Commentary Magazine


The Sure Thing, by Merle Miller; The Sea Change, by Nigel Dennis; The Oasis, by Mary McCarthy

The “Liberal” in the Novel

The Sure Thing.
by Merle Miller.
William Sloane. 341 pp. $3.00.

The Sea Change.
by Nigel Dennis.
Houghton Mifflin. 372 pp. $3.50.

The Oasis.
by Mary McCarthy.
Random House. 181 pp. $2.00.

 

Until fairly recently—when Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey marked a change in mood—novelists saw the American liberalism of the 30′s as a purely political phenomenon. The Sea Change and The Oasis, following Mr. Trilling, reflect a trend of greater concern with morality than politics, with character than class, and describe the devouring shadow that the liberalism of the 30′s has thrown on aesthetics, culture, even private emotions. The Sure Thing, on the other hand, expresses with vulgar innocence the very attitudes they excoriate.

Merle Miller’s book assumes that the federal loyalty purge will snap crisply into fiction and stroke many a sense of outraged virtue. Its hero, who in a moment of mistaken idealism joined the Communist party, loses his job at the State Department. His only clear feeling is that he has been victimized for belonging to what was once the “right” side. He neither sees nor wants to see the true meaning of his own political past. In his martyrdom, such exact knowledge comes to seem irrelevant, even shameful, and a thoughtless uprightness blazes out as the prime American virtue. The Spanish Civil War is not an assimilated historical experience, but a nostalgic password. Thus, the liberalism of The Sure Thing is chiefly interesting because of the way it disinherits its radical youth, sloughs off everything that is harsh or questionable, and puts its protest against the Congressional investigations in the form of an elaborate sulk.

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Nigel Dennis’s The Sea Change is in part about the circular logic of a liberal weekly magazine. The Forward, and the “democratic” tyranny of its financier, Mrs. Morgan. Its second half contains some rather splendid notes for a Polish travel diary, August 1939, and examines (after Henry James) the impact upon several Americans of the older, more despairing, and more self-conscious civilization. To Jimmy Morgan, freed of his mother’s constricting embrace, Europe is much what the first sight of London was for Pip in Great Expectations— the dazzling beginning of experience and self-knowledge. His section of the book has least form and most spirit. But the novel’s argument is in the story of Max Divver, The Forward’s political writer, who abandons his mechanical progressive values to’ become the disciple of a small-scale dictator.

The novel tries to treat Divver’s tragedy in philosophical and aesthetic rather than simply ideological terms. It is Divver’s credo of determinism, his enthronement of Historical Forces, that corrupts his mind by interposing abstractions on his perception of people and things. The spurious diction of The Forward’s editorial on his death accentuates the meaning of his corruption. (His change of political sympathy is disregarded because it fits no pattern the editors can understand.) Dennis has probably impaled more alarmingly than any other modern writer the special vocabulary of the “progressive,” in its complacent nuance and mesmeric inertia: “Max Divver always stopped, Mr. Hull. He stopped because he was always ready to be halted by injustice. . . . We shall fall short of his brilliance, Mr. Hull, just as we fell short in the past: selfishness cannot be obliterated overnight. History will record the specific extent of our success or failure—and history will have her special niche for Maxwell Prentice Divver. It may be no large niche, but it will be sizable enough to contain social aspirations which far transcend the mere act of individual living.”

The best thing about Nigel Dennis is that his political sophistication never inhibits a regard for the individual. Politics interests him insofar as it operates on the characters’ imagination and their sensibilities. What contempt there is in the novel is directed at prescribed behavior, not at persons. Mr. Dennis views with a worldly, compassionate mockery the humorless automatism that seems to be inseparable from current liberalism.

_____________

 

It is true that Mr. Dennis has been fortunate in his relation to the circle he describes, which is somewhat like that of an occasional magazine contributor considering, over a pipe at home, the output of the droning steadies. Mary McCarthy does not have this luxury. She is criticizing the anti-Communist Left from within, and since she, to some extent, implies her own participation in its failures, she cannot easily be compassionate. The Oasis has both the vigor and the pettiness of the internal party split. Ideology is always the springboard for action, as for characterization, so that the novel becomes a series of frozen gestures, with political “humours” in ascendance.

The plot itself develops as a kind of ideological tournament. These radical intellectuals who establish a Utopian refuge from the threatening atomic war are cleanly divided between realists and purists. And it is over a minor question of property rights, which festers into an atmosphere of philosophical guilt, that the community is disrupted. “Ultimately, Utopia would fail; that was to be expected. But it might survive for many months or for years, if the production of a commodity more tangible than morality could be undertaken.”

The moral background, with its dogmatism and its propietary attitude toward ideas and ideals, is shrewdly perceived, but where are the flesh-and-blood “figures”? The radical intellectual has, in the course of one decade, been transformed from stock-hero to stock-villain. The performers never appear as their relaxed unprofessional selves, as eaters, readers, and laughers. And it is all the odder that they do not, since Mary McCarthy greatly likes what is free and unpredictable. The most amiable characters in the colony of Utopians are Leo Raphael, a mercurial, inconstant poet; Mac-Dougal Macdermott, who can suddenly shift opinions with the ease of an amateur parliamentarian; and Katy, who is close to her creator, indecisive, and handled with unique maternal tenderness.

It must be admitted that the predictable behavior of the colonists is one of the points of Miss McCarthy’s satire. In the same paradoxical way, her depersonalizing manner protects an oversusceptibility to the personal. But even for a critique. The Oasis is needlessly mordant, always torn between its cool, orderly prose and its disorderly rancor. As a novel it is in many respects out of proportion. It substitutes epigrams for imagination, converts (in deference to its old-time religion) mild farces into capital issues, and mild weaknesses into grotesqueries.

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