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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Literary Evaluations

By Louis Schneider, '32

The Magpie, January 1932, v. 33, n. 1, p. 13.

(Extract from winning essay of Clarence Kline, Jr. Award)

I searched for great literature everywhere and, at length, found it, under my very eyes, where it had lain neglected, while I floundered among the endless pages of Dumas and tales of fictional baseball heroes. It is modern American literature of which I speak: the accession of the realists.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, young American novelists had begun reading Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Daudet, Tolstoi; and, coming to a realization of the effeminacy and shallowness of so many of the sugary compounds, such as "When Knighthood was in Flower," which were imported wholesale to regale the American public, had injected into their works some of the realism they found in French novels, thus signalizing the commencement of a revolt against literary inhibitions, destined to culminate in such "naturalism" as that of Theodore Dreiser.

Among the earlier and more capable of these realists was Frank Norris. In those of his works like "Moran of the Lady Letty" and "A Man's Woman," there is a Londonian inclination toward the melodramatic and the exaltation of supermen and superwomen such as Moran, "daughter of a hundred Vikings." His work autochthonous, the episodes he recounted for the most part witnessed in the actual by himself, and unswervingly truthful except when the truth was overdone, Norris was a typical exponent of the literary tradition of "the truth and nothing but the truth" that followed in his wake.

But Norris did not stop at the point where London did; instead he wrote on to a much higher destiny. He began the trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat, the last novel of which, "The Wolf," was never finished. "The Pit," an account of futile attempts to corner "the nourisher of the nations," the second book of the trilogy, was commonplace. But in the "Octopus," the first and best book of the Epic of the Wheat, there is real power and promise. The Railroad is represented as a merciless, irresistible monster, ruining Dyke and persecuting him until he becomes a free-booter, corrupting Lyman and killing Harran, the sons of Magnus Derrick, once a rich, proud San Joaquin rancher, himself reduced to poverty and a sudden, doddering old age by the onslaught of the steel demon, demolishing entire valleys-full of antagonistic farmers as mere incidentals in its headlong rush to the making of money for its masters, and without discrimination sweeping into its insatiable maw all coming within reach of its octopus-like tentacles, designed to choke breath from every opposing factor. Mere propaganda and "muck-raking" is this overstated description of the Railroad, but the real thesis of the trilogy is gripping. It is the Wheat that counts. Individuals mean nothing; their lives are swept away, but the Wheat is too titanic a force to be stayed by any human agency. It roars on, feeding "starving scarecrows on the barren plains of Asia," "untouched, unassailable... wrapt in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm."

The incongruous figure of Theodore Dreiser looms up at about the same time as that of Norris, although Dreiser has by far outlived the latter. Journalism is at the core of all Dreiser's novels and deprives him of greatness. He reports only; he builds up huge mountains of fact. But as far as artistry is concerned, he is a failure. His books have no definite structure, ramble aimlessly. He is tautologous, pleonastic, guilty of echolalia. Despite these faults, however, any one of his ponderous volumes, if read through, leaves an indelible picture upon the brain: a picture of the steel and smoke of great cities mingled with the Calibanism of Dreiser's own personality. He clings to realism, nothing but the truth. That is the one thing he must not overlook whatever else he may do: the strict truth, even if it involves the telling of the ugly and sordid, which, it would seem, he revels in.

The antithesis of Dreiser is James Branch Cabell, who has escaped realism and built for himself a world of unreality wherein he dreams incessantly: Poictesme. Cabell is the complete artist, his books are technically impeccable, his style approaches the ornate, he is everything Dreiser is not. Hergesheimer, along with Cabell, dwells in the kingdom of romance; both contend that it is the lovely and desirable in life that should be portrayed to the exclusion of the ugly, which it is not the function of the novel to deal with: a contention which probably makes Dreiser gnash his teeth in exasperation.

But Cabell and Hergesheimer are exceptions to the more usual trend in modern letters in America. Sandburg and Masters are in greater harmony with the order of the day, the poetry of both being highly realistic, shocking to the conventional reading public, even as yet not attuned to what Sherman has called "the barbaric naturalism of Theodore Dreiser." Master's "Spoon River Anthology," with its epitomes in verse of the lives of 244 small-town characters, is often revolting to the "Puritans"; and, to delicate souls, Sandburg's outspoken picturization of Chicago, a picturization of necessity crude, harsh, barbarous, is intolerable, and a place on a shelf of American poetry is begrudgingly allotted it.

There are many other American realists whom I may not mention herein, some of them perhaps as great as the ones I have already spoken of, but the latter, together with Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis, are, it seems to me the outstanding realists of the day and the ones destined to survive their own era, if, indeed, the "Puritans" recover sufficiently from the shock administered them to regard realism in a more favorable light, and let any of its literature survive; for in the consensus of modern critical opinion, it is the "Puritans," who, most regretably, are in the ascendancy among the reading public; who, incompetent and unduly prejudiced though they be, are the literary arbiters at present and will have the last word as to what is permanent and what is not.

The man for a time the most prominent critic of modern America is H. L. Mencken, whose influence is still felt though it is gradually giving way to more conservative dictates. He is cynical, contemptuous, and brings to bear all the forces of an amazing vocabulary, especially of outlandish and highly effective superlatives, and a limitless capacity for vituperation in his ranting against everything American and his peremptory, uncompromising decisions. He is startling, as radical as the philosopher whom he admired most: Friedrich Nietzsche. America, he claims, has never as yet produced a single first-rater in the arts, nor even a second-rater worthy of the name who has not been recruited from the ranks of foreigners in America. When all the world spoke systatically of Roosevelt immediately after his death, Mencken issued forth one of his radical pronunciamentoes. "A glorified longshoreman engaged eternally in cleaning out barrooms," said he. Mencken stoutly defends the modern American realism, although Dreiser outrages his whole artistic nature, which cries out for smoothness and beauty of expression. Whitman, Poe, Emerson, and Twain, he singles out as the only Americans preceding the modern school who are really authors in his interpretation of the word. Bombast! Exaggeration! Browbeating! But behind it all is an earnest exhortation to intelligent appraisal of books: a priceless contribution. No more can any critic do....

I think the modern realists, with the exceptions of Willa Cather and one or two others, are guilty of a kind of ultra-realism. Just as Henry James and Edith Wharton give too much attention to the desirable and beautiful in life, so do some of the realists place too much emphasis upon the ugly in their anxiety to be perfectly honest.

American Literature, however, is the most interesting of all literatures to me, more pregnant with possibilities than was the literature of the times of Shelley and Byron. What will be the reaction to all this realism? Will authors be forced back to an emasculated romance by the inevitable "Puritans"? Will there be more escapes to Poictesme? Or will realism continue and the "Puritans" finally become reconciled to it through the intelligent efforts of critics like Mencken and Boyd (the Irish counterpart of Mencken, as astounding a commentator as the American master himself)? The decision which will be reached in the future will be of immense importance and will doubtless shape European as well as American letters.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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