James T. Farrell  |  Trotskyist Writers  |  ETOL Home Page


James T. Farrell

American Literature Marches On

An Essay by James T. Farrell

(October 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 8, October 1946, pp. 243–247.
Copyright October 1946, by James T. Farrell.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

We print below the second and concluding section of this article. – Editors


In the past, American businessmen as a whole did not have a great interest in or need for culture. Today, this is changing. Culture has become an important field of investment. Culture, and pseudo substitutes for culture, have now been socially organized on the basis of huge business concerns, even of near monopolies. I have tried to deal with this subject elsewhere and here I merely state the fact. [1] This growth of bigness, this commercialization of culture, is evinced in the phenomena of Hollywood, of radio, of the mass circulation magazines, and in the growth of the book business in recent years, especially during the war. With hundreds of millions of dollars now invested in the production of cultural works, and of pseudo or substitute cultural works, there is a mass market for culture. With this mass market, there is an insatiable need for cultural production. By and large, this means that the businessman’s starting point for the creation of cultural works is not human needs and human problems as these are seen from the standpoint of the individual artist; to the contrary, the starting point for the creation of cultural works becomes more and more the need to satisfy a market. The market need is gradually casting a bigger and ever bigger shadow over cultural creation. Whereas the plenitude of commodities, the wealth of America, influenced themes and motifs of fiction in the past, largely in the indirect fashion of posing problems of leisure and enjoyment, now the commodity in itself is becoming the deciding factor. In its most crude form, we can see this in the tie-up between songs and sales in radio advertising. Similarly, we now have popular songs in which the title and theme are related to a commodity. Thus, the song, Rum and Coca Cola.

In the Film Production Code of the Hollywood studios, the determination that characters in films keep the Ten Commandments according to certain prescriptions is not the only concern: the section on foreign countries, prescribing that the rulers, institutions and customs of foreign countries be not cast into disrepute is directly a provision which will help to make movies a more salable commodity abroad. Also, it is a commonly known fact that in film studios, great difficulties are encountered in the working out of stories because of the dangers that something in a film may be considered damaging to the good will or products of commodity producers, or to the respect with which various occupations and professions demand that their practitioners be viewed. Not only is it a fact that cultural goods must be sold on a mass market with all that this implies concerning content and standardization, but additionally, in the more popular forms of culture, commodity needs, sales needs, and the like are directly intervening in the very organization of stories. Factors of this kind have entered in an important way into the very creation of cultural works in America. Here, it is necessary at least to mention this in passing. But there are also other factors which demand our consideration.

It is impossible to press an ideology or set of values upon an artist and thereby to guarantee that he will produce serious if not great art. It is impossible in our time to make him create in terms of a fixed set of moral values imposed on him and to guarantee that good results will be attained. It is irrelevant and often inept to tell an artist that he must either affirm or reject life, praise or deride the dignity of man and so on. One of the tensions in American society grows out of a conflict of values, out of the difference between life as it is lived, and life as it is imaged in conventional images and stereotypes. No form of society in the past has shoved aside traditions as ruthlessly as has been the case with capitalism. This is especially the case in America. In contemporary culture, the traditions of the past cannot be expected to be as important as the need of making some added dollars out of cultural production. It is commonly declared (sometimes in voices of lament, sometimes in voices of pride) that America has been traditionless. The relative traditionlessness of America has been one of the reasons why American capitalism has been, historically; a success, in the sense that I have described it as such. It had less baggage of the past to shed; it was less fettered than was the case in Europe. The relative absence of tradition has been a positive aid to American capitalism. At the same time, it is one of the important factors involved in the relative shallowness of American culture, when we regard culture in terms of humane culture, rather than more broadly so as to include scientific, technological and business culture. This fact also hel ps to explain important aspects of the motifs, the problems, the types of character and subject matters that have so often been introduced into American writing.

A tension between past and present, expressed by a contrast of bourgeois and feudal values, has not been felt concretely in life in America by the broader sections of the American population. Such a theme in fiction, then, was not a major one because it was not a major problem to many Americans. American writers have – even if not with sufficient aesthetic resources taken their own problems. They will continue to do this, and the critics who make moral, ideological and political demands on them will fail to have a genuine and lasting influence. In the last analysis, the only way that one can really make these kinds of demands really effective is by calling on the policeman to enforce them. However, it is in the form of such demands that critics are speaking to writers and readers in the present time, just as they have in the recent past.

Rather than discuss relevant problems here in reference to these critics, rather than polemize against them here, rather than try to present substitute demands on the writer, it seems to me that a generalized account of problems that are now faced and a further exploration of the comparisons and contrasts with nineteenth century Russian fiction will, perhaps, be more fruitful.

Some Historical Factors

Faith in progress is, in America, rapidly dissipating. Behind even some of the propaganda for naïve conceptions of progress, there is seething inner doubt. In the realms of commercial writing, where stories in praise of progress and the American Way of Life are concocted in a pattern of simple and naïve eulogies, this inner doubt is unmistakably intense. The glowing language of Service and Progress, linked with the vulgar and simple-minded economic notions of the 1920’s no longer can enlist genuine and widespread belief. The proponents of rugged individualism are and have been gradually shifting their lines of argument and propaganda. Now and then, one or another of them breaks loose and utters a shrill scream. But hardly anyone believes him. The business men have had their day as the popularly conceived masters of destiny, the popularly presented leaders of America, the models on the basis of which youth will pattern itself. The presidents of the period when the business man had his last day in the sunshine as a model and a paragon are scarcely even mentioned. In memory, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge are forgotten historical characters. The depression has left its ineradicable impressions. The doubt, the disbelief in the capacity of the business to guarantee and secure what had frequently been called the promise of American life – this is a psychological and political fact of contemporary America which cannot be overlooked. It is evinced in the variations of emphasis in the propaganda and advertising of some of the business concerns themselves. One note, for instance, has been that of describing large corporations as guardians, trustees of the people’s capital.

This fact has already been reflected in some of our so-called popular culture. Just as some corporations have attempted to present themselves in public in the light of trustees of the people’s capital, the people’s resources, just as the late President Roosevelt popularized the emphasis that the government is “your government,” so has it been the case that a number of films, plays, radio plays, novels and stories have been written in order to make a corresponding emphasis, a populist emphasis which flatters “the common people.” If we recall the origins of the phrase, “the forgotten man,” we will remember that Sumner’s “forgotten man” was really the man of the middle class. This forgotten man of the middle class has again been equated with the people, as the representative figure of the people, and as such, he has been flattered. The chief protagonist of most of the late George Ade’s fables in slang was this same man of the middle class. Ade’s humor revolved around the attitudes, the smugness, the genuine human and democratic (in the sense of social relationships) views of this man, particularly in the face of the trusts and of social snobbery. Penrod’s father was this same man, stereotyped. But now, this reconstructed figure is placed in the context of a new set of impressions and of a revised attitude concerning American life.

The late President Roosevelt told us in one of his speeches that the faith of America is the faith of the common man. And this common man, reflected in popular or mass-production art forms, embodies the attitudes of the man of the middle class, regardless of his particular occupation and class relationship in a particular work. He, not the business man, is America. Just as a residue of attitudes have been left after the collapse of the New Deal, so is there a residue which can be described as the New Deal cultural climate. This New Deal cultural climate is a consequence of the collapse of the idea that the business man is legitimately, properly, and happily the leading figure of America, the true master of destiny, the model of conduct for youth, the man on whose. shoulders rests the responsibility of securing the prosperity of the American Way of Life. Fewer and fewer people believe this, and it is doubtful if many of the business men themselves even believe it. Babbitt may still be Babbitt, but he cannot sing the old tune.

The prosperity of the 1920’s ended in a collapse which demonstrated conclusively that American economy could not – with all of its productive capacity – sustain an internal market which could guarantee what is called prosperity. The shadow of the next depression hangs over the entire land. More and more, the probability of another depression is taken as a fact, a fact that is often accepted almost without debate. We can, in consequence of this, see that the social conditions giving rise to the theme of the American Dream, the American Way of Life in our culture are rapidly becoming part of the past. Stage by stage, the implications, the premises, the assertions which went to compose the ideology of the American Dream have been chipped off. This is one of the facts behind the current and widespread mood of insecurity. And, consequently, it becomes one of the reasons which permit us to predict that gradually this theme is bound to be abandoned in American writing.

Early Democratic Attitudes

Time was when the treatment of the American dream in writing was less nakedly political than at present. Democracy was embodied, not in praise of the system of political democracy that has been established in America, but rather, in terms of the social attitudes and social relationships of characters. In this sense, the stories of George Ade, the cartoons of the late Tad Dorgan, are illustrative. The cartoons of the boys in the backroom showed directly that they held democratic and equalitarian attitudes toward one another. The George Ade character was uncomfortable if he acted like a snob. But now this democratic feeling has to be asserted in banal political statements and speeches made by characters, and introduced into the story itself. In other words, the characters don’t prove democratic social relationships by actions in a direct fashion: the author tries to prove that these exist by overt statements and speeches. At the same time, it needs to be said that in the past there was a social warrant, a social and economic prerequisite, which made plausible the success story if this be looked at merely in its own terms and on the plane of the immediate and direct action presented in these success stories of the past. That is to say, many people, relatively, had the chance of succeeding. Social and class relationships were less stratified than they are now.

The reaction to the success story in more serious and sensitive fiction, thus, was that of revealing patterns of destiny which emphasized that success didn’t create inner harmony, contentment. In other words, one emphasis was that of the consequences of success. Serious writers registered the fact of negative consequences. The weakness and superficiality of the success story was not to be found so much in falseness, in the sense of emphasizing a possibility in America that was not open to a fairly proportionate section of the population: rather, its falseness lay in the shallowness of its psychology, in its substitution of stereotype for character. Today, the successful movie and fiction heroes often register a sense of guilt. They are nostalgic for the days when they were not successful. Further, a new success story is being written, the success story of the character of glamor, the entertainer, the popular artist, the jazz musician and so on. Willy nilly, new models of conduct, new types for imitation, new heroes are being created in mass production culture. These new heroes are entertainers, usually ones who come from the people, not the classes. They are common or forgotten men. This is evidence of the rust that has accumulated on the American Dream of other years.

With such tendencies apparent at the present time, we can see that whereas in the past, the American Way of Life was opening vistas to the future, it is not seen, principally, as one which constitutes a way of life that poses problems. Almost the entire nation, practically, is aware that grave and crucial problems have developed in America, and that these are, basically, economic. All of the necessary conclusions, however, have not been drawn from this awareness. Withal, there is now no mistaking the fact that a state of awareness of serious problems exists. This awareness stamps the fact that people of all classes are more conscious that something is wrong, that problems exist. As a corollary of this, it is perceived that these problems involve the future of everyone, the sense of the self which people hold of themselves, the destiny which they envisage for themselves and their children. In other words, the awareness of problems of this order is one that is now intimately related with the moods, the feelings, the intimate personal life, the psychology of people. It is such awareness which is one of the preconditions for changes in the content and themes of writing, and for changes and variation in the tastes of readers. When problems remain purely public and generalized, then the existence of these problems may have little direct relationship to tastes in reading. But when they are grasped directly, intimately by people, they will most likely begin to be revealed, expressed, stated in literature. A problem that is public in character must be translated into the terms whereby men and women realize that its existence as a problem involves their very sense of themselves. This, precisely, is what happened, and this, precisely, is one of the ways in which we can see why the American Dream is becoming a worn-out literary motif.

During the war, not only Americans, “but the entire human race, was given an education,” the like of which has never been gained in the past. Conclusions have not been drawn from this education, but that does not negate the fact itself. The war beat and pressed itself into the very organisms of almost everyone. The realization that world problems exist is now one that has been translated into problems of the self, problems of personal life. With the atom bomb, it is no choice intelligent few who know that it is possible for humanity, itself, to be annihilated. Despite arguments, promises, propaganda to the contrary, Gallup Polls, shortly after the war, indicated that over fifty per cent of the American population either believed or else did not exclude as a definite possibility. the onset of a Third World War, of one that will be worse than the Second. This attests to the same fact that we have already noted. Public problems are now being translated into the problem of the self.

It was the translation of public, of general problems, into those of the self which helps to explain the development of the novel in Russia in the nineteenth century. Czarist Russia was topsy turvy. The twentieth century is topsy turvy. The sense of America as being topsy turvy is growing. In this sense there now is to be seen a parallel between nineteenth-century Czarist Russia and twentieth-century America. But this parallel must be strictly limited. The topsy-turviness of Czarist Russia was based on the contradictions between feudal and capitalist relationships and this existed in a period when capitalism was expanding, and when there was confidence in the future of capitalism. Contrast the greater ease with which Europe could recover from the ravages of the Napoleonic War than it can from the two World Wars of the twentieth century, and one sees this historic change clearly. Today, we live in a topsy-turvy world which cannot expand as was the case in the nineteenth century. Capitalism was then progressive. Capitalism is now exhausting itself. It has received two mortal wounds in the form of two World Wars. It is like a beast that is slowly dying from these wounds. How long its death agony will be is unpredictable. Whether it lashes out and gathers together its last energies and snarls and bites like a wounded dying beast gone berserk before it expires, is another unpredictable matter. These general factors define the limits of our analogy with Russian literature.

Contradictory Tendencies at Work

The conditions for literary change, for a literary renaissance, are various. One of them is this awareness that historic, political, social, economic problems involves the very status and destiny of the individual self. This condition exists in America. It may serve as one of the prerequisites for a period of literary ferment and even of literary renaissance. A force that is checking this ferment and renaissance, however, is found in the fact that big business is in control of a large and most significant area of culture. A second factor that may check an American renaissance lies in the fact that, despite cheerful words expressed in public, despair is widespread. Many literary critics, commentators, clergymen, political leaders and others have the mistaken notion that a literature of so-called negativism is a danger to an existing social system. This is incorrect. If we look at Russian literature of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, we can prove this. The writers who did the most damage to the Czarist system were :hose who affirmed life, if I may use the language of Van Wyck Brooks and others. Tolstoy affirmed life, and no Russian writer of his time was a greater menace to the security and even the existence of Czarism than was Leo Tolstoy.

There are few writers more likely to make rebels, even to this day, than Tolstoy.

Dostoevsky defended Czarism. He co-related the defense of Czarism with belief in God, and, correspondingly, saw revolution in atheism. Yet his major influence negates his affirmations. For he worked out the problems of belief in God, and in doing this, he created an ideal character, Aloysha Karamazov. When we read The Brothers Karamazov, many of us work through this problem anew, and we do not conclude that we will emulate Aloysha, that we will try to be like him, and that if we do, we can save our own selves. Dostoevsky, defender of the Czarist system, was really a danger to that system. But contrast these two writers with Artzbashieff, their literary inferior and a man who came after them. His work is morally nihilistic: Sanine had a widespread but relatively transitory influence.

Whereas Tolstoy and Dostoevsky worked out central problems of the self in literature, Artzbashieff popularized facile despair, facile and at least semi-hooliganized Nietzscheanism. If one seriously imitated Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, one would more seriously explore, more seriously try to harmonize ideals and action: doing this, one would actually be in a position concretely and intimately to test their affirmations, to know by the very tensions and play of impulse in oneself whether or not these worked. Imitating Artzbashieff’s Sanine, one runs away from oneself: one substitutes a facile immoralism for a moral seriousness. Moral nihilism does not endanger a crumbling social system in the way that moral seriousness does. Cynics and moral nihilists perform the role of safety valves. The moral nihilist, in emphasizing hopelessness and cynicism, thereby implies the lesson that there is no future worth fighting for. And those who attack a social system at its foundation are men who firmly believe that there is a future worth fighting for, and with this, that life is worth passing on. In this sense, they are morally serious. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy confirm and strengthen an attitude of moral seriousness in readers; Artzbashieff doesn’t. Further, this difference is most important for young readers. They, above all others, can learn these lessons from literature. If the guardians of what is called order and property in this world care for advice from this critic, I willingly give it to them. I advise them to tell the youth, especially the serious youth, to read writers like Artzbashieff, not ones like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Various newspapers, publicists and others are fighting post-war disillusionment by denying it, by condemning it. But the simple fact is that it is here. We now live in the era of post-war disillusionment. An era of widespread mass disillusionment proves that you cannot fool all. of the people all of the time. The most common demonstration to validate the assertion that the people cannot always be fooled can easily be observed – in periods of widespread disillusionment. Before masses of people prove that they cannot be always fooled by taking the road of social revolution, they will often display apathy, disillusionment. They show that they are not fooled in the realm of immediate and practical life, but in broadened political and cultural areas. Personal life affords everyone the immediate and concrete basis for empirically testing the values that are generalized in culture. When the workers are told that the capitalists can guarantee them jobs and a high standard of living, and the capitalists fail to fulfill their guarantee, they begin to disbelieve. They are not fooled by this promise. A new promise, a new guarantee, may fool them, but the old one will not. When women are told that it is murder to practice contraception, and when they experience dangerous and debilitating consequences after acting on this moral instruction, they, also, draw conclusions. When Catholic daughters, for instance, see what it has meant for their mothers to be child-bearing animals, they often draw the conclusion of practicing birth control.

Endless illustrations of this simple truism could be elaborated. Here, we need, mainly, to apply it to the assumptions of the American Dream, to the eulogistic conceptions of the American Way of Life. When motion picture and mass production stories continuously present the same fables to masses of people, they feed their revery, de-energize their moral nerves. But at the same time, they show these people what they do not have. Over and over again, the trial of values of American capitalist society is imaginatively, made in this popular art. It can confirm these values only temporarily. It can induce only passing belief. For depression, the opportunity for freer sexual relationships, the many-sided possibilities of life, the many-sided frustrations of people all tend to negate the implications of these films and stories. Social, political conclusions are not necessarily drawn as a consequence. But personal conclusions are. And through this process of acceptance and rejection in private life, the movie makers, the hack writers, the magazine editors and others are providing the American people with concrete material that permits them to evaluate the success or failure of the so-called American Way of Life. Just as children gradually come to understand that neither Santa Claus nor the Big Bad Wolf exists, so do adults come to understand that other kinds of fairy tales are – fairy tales.

It is this conclusion which again leads me to offer advice to all of American reaction, advice which I doubt that they will take. My advice to them is to encourage an art and a literature of moral nihilism. Moral nihilism is their major barrier to the drawing of conclusions in the present era. What is now a major danger to them is an art of moral seriousness. The masters of our destiny, politically, economically, and theologically, have all issued promissory notes: they lack the moral, the political capital to pay on the line on these notes. Their failure is now stamped and almost dated by the great scientific discovery in human history, die capture of atomic energy. Those who say that only America could have produced the atomic bomb in this period are correct. Capitalistic America – as the fact proves – alone could do this. But in having done this, capitalistic America has demonstrated that it cannot solve probletms for itself, let alone for all humanity. The man from Independence, Missouri, sits in the White House, in no enviable position. When he was to become President of these United States as a consequence of the death of the late Franklin D. Roosevelt, he is reported to have declared that he felt as though he had been hit by the moon and the stars. He was hit by something as terrible: he was hit by the problems of this period.

Many years ago, a man from the border states, a man from Kentucky, a man of the people, sat where he now sits. That man possessed the will, the humanity, the greatness to – regardless of all else – organize a war so that a problem would be solved, however terribly. History has changed, or as we are told, Time Marches On. His successor, the man from Missouri, can solve nothing. His impasse is focused in his atom bomb policy. If he reveals the alleged secrets, or if he doesn’t, the same problem remains. Neither secrecy nor openness will guarantee us, or our children, from war and possibly, annihilation. The atom bomb focuses sharply, dramatically, and in a manner which can press terror into every human being, the problems of the present. Now, the world crisis is not a generalized crisis merely to be talked about in newspapers and books. Now, it is not merely a problem for the leaders, the masters of destiny. Now, as never before, it has been, it is being translated into the intimate consciousness of almost. every adult human being on the face of this planet. This has profound, and not fully predictable, consequences for literature. These consequences can be stated, to repeat, by the remark that now there is a wide special awareness that the problems of the world at large involve every aspect of the very life of individual human beings. It is a realization of this that produces the frantic formula – modern man is obsolete. The correct statement is that contemporary ideology is obsolete. Art, in affirming this ideology, is bound, in the long run to drive home more forcibly the fact of this obsolescence. Culture pressed into the service of this obsolescence cannot succeed. It must call on the aid of the policeman for a relative success.

American literature, in this period of continuing crisis, will develop how? The real answer to this question will be written by the new generations. And we can suggest, repeating in conclusion, that this answer will be of one kind or another depending on whether or not we have moral nihilism or moral seriousness. In this way, the moral question, so frequently discussed, is really involved in the literary situation. The critics who speak in generalized moral affirmation have done a disservice to their country. They have created the wrong kind of confusion. The cultural defense of the status quo demands now, not a continuation of the old fables of health and happiness and love: it demands not a belief in God in a vacuum. It demands despair that will be channeled into personal, into personally self-destructive actions and attitudes. It demands not the rose-colored falseness of hope, but rather, the compensatory and consoling self-flattery of personal cynicism, of personal disillusionment. For this dissipates those feelings of alarm, of urgency, of growing and insistent demand for change which turns personal disillusionments into social and political deeds. This, then, is the general setting for the problems which the new and young writer, the next generation of intellectuals face as they begin to function. This, further, I believe, suggests the nature of the problems involved in the analysis of the content of contemporary American culture. This, briefly, outlines certain of the significant aspects of contemporary cultural problems. To give answers to these problems, to chart a new course is a present task, a task which rests mainly on younger generations.


1. Cf., The League of Frightened Philistines, New York 1945.

Marxists’ Internet Archive  |  Encyclopedia of Trotskyism  |  Document Index Page

Last updated on 11 March 2017