Commentary Magazine

Reviewing the Forties, by Diana Trilling

Art & War

Reviewing the Forties.
by Diana Trilling.
Introduction by Paul Fussell. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 272 pp. $9.95.

The fascist menace dominated the books reviewed by Diana Trilling from 1942 to 1948, when she was fiction critic for the Nation magazine. But although American writers responded to the war with surprising speed, they failed to confront Nazism meaningfully at any time in the course of these six-and-a-half years. At first Mrs. Trilling, a selection of whose columns are presented here, was simply appalled by the novelists’ shallowness of response to what was happening in the world. One author introduced stage Nazis as a convenient way to resolve his plot, another to beef up a tale of adventure, while a third wa still fighting World War I, with suitable Hemingway heroics and style.

William Saroyan remained pixyish, John Hersey played the faux naïf, and Upton Sinclair, sweeping up the unspeakable horrors of the time as incidents in his saga of the 20th century, presented Hermann Goering meeting Lanny Budd with the words, “Ja, Lanny!” At the same time, the writers could not have been more piously democratic and anti-fascist—or more self-congratulatory for being so.

Mrs. Trilling had some good fun with attempts by the best-sellers of the day to deal with the same world crisis. “It is a not uncommon fault of meretricious fiction,” she observed, “that it likes to deal with the biggest subjects: kitsch walks in where better intelligences may fear to tread.” And of minor, anti-Nazi novels she observed: “Apparently no reality is too big for the truly unimaginative.” But it grew apparent that the best work of her time failed either by a too fastidious avoidance of contemporary history, or by succumbing to the same pieties as the crudest government propaganda. She discussed many writers still well-known today, among them Joyce Cary, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Arthur Koestler, Sinclair Lewis, Carson McCullers, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, and Edmund Wilson—and, in most cases, she was forced to judge their work as inadequate to the day.

What she termed the “sickness of contemporary fiction” seemed to lie in a self-indulgent cultivation of personal sensibility. Those most deeply stricken by this malady were the women writers, Eudora Welty, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Christina Stead, Anaïs Nin, and Elizabeth Bowen. But no category of writer proved exempt from what appeared to be a universal moral abdication. Contemporary fiction, Mrs. Trilling finally concluded in 1948, “leads us into opting for a world of irresponsibility.”



In his introduction to this collection, Paul Fussell cautions against thinking of its reviews as essentially negative, pointing out their generosity of praise for works of true merit. And in fact, some of the reviews could still appear as critical introductions—to Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage From Home, for example, or Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, though it is not lavishly praised, or Saul Bellow’s The Victim, which is. But the problem of fiction’s inadequacy in the face of the most terrible events of modern history persists and calls for an explanation.

Directly after the war period it became fashionable to speak of the death of the novel. The social sciences, it was argued, were proving to be better equipped than the creaky novel to describe life in society. But Mrs. Trilling’s moral passion reminds us that a mere secretaryship to society is only the first of the novelist’s responsibilities. We ask the novel to make sense not only of society but also of history; for, aside from the problems raised by history, we can understand society well enough on our own. The novel’s retreat from life, so frequently commented on during the 1950’s, stemmed not from a challenge by social science but from the challenge of Nazism. To an extent, the problem posed by the Nazis was too large and too complex for immediate treatment in fiction. But it seems to me that there were two additional causes for the failure that Mrs. Trilling chronicled.

In the first place, the test of history proved most fiction writers to be lacking in intellectual and moral stature. Mrs. Trilling called attention to a decline of psychological insight in the novel, as compared with the time before Freud; she exposed a distrust of “mind” running through the whole literary culture; and she denounced the cults of toughness, drunkenness, madness, and “infantilism” in the writing she encountered. But she never asked how she herself had avoided these failures of intellect. The simple truth is that she had a far better grip on the contemporary world, both intellectually and imaginatively, than most writers of the time. The writers had their hearts in the right places, as she showed. But they did not grasp that it was no longer enough to abhor evil and to love freedom, nor did they realize how comfortably they were luxuriating in their easily-donned, “soft political idealism.”

Yet there was more involved in what happened to fiction than the failures of a particular group of writers. After all, English and continental fiction, though dealing more capably with the hard questions, proved no more satisfactory in the final analysis. The deeper cause of failure was Nazism’s assault on the imagination. Up to the 1940’s the great resource of modern writers had been the power of the unfettered imagination. Not only Freud, but the classicists and anthropologists working at the turn of the century, along with Nietzsche shortly before them, had displayed the deep sources of art (and religion as well) in the terrible and bloody practice of sacrifice by primitive man. Despite the underlying horror, the brutal origins of art represented an opportunity for the modern artist. By establishing affinities with the primitive source, one could hope to tap new creative powers. Soon the modern writer, reaching backward through his own unconscious, was producing such mythic-chthonic works as “The Waste Land,” Women in Love, and The Sound and the Fury.

This estimable formula was suddenly confronted in the 1930’s and 1940’s by a very different revelation of primitive ritual—one that laid bare the ultimate ineffectuality of art. First came the Nazi mass rallies, those manufactured rituals and then the mass killings. Together they demonstrated as never before man’s primitive capacities. The threat to civilization was clear; the incapacity of art to deal with it was equally clear. And yet military victory, when it came, was somehow assumed to have included cultural victory as well, so that few questioned the artistic costs of more than a decade of barbarism.

For over a third of a century one such cost has been fiction’s loss of confidence in itself. The trends of the 1940’s identified by Mrs. Trilling—solipsism, the cult of the irrational (as opposed to a commitment to the unconscious), a conventionalized sexual adventurism—have remained the central, dispiriting business of the novel ever since. It is no wonder that eventually Mrs. Trilling found herself repelled by serious fiction and drawn to barely fictionalized books like The Hucksters at the one extreme, and to detective stories and romantic fiction at the other. Nor is it any wonder that, since the war, the novel has lost its role as a final arbiter of culture. In this respect, if not in others, the Nazis won.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.