The State of Success
Melville Goodwin, USA.
by John P. Marquand.
Little, Brown. 596 pp. $3.75.
A novel by John P. Marquand is a curious social formation. He is one of those writers who feel that they owe their readers a complete report on all aspects of a given subject. The reader gets his money’s worth, the writer satisfies his own sense of duty, and this transaction is the bone and marrow of a book like the present one. Nothing is omitted from this history of General Melville A. Goodwin. The son of a village pharmacist, he goes to West Point, he marries, he fights in World War I, he lives on army posts, he leads combat troops in the Second World War, he is in the Army of Occupation in Germany and later in the Pentagon. The facts themselves are fascinating, but Marquand as a writer is not; he is an assembler. The various parts of his book are prepared and in each chapter the proper one is fitted into the scheme of the whole. It needs to be there; it is there, set in its place by workmanship and duty. It excites no happiness. Technically it is rather nice, and of course we can’t help admiring good technique: at the Folies Bergères the scenes are shifted behind a transparent curtain and the stage technicians get as much applause as the naked Catherine of All the Russias when she appears with her fur collar and whip.
Clean, quiet, absolutely devoid of poetry, Marquand’s novels are comfortably filled, never crowded, with characters who are occasionally capable of surprising and charming you by stepping clear of conventionality and being suddenly honest. Well, fairly honest, anyway. They are as restrained in this as the author is in the practice of his profession. They are fairly good, fairly free, or fairly wicked, fairly candid; common sense and normalcy are never far away and life though it may sometimes be disturbing is rarely violent or very dark. Even in a book about a general, nothing very unpacific happens; there is not much blood in evidence. And the color of love, though the general is in love, is extremely faint. A door closes in the Hotel Crillon and behind it the act of love is performed; at least we are instructed to think so, and for many reasons we do our best. How often do we follow a general even into the lobby of the Crillon? But if we are not admitted to the highest degree of intimacy, we are at least given a close view by Marquand of guarded, unapproachable, remote personalities, rich, powerful, or blue-blooded. They speak out, they make the gesture of confession. I believe that Marquand releases as much of the truth about them as he has at his disposal, and for this he is entitled to our gratitude. He is widely read because he does make the blueblooded or rich speak up about themselves, and such speaking up is growing very rare. It is not to be heard in the movies, on the radio or on television, nor anywhere in public life. Tabloids have a large circulation because they make a folksy, cheating show of it.
To make even the gesture of confession is to play with dynamite. In public life, to force a man to confess is tantamount to murder. The more powerful he is, the more deadly his secrets are presumed to be, and to release these secrets is to destroy his personality. Quite literally, for when you pierce the persona you stab the manhood that has produced it. To compel his old comrades to confess was perhaps the most humiliating destruction that Stalin could devise. They could not retain their secrets; though the crimes they confessed were imaginary, the humiliation was real.
However, to use the emotion of confession without actually confessing is very common. And to undertake to cover the most cherished secrets while seeming to hide nothing is a challenging modern sport. Not a few writers play at it, inviting the scrutiny of a wide public, perfectly confident of their ability to conceal the essential thing. But here I am thinking of Hemingway and his general; Marquand’s Melville A. Goodwin is unacquainted with these higher complexities of psychology and politics and does try to tell something of the truth. Only he doesn’t understand much himself.
One of the extraordinary things in Melville Goodwin, USA is Marquand’s sensitivity to the whole matter of success. Very few writers have known how to approach it seriously. Usually they have superficially or falsely condemned the successful character, and sometimes, paradoxically, becoming successful novelists they have passed unknowingly into confusion. The problem is a tremendous one. And by the problem I do not mean the struggle for success. I am speaking of success as a state.
The narrator and sub-hero of Marquand’s novel is a journalist, Sidney Skelton, who becomes a radio news commentator. This happens in a wholly accidental manner; a radio executive is struck by the quality of “sincerity” in his voice, gets him a program, and makes him rich and famous. Quite suddenly Skelton is surrounded by luxury; he owns a large country house, a chauffeur brings him to town, and above the thunder of Manhattan he sits in a leather-upholstered office and talks to the nation. Naturally, he can’t feel that his success is real, and he does not enjoy it. He scoffs at his wife for her efforts to make the great house theirs; it seems to him the house of the former owners still. The servants give him uneasy feelings. He reflects ironically that his small daughter Camilla will acquire an English accent from her governess. This child, who has unfortunately about as much life as a soapwrapper, frequently asks her daddy to tell her something about his boyhood. Obviously she senses that then he was more real. He nostalgically agrees with her that he was more real.
Life changes so swiftly for the successful man, the new is so overpowering, that he can only pretend to know where he is, to know what to do, how to appear, what to say, how to occupy his position. He tries to learn from others, who in turn try to learn from him. Immense, expanding American civilization lifts the ambitious man to a greater height of success than he ever saw in his adolescent dreams. It is as though those dreams were roofed with mere tissue paper, and the successful man bursts through this tissue paper, soars, amazed by what he sees, the multiplying inventions and far perspectives. For him the long centuries of struggle with scarcity have ended in a huge flood of abundance. Compared with the peasant of the famished Orient, or with the inhabitant of the Barrio Chino of Barcelona, even the American migratory worker is in a heaven of commodities. The goods pour out—machines, drugs, plastics, foods, films, services. How can they be absorbed, used, enjoyed? Or avoided, resisted? We may not survive the wrong answers to these questions.
In a recent article (in Partisan Review) on William Dean Howells, Lionel Trilling has discussed American materialism, dissociating it from Roman luxury and even attributing to it a certain spirituality. We must be sure that we do not mistake incapacities, which may be cowardly, or restlessness or bewilderment, for spirituality. Perhaps there is a spirituality of goods, different from the spirituality of poverty. If it exists, Mr. Trilling owes us a fuller account of it. So that we may be sure spirituality has not been gathered into the realm of creature comforts as one of the greatest of them all. Historically, comfort and spirit have not had a close association. Plutus never had a following of saints. Poverty and Plenty, according to the legend in the Symposium, were the parents of Eros. But he resembled his mother, Poverty, more than he did his father, and frequently slept in the street.
Successful, Sidney Skelton cannot possibly avoid a question that the unsuccessful man need not ask himself, namely, why he is not happy. In this question is the crisis of prosperity. Success, like suffering, is the beginning of criticism and brings men to the threshold of discovery. Mr. Skelton reaches this threshold but does not cross it. He camps in its vicinity.
Some of the blame for his lack of happiness he lays on his wife. Rather gently, he complains that she increases unreality in this great country house. Much less gentle is his feeling toward Dottie Peale, the still youthful widow of an eminent, elderly publisher. Dottie ambitiously lays snares for the general. The general is satisfactorily but not enviably married to an ambitious army wife who works powerfully for his advancement. Women thus are represented as the very demons of success, driving their men deep into the territory of unreality. However, the general is not so easily driven, for he has a mind of his own; he knows what it is he wants: Love. For it he is ready to sacrifice his high position in the Pentagon. But Dottie Peale, apparently a specialist in love, who invites it, provokes it, who so to speak wields love and threatens with it, and makes men feel their incapacity to love—this dangerous woman, when the general offers her the real thing, is frightened. The ambitious woman, like the ambitious man, cannot stand taking the ultimate objectives. The general routs her, and for Sidney Skelton that is one of his finest victories.
And why is it that the general is a real success, unshakably successful? Is it because he commands great numbers of men? Or because his vocation of blood and death makes him simple, firm, consistent, single-minded, and truthful? Mr. Marquand doesn’t think much about blood and death, but he does have a sense of what it is that qualifies men for the positions they occupy. A “sincere” voice has made Skelton rich, but the general passed tests and met standards; his ascent to the very top of society was long and steady, and owing to this steadiness he feels neither strangeness nor giddiness when he arrives.
Testing, legitimacy, investiture, such things are becoming supremely important. Professional groups, universities, boards, governments are constantly revising and stiffening requirements, for, as the individuals feel less sure and less capable, the standards of groups become more formidable. The man who has passed the exam and won his rating knows where he is; he can enjoy his prerogatives and his prosperity. His mind is firm, his reality unquestionable, and he depends on no gift of sounding sincere. That is the curious message we may read in Mr. Marquand’s book. It is a defense of the qualified technician. Marquand himself is a technician and knows how technique balances one, even the technique of writing. It gives him something in common with his general—craftsmen whose manhood remains intact on the battlefield or in the shadow of the RCA Building.