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James M. Fenwick

Books in Review

Lost Decade

(January 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 1, January 1949, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The Last of the Provincials
by Maxwell Geismar
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1947, 404 pages, $8.50

Looking backward at the early 1930s, now receding so swiftly behind us, we are able to appreciate what a fruitful period of Marxist culture it represented for the United States. The Marxist approach lay behind a great deal of the significant writing of the period. There was James T. Farrell in the field of the novel; Clifford Odets in the drama; that much neglected man, V.F. Calverton, in sociology; Edmund Wilson in literary criticism; Lewis Corey in economics; and there were scores of others. There was also a large body of important writing which was influenced by the Marxist climate. Lundberg’s America’s 60 Families is a good enough example.

Of course, a great deal of the writing in this genre was inept. But the inner rot which caused the structure to collapse was Stalinism. In the early phase it was ultra-leftism, which, lacking all subtlety, vitiated the work. In the latter phase it was the policy of collective security, which produced an unstable union of liberal capitalist ideology and Stalinism. This blew up the series of explosions which followed the Moscow trials, the republican defeat in Spain, the improvement of economic conditions, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact. About all that was left when the smoke cleared were propagandists for U.S. or Russian imperialism and a small residue of anti-Stalinist socialists.

What is the prospect for the future? It cannot be called inviting. V-J Day was no Salamis, to be followed by a long and relatively undisturbed period of peace in which culture will flourish like the green bay tree. Everything is being subordinated to the necessities of the war against Russia, especially in those fields closest to the social scene. A recent reading by this reviewer of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a purportedly scientific anthropological study of the Japanese mentality, gives a foretaste of what is ahead.

The threats and the propaganda of governmental agencies are even felling representatives of the anti-Stalinist socialist vanguard who escaped from the last disaster in full possession of their faculties. Stalinist writing, of course, is due for an eclipse, as is genuinely Marxist writing, and writing influenced by it. Fortunately, the decline is not a direct one. There are residual currents and counter-tendencies which occasionally cast up books worth reading. Maxwell Geismar’s The Last of the Provincials is such a book.

Geismar owes a great deal to the Marxist literary critics of the ’30s, to their predecessors like Parrington, and to their successors like Kazin. In this book he analyzes five American writers of the period 1915–1925, using the sociological approach. His analyses very skillfully extricate the leading themes of each author’s works and relate these works to the development of American society. Esthetic elements of the works are treated in proper subordination.

H.L. Mencken, the subject of the initial essay in the book, is, unfortunately, the least satisfactorily treated of all the authors considered – a fact easily ascribable to the contradictory character of this man who had such a great influence on the intelligentsia of the ’20s. Geismar catches the main outlines, however.

“His value, therefore,” says Geismar, “lies as much in his profound and unwilling reflection of a period as in his brilliant reporting of it. If he helped to mold the spirit of the post-war epoch he also betrayed its underlying pressures ... And if he undervalued the resources of our democratic social arrangement – exaggerating in this as in so much else, he could hardly exaggerate the blind consuming power as well as the blind fertility of our industrial machine.”

Geismar underrates Mencken’s contribution in at least two respects: his tremendous role in introducing European and American literature to the United States – with the enhanced sensibility which resulted – and his role in developing a critical attitude toward capitalist culture.

The essay on Sinclair Lewis is full of stimulating insights. Of Lewis’ literary world Geismar says:

“This is also a middle class which is essentially without a home life, without children, without religion, and finally, without an economic status to speak of: a middle class which is without all the historical props of a middle class, and which, hardly established in power, has every appearance of dissolving – including the escape into a dream world of the middle class ...”

The essay on Willa Cather is brought around very judicially, using as a point of orientation the thesis that:

“... the whole range of Cather’s values, standards, tastes, and prejudices, her tone, is that of an inherent aristocrat in an equalitarian order, of an agrarian writer in an industrial order, of a defender of the spiritual graces in the midst of an increasingly materialistic culture.”

Geismar does full justice to that attractive figure in American literature, Sherwood Anderson, whose work can be summed up in the statement Geismar applies to one of Anderson’s last productions, Home Town:

“Then there is Anderson’s realization that ‘the breakup which came to America in ’29’ – a breakup whose echoes are everywhere in the volume – that this last and most radical change in the pattern of a changing American life probably marks the final, the ineradicable breakup of the earlier agrarian society he has made his own.”

The final essay is on F. Scott Fitzgerald, that tragic, glittering figure, half snob, half radical. Of him Geismar concludes:

“Although Fitzgerald remains the folklorist of the rich in their more restricted aspects, and, like his own Munro Stahr, who had never learned enough about the feel of America, still retains a ‘certain half-naive conception of the common weal,’ there are few others who could have given such a bright and glowing intensity to such a shallow world ... this age in itself beautiful and damned, for which horror and death waited at every corner, and whose youth may seem ‘never so vanished as now’.”

In a final section titled, Summary: The Years of Loss, Geismar evaluates the literary decade 1915–1925. In words which occasionally smack of the Church Fathers he denominates the ’20s as the coming of age of capitalism and the voices of this period as voices which testify against it.

“Here, certainly,” he concludes, “is Conrad’s sense of terror and darkness in the life of man, but where is that accompanying sense of the wonder and prodigality of life?”

It is proper to bring together and to assess this period whose leading representatives served as precursors of those who in the depression decade more explicitly understood the evils of the times. And yet how distant both of them now seem to us! Hardly has the intelligentsia begun to assimilate the disappearance of the frontier, the decline of the village, the monstrous growth of capitalism, the unprecedented depression and World War II, than it faces problems of undreamed-of complexity, extensiveness and import. The literary masterpieces of the ’20s are recessive, they are dropping below the horizon. For the conflicts which elevated them to greatness are beginning to seem trivial before those of the atomic war and capitalist barbarism which are looming up over the horizon.

When has the intelligentsia of the United States ever approached the cataclysm more poorly prepared? Where are even the Jeremiahs and the prophets of the threatened catastrophe?

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