The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
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Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942
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Two Photographers in Search of a Subject
By Seymour M. Krim, '39
The Magpie, June 1938, v. 22, n. 2., p. 20.
Both Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway have made their marks in American literature. They have photographed, in different manners, the lives and characteristics of a young, vital nation; a country that offers great gobs of material to writers, in its turbulence during progression. Mr. Lewis exploded a great bomb in 1922, with the publication of that robust satire on American life, Babbitt. Mr. Hemingway's notorious contribution to famed literature was quite recent in comparison to his fellow photographer's; the stark realism of A Farewell to Arms was uncovered to a smug, content people, perched on the acme of prosperity and not caring, in 1928, to delve into any sordidness.
The preceding paragraph was to refresh stagnant memories with ancient history. The two authors touched on have again gone fishing in the current literary stream; for bait they have thrown in two novels, and the fish haven't bitten. Now this is a very rash statement for a high-school adolescent to make; in fact it would still be rash if I were a public-school or kindergarten adolescent or a syndicated reviewer in one hundred and twenty-three Hearst papers.
However, after a blazing publicity campaign, the Prodigal-Parents by Sinclair Lewis was released early in 1938. It was scathed by the reviewers, with few exceptions, and handed to the public where it soon became a best-seller. This procedure is not in the least unusual, and Sinclair Lewis was receiving only the just desserts of past successes which have built for him an enviable reputation. In the novel, Mr. Lewis has as his hero another George T. Babbitt, this time disguised as Fred Cornplow, a contented, pudgy, middle-aged automobile dealer in up-state New York. Old Fred has his hands full with two offspring: a pseudo-sophisticated daughter of twenty-six and a golden-haired Romeo of a son with the mentality of a Dopey who is squandering papa's "dough" at the old fellow's Alma Mater. Both need his money and his perpetual forgivingness for their hairbrained schemes. In the tome, Mr. Lewis poorly satirizes a communist, who has been slugged by every cop from here to the Virgin Islands, who is stealing the daughter's affections, who is printing a radical magazine, and who is finally run out of town by his nemesis, the cops. Fred and his wife escape from their children's domination to the country for rest and peace; they are soon discovered, however, and returned to normal life. When Fred plans to retire from business, his leeching daughter, who wants to insure her financial status, takes him to a psychiatrist to prevent his wish; he and his wife soon escape to Europe, barely beating their children to the boat.
Once abroad, Fred longs for home and his forsaken auto-business, while his wife is enjoying her first vacation in twenty years. The son marries, becomes estranged from his drinking wife, who takes their child to Europe and finds refuge with the Cornplow's. Old Frednot old but forty-five or sosees his son's predicament, comes home, restores the son's hope in man and woman-kind, and all is forgiven. Father and son, a happy duo, go to Maine to fish, and who should arrive (in the greatest O'Henry punch-ending style) but the son's wife and Fred's, and the news that the daughter had been married off to an innocent, unsuspecting department-store bachelor!
That is the Prodigal-Parents thrown at you. Mr. Lewis is attempting, throughout the book, to explain the domination of the parents by their offspring. The whole force that such a theme should pack is lost by the loose characterization of the son, the daughter, and the communist. They just simply are not real and the reader senses that. The book is written in a sprightly fashion, and is studded with clichés that, usually, Sinclair Lewis avoids very subtly. However, poor Mr. Lewis is now being classed as a reactionary because of his condemnation of the communist, and scalded as being inconsistent because in his previous writings he leaned towards liberalism, and was more the proletariat than the capitalist. But after all the smoke clears, and Mr. Lewis is worn haggard defending his intellectual integrity, I believe that this novel should be taken in stride as an exception to a good rule. The Prodigal-Parents is a very mediocre brand of Sinclair Lewis (being euphemistic) and by comparison with Babbitt, its predecessor in the Fred Cornplow type, it is a poor book.
* * *
Now, to turn my adolescent rashness on Ernest Hemingway in a much more vicious and petulant attack.
Ernest Hemingway still writes the language men talk.
He still fires realism into gripping prose; he is perhaps the only writer today who approaches giving his reader a three-dimensional picture through searing words. Yet Mr. Hemingway does not fire realistic contentions with his words, and he does not offer a gripping argument in his new book; to deny this is merely personal discretion, so, Hemingway bigots, take heart and disregard these slandering phrases if ye will.
If you haven't already guessed, all the firing by the staunch Mr. Hemingway is in the recent volume To Have and Have Not. The man who wrote this book is unmistakably the Ernest Hemingway. He roars and staggers and loves like the Hemingway of old; but he preaches a very insignificant sermon; he tells an exciting story that has nothing to it; he fires with his old gun but shoots straw bullets instead of lead ones. In short, Hemingway says nothing, not very nicely. When you lay the volume down, you don't think of the portent of the subject matter at all.
The story concerns itself with one main character (a typically Hemingway stunt), Harry Morgan, a contraband liquor runner off the coast of Florida. Morgan is a massive, cruel hulk of a man who makes his living by transferring illicit rum and 'rummies' of the surrounding islands to the mainland. In the vernacular of Mr. Hemingway, 'rummies' are homeless drunks and other types who inhabit the cheap, coarser places on the West Indian Islands; Harry Morgan stowed drunks, convicts, anarchists, and Chinamen in the bowels of his boat; hence the use of the term.
During an unsavory encounter with the Coast Guard, the said Harry Morgan loses an arm, and being incapacitated to do honest work like liquor running, he agrees for a goodly sum to take four Cuban revolutionists to Havana. Just before leaving Key West, the Cubans rob a bank (the revolution needs financial backing of course) and kill Harry's mate aboard the boat. Before they reach Havana, Harry shoots the four and is shot up himself in a battle of ethics, all of them are trying to double-cross each other, and they all die but he. He lasts long enough to be brought back to a Key West operating table where he dies.
That, briefly, is To Have and Have Not. The book is merely fast moving action devoid of any real, pithy thought. The mystery story writers entertain in the same trite manner.
Punching, hard-bitten prose; he-man talk, red-blooded stuff in a blunt manner; but no deep symbolism, no beauty in even pleasant or sordid thought; nothing to tell an eager world that reads Hemingway's books, as it reads Lewis', simply because the names imply value in American literature. A man with as comprehensive knowledge of life as Hemingway has, with the gift of frank realism as he possesses it, for him to write racy fiction, is a crime. In comparison with A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not is realism denuded of all its beauty and simplicity, and laid bare before the world; it is a book that sinks to a low ebb because of its insignificance.
Ernest Hemingway has capitalized on his ability as a delineator, and has made a quick, insincere sketch that lacks mental strength and vitality.
Two main cogs in the evolution of American literature have lost prestige this year. They have taken a writing picnic that has produced nothing but banana peels and other left-overs that have been sold to a gullible public at the same price as the banana itself. Two clear American photographers have developed hazy negatives, and I, for one, hope that they will be more exacting in the future.
The Magpie Sings the Great Depression
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