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- Definitions - 20/38 -


the trend is even more marked. An acute critic, Mr. Wilson Follett, has recently noted that the novel of class or social consciousness, which only ten years ago those who teach literature were discussing as the latest of late developments, has already given way to a vigorous rival. It has yielded room, if not given place, to the novel of the discontented person. The young men, and in a less degree the young women, especially in America, where the youngest generation is, I believe, more vigorous than elsewhere, have taken to biographical fiction. Furthermore, what began as biography, usually of a youth trying to discover how to plan his career, has drifted more and more toward autobiography--an autobiography of discontent.

There is, of course, nothing particularly new about biographical fiction. There is nothing generically new about the particular kind of demi-autobiographies that the advanced are writing just now. The last two decades have been rich in stories that need only a set of notes to reveal their approximate faithfulness to things that actually happened. But there is an emphasis upon revolt and disillusion and confusion in these latest novels that is new. They are no longer on the defensive, no longer stories of boys struggling to adapt themselves to a difficult world (men of forty- odd still write such stories); their authors are on the offensive, and with a reckless desire to accomplish their objectives, they shower us with such a profusion of detail, desert the paths of use and wont in fiction so freely, and so often disregard the comfort, not to speak of the niceties, of the reader, that "the young realists" has seemed a fair, although, as I think, a misleading title, for their authors. To a critic they are most interesting, for the novel of the alleged young realist is like a fresh country boy on a football field, powerful, promising, and utterly wasteful of its strength.

Recent American literature has been especially rich in such novels. There was, for example, Fitzgerald's ragged, but brilliant, "This Side of Paradise," which conducted aimless and expansive youth from childhood through college. There was the much more impressive "Main Street," biographic in form, but with teeth set on edge in revolt. There was the vivid and ill-controlled sex novel "Erik Dorn," and Evelyn Scott's "The Narrow House," in which the miseries of a young girl caught in the squalid and the commonplace had their airing. There was Stephen Benet's "The Beginning of Wisdom," where the revolt was a poet's, and the realist's detail selected from beauty instead of from ugliness; and Aikman's "Zell," in which youth rubs its sore shoulders against city blocks instead of university quadrangles. There was Dos Passos's "Three Soldiers," in which the boy hero is crushed by the war machine his elders have made. These are type examples, possibly not the best, certainly not the worst, drawn from the workshops of the so-called young realists.

What is the biography of this modern youth? His father, in the romantic 'nineties, usually conquered the life of his elders, seldom complained of it, never spurned it. His son-in-the-novel is born into a world of intense sensation, usually disagreeable. Instead of a "Peter Ibbetson" boyhood, he encounters disillusion after disillusion. At the age of seven or thereabout he sees through his parents and characterizes them in a phrase. At fourteen he sees through his education and begins to dodge it. At eighteen he sees through morality and steps over it. At twenty he loses respect for his home town, and at twenty-one discovers that our social and economic system is ridiculous. At twenty-three his story ends because the author has run through society to date and does not know what to do next. Life is ahead of the hero, and presumably a new society of his own making. This latter, however, does not appear in any of the books, and for good reasons.

In brief, this literature of the youngest generation is a literature of revolt, which is not surprising, but also a literature characterized by a minute and painful examination of environment. Youth, in the old days, when it rebelled, escaped to romantic climes or adventurous experience from a world which some one else had made for it. That is what the hacks of the movies and the grown-up children who write certain kinds of novels are still doing. But true youth is giving us this absorbed examination of all possible experiences that can come to a boy or girl who does not escape from every-day life, this unflattering picture of a world that does not fit, worked out with as much evidence as if each novel were to be part of a brief of youth against society. Indeed, the implied argument is often more important than the story, when there is a story. And the argument consists chiefly of "_this_ happened to me," "I saw _this_ and did not like it," "I was driven to _this_ or _that_," until the mass of circumstantial incident and sensation reminds one of the works of Zola and the scientific naturalists who half a century ago tried to put society as an organism into fiction and art.

No better example has been given us than Dos Passos's "Three Soldiers," a book that would be tiresome (and is tiresome to many) in its night after night and day after day crammed with every possible unpleasant sensation and experience that three young men could have had in the A. E. F. And that the experiences recorded were unpleasant ones, forced upon youth, not chosen by its will, is thoroughly characteristic. If it had not been for the rebellious pacifism in this book, it is questionable whether readers who had not been in France, and so could not relish the vivid reality of the descriptions, would have read to the end of the story.

The cause of all this is interesting, more interesting than some of the results. The full result we can scarcely judge yet, for despite signs of power and beauty and originality, only one or two of these books have reached artistic maturity; but we can prepare to comprehend it.

Here, roughly, is what I believe has happened, and if I confine my conclusions to fiction, it is not because I fail to realize that the effects are and will be far broader.

The youths of our epoch were born and grew up in a period of criticism and disintegration. They were children when the attack upon orthodox conceptions of society succeeded the attack upon orthodox conceptions of religion. We know how "the conflict between religion and science" reverberated in nineteenth-century literature and shaped its ends. The new attack was quite different. Instead of scrutinizing a set of beliefs, it scrutinized a method of living. Insensibly, the intelligent youth became aware that the distribution of wealth and the means of getting it were under attack; that questions were raised as to the rights of property and the causes and necessity of war. Soon moral concepts began to be shaken. He learned that prostitution might be regarded as an economic evil. He found that sex morality was regarded by some as a useful taboo; psychology taught him that repression could be as harmful as excess; the collapse of the Darwinian optimists, who believed that all curves were upward, left him with the inner conviction that everything, including principle, was in a state of flux. And his intellectual guides, first Shaw, and then, when Shaw became _vieux jeu_, De Gourmont, favored that conclusion.

Then came the war, which at a stroke destroyed his sense of security and with that his respect for the older generation that had guaranteed his world. Propaganda first enlightened him as to the evil meanings of imperialistic politics, and afterward left him suspicious of all politics. Cruelty and violent change became familiar. He had seen civilization disintegrate on the battlefield, and was prepared to find it shaky at home.

Then he resumed, or began, his reading and his writing. His reading of fiction and poetry, especially when it dealt with youth, irritated him. The pictures of life in Dickens, in "The Idylls of the King," in the Henty books, in the popular romantic novels and the conventional social studies, did not correspond with his pictures. They in no sense corresponded with the descriptions of society given by the new social thinkers whose ideas had leaked through to him. They did not square with his own experience. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" rang false to a member of the 26th Division. Quiet stories of idyllic youth in New England towns jarred upon the memories of a class-conscious youngster in modern New York. Youth began to scrutinize its own past, and then to write, with a passionate desire to tell the real truth, all of it, pleasant, unpleasant, or dirty, regardless of narrative relevance.

The result was this new naturalism, a propaganda of the experience of youth, where the fact that mother's face was ugly, not angelic, is supremely important, more important than the story, just because it was the truth. And as the surest way to get all the truth is to tell your own story, every potential novelist wrote his own story, enriching it, where sensation was thin, from the biographies of his intimates. Rousseau was reborn without his social philosophy. Defoe was reincarnated, but more anxious now to describe precisely what happened to him than to tell an effective tale.

This is a very different kind of truth-telling from, let us say, Mrs. Wharton's in "The Age of Innocence" or Zona Gale's in "Miss Lulu Bett." It does not spring from a desire to tell the truth about human nature.

These asserters of youth are not much interested in any human nature except their own, not much, indeed, in that, but only in the friction between their ego and the world. It is passionate truth, which is very different from cool truth; it is subjective, not objective; romantic, not classical, to use the old terms which few nowadays except Professor Babbitt's readers understand. Nor is it the truth that Wells, let us say, or, to use a greater name, Tolstoy was seeking. It is not didactic or even interpretative, but only the truth about the difference between the world as it is and the world as it was expected to be; an impressionistic truth; in fact, the truth about _my_ experiences, which is very different from what I may sometime think to be the truth about mankind.

It will be strange if nothing very good comes from this impulse, for the purpose to "tell the world" that my vision of America is startlingly different from what I have read about America is identical with that break with the past which has again and again been prelude to a new era. I do not wish to discuss the alleged new era. Like the younger generation, it has been discussed too much and is becoming evidently self-conscious. But if the autobiographical novel is to be regarded as its literary herald (and they are all prophetic Declarations of Independence), then we may ask what has the new generation given us so far in the way of literary art.

Apparently the novel and the short story, as we have known them, are to be scrapped. Plot, which began to break down with the Russians, has crumbled into a maze of incident. You can no longer assume that the hero's encounter with a Gipsy in Chapter II is preparation for a tragedy in Chapter XXIX. In all probability the


Definitions - 20/38

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