, the attitude, which is the principle of selection and description, not the reality of the legal system itself.

Finally, it is possible to combine these two types, to have a work of art in which politics is both context and principle of motivation, but not solely the principle of motivation. This, I think, is the case with May Sarton’s book. Such an approach can yield a multi-dimensional thickness, a complex image of decision enmeshed in society, private and public worlds in their inter-mingling. It is a difficult technique, for it demands a careful, structured presentation, balanced and inter-related.

Thus, in Faithful Are the Wounds, there is a central “private” theme: the failure of communication. It is developed in the inability of Edward Cavan’s sister (Cavan is the Matthiessen-like figure) to understand her brother, in the gulf between two young lovers, in the marital relationship of Damon Phillips, one of Cavan’s colleagues, and his wife.

The major consequence of this failure is Cavan’s death. He attempts to communicate his anguish to his various friends and cannot do so. The despair which results is an occasion of his suicide. The content of his anguish is political – the Czechoslovakian coup, the politics of the American Civil Liberties Union, etc. – but the inhibitions of communication are not. These spring from other motivational sources, from childhood, from personality variances, from different social positions.

The point of the private theme is that through Cavan’s death, a certain possibility of personal communication comes into being. The lovers marry, a man and his wife realize their relationship more deeply, the sister is changed. In the development of this theme, the political is context, it is the stage, but it is not the determinant of motivation, it is the occasion. In this regard, one could compare Faithful Are the Wounds to an unpolitical book like Wings of the Dove, where personal relationships develop around the death of Milly.

Yet there is also an explicitly political level. Cavan’s death does not only lead Damon Phillips to an understanding of his marriage; it also causes him to take a definite political position with regard to a congressional committee. In the Epilogue, Phillips refuses to testify about his friends or associates because he realizes that Cavan was right, that “... the intellectual must stand on the frontier of freedom of thought.”

It is in this case, and only in this case where the author uses her material to give emotional weight to a particular point of view, that we can apply political criteria in judging the book. And it must be remembered that this is only one part of the judgment, that it is possible to respect the political line and yet admire, and value, other aspects of the novel. In judging Balzac, Marx used a political and social criteria; I am proposing a political and formal consideration.

In its political aspect, Faithful Are the Wounds is somewhat ambiguous. The central political problem is Cavan’s belief that Communists and Socialists can cooperate. In the end, Damon Phillips tells the committee “that although Edward Cavan may have been wrong in his belief that Communists and Socialists could and should work together, in the essence of his belief he was right and many of us were wrong.” The main political question is how Miss Sarton distinguishes the “essence” of Cavan’s political belief from his tragic conviction that Communists and Socialists can work together.

It is here that our estimation of the “private” theme is an aid to the political judgment. For the metaphor established between the public and private worlds of this book, make it clear that the “essence” of Cavan’s belief is that of responsibility, of commitment, of communication, both public and private. His failure lead to his death; his death led to others achieving what he failed. The impact of the book is not to call for a political program, but for a political attitude – and for a sound political attitude. There is a certain ambiguity, but it is, I think, resolved.

Indeed, the synthesis of the two worlds, private and public, is quite moving. Communication, as a personal ideal, and communion, as a political ideal, are joined at Cavan’s funeral and in the effect of his death upon his friends. The choice of the quotation from John Donne (“No Man Is an Island . . .”) is somewhat trite, but aside from this, the emotional impact and the artistic achievement are considerable.

Faithful Are the Wounds is an accomplishment. It is far more than a political novel, taking that term in its sense of programmatic fiction. It performs a subtle and delicate weaving of private and public motivation, its image of decision is complex, its social context is movingly presented. Judged as it should be, as a work of art, it is a significant success.

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