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Personalism: A New School of Fiction

Two men are spending the night in a police station on Division Street, in the Polish quarter of Chicago. They aren’t sure why they have been arrested, but they work for Zero Schwiefka, who runs a gambling house, and they guess that he had tried to get out of paying his weekly tribute to Police Sergeant Kvorka.

One of the men is Francis Macjinek, alias Frankie Machine, who is a wizard with cards but can’t do anything with people, including himself. Frankie has two great sorrows: that his wife Sophie is a psychotic invalid and that he can’t stop taking morphine—“can’t get the monkey off my back.” His one devoted henchman is the other prisoner., Sparrow Saltskin, whose trade is steering clients into the gambling house, when he isn’t stealing dogs or committing other forms of petty larceny. Sparrow is “a little off-balanced,” as he likes to say, “but only on one side. So don’t try off-steerin’ me, you might be tryin’ my good-balanced side.”

In the morning a roach falls into the slop bucket in their cell. It reminds Frankie of his own fate and he starts to rescue it, but then he changes his mind. “You ain’t gettin’ out till I get out,” he says. Zero Schwiefka posts bail for his two employees. Climbing the stairs to freedom, Frankie turns back to take the roach out of the bucket, but finds that it has drowned.

The roach is described in the first episode of Nelson Algren’s novel, The Man with the Golden Arm. Obviously it is the familiar animal symbol that sets the tone of so many naturalistic novels. One remembers the land turtle in The Grapes of Wrath, crawling obstinately to no destination, just as the Joad family would crawl westward on the highway. One remembers the jackrabbit hunt in The Octopus—soon the ranchers themselves would be hunted down like rabbits—and one remembers the cornered rat that Bigger Thomas killed in the first chapter of Native Son, as Bigger himself would be killed at the end of the story. This time, however, the symbol is a mixture of the grotesque and the absurd, with a hint that the author feels a wry affection for his characters and even for the roach. It leads us to expect that The Man with the Golden Arm will be a little different from the usual type of naturalistic novel.

Naturalism in the proper sense—not the loose sense in which critics have been using the word—is a literary method based on the doctrine that men and women, as part of nature, are completely subject to natural laws, conditions and forces. The forces are magnified and the persons minimized. Zola invented the method and he said, underlying the phrase, “I subject men and women to things.” Dreiser often described his characters as “pawns on a chessboard”; he also liked to say that they were “victims of forces beyond their control.” The central character of a naturalistic novel is a victim rather than a hero; he is “the man to whom things happen,” in Wyndham Lewis’s phrase, and he lacks the power of deliberate choice.

Nelson Algren’s story seems to fall into the familiar naturalistic pattern. His hero-victim, Frankie Machine, is an orphan who never had a chance and had never been taught a trade except dealing cards. Sophie had forced him to marry her by pretending to be pregnant.

In the Army he had been severely wounded and had been given morphine to deaden the pain until he learned to steal the drug when the doctors stopped prescribing it. Back in Chicago he had smashed a second-hand car when Sophie and he were drunk, and Sophie, in her subconscious desire to retain his affection, had convinced herself that she was hopelessly crippled. Now the pattern of victimization will be traced to the end. Frankie will be badgered into killing a dope peddler; he will be hunted by the police, while Sophie is taken to the county asylum; he will be hidden for a time by a strip teaser who loves him (she is another victim); then at last he will be cornered in a cheap hotel and driven to commit suicide; all his life will be written in the passive voice.

Most of the minor characters are also driven and deformed by conditions beyond their power to change, as in every naturalistic novel since Zola, but there is something different in the author’s approach to the story. He seems to be turning the naturalistic method upside down. Instead of repeating that irresistible forces are shaping the lives of these people, he takes the forces for granted. What he emphasizes is the other side of the picture, the rebellions and lies and laughter by means of which they retain, even the most repulsive of them, some remnants of human pride.

The most repulsive of all the characters is Piggy-O, the blind dope peddler, who hates more fortunate people and hasn’t bathed since he lost his sight, because he enjoys the idea that he is inflicting his smell on mankind. Like the others he drinks in the Tug & Maul Bar, but Anton the Owner makes him stand at the end of the bar, next to the men’s toilet, so that the smell of disinfectant will deaden the smell of Piggy. Anton asks him why he hasn’t enough pride to bathe, and Piggy-O answers, “I got my kind of pride, ‘n you got yours—I’m proud of being how/ am too.”

That pride in being themselves makes the characters something more than the specimens they would be in purely naturalistic novels. Instead of being a clinical study in degradation, the book comes close to being a poem about degradation, written in sometimes lyrical prose. Instead of leaving us with a feeling of defeat, it celebrates the unconquered personality and humor in the lowest of men: hustlers, junkies, stoolies, dips, stewbums, “the Republic’s crummiest lushes … even the most maimed wreck of them all,” the author says, “held, like a pennant in that drifting light, some frayed remnant of laughter from unfrayed years.”

The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is another novel that starts with social conditions and ends as a defense of the separate personality. Its unnamed hero, who tells his own story, has been expelled from a Southern Negro college for no fault of his own. Still eager to succeed, he finds work in a white-paint factory on Long Island and is injured through the malice of another Negro. In the factory hospital he is given electric-shock treatments because the doctors want a subject for experiment. The scene shifts to Harlem, where the hero is recruited by the Communists and, on revealing a talent for public speaking, is made their district leader. Soon the Communists abandon and betray him; they have changed their policy and decided to foment a race riot by supporting a group of Negro fanatics. In the midst of the riot he is pursued by the fanatics and narrowly escapes being lynched.

Once again the hero has been a victim whose story can be told in the passive voice, but The Invisible Man is far from being a naturalistic novel. The technique is closer to that of the expressionists: every scene is exaggerated, even caricatured, in order to convey the novelist thinks is the essential about it. Almost every act has a symbolic value, and many of the scenes are too patly symbolic—like the picture of black men working in a sub-basement to make a black liquid that, when carried upstairs into the sunlight, will turn paint dazzlingly white.

At the end of the novel even the plot ceases to be naturalistic and becomes a sort of parable. The hero falls through a manhole into a coal cellar and thus escapes from the black mob that is trying to lynch him. After finding an unused basement room, he lives there alone and meditates on his past life. He decides that everybody has regarded him simply as a material, a natural resource to be used. Nobody has ever seen him as a person; he has been the invisible man. For all the resentment he feels against the white race, he realizes that his dilemma is not merely that of a Negro; it is the dilemma of all men in a mechanized civilization. “Who knows,” he says to the presumably white reader at the end of the novel, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Still another novel—The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow—leads by a more roundabout path to a somewhat similar conclusion. This time the background is Chicago in the depression years. The hero is a Jewish boy who, at the beginning of the story, is living with his meek, half-blind mother and his two brothers. The youngest, Georgie,is feeble-minded and the father is shiftless failure who has deserted the family. At present the Marches are miserably poor, but this isn’t the sort of novel that will pursue them to the point where their lives are crushed out by conditions and forces.

Simon, the oldest brother, has an inner force that is capable of surmounting conditions. He is determined to get rich, he makes a brilliant marriage, and at the end of the book he is an overbearing,pot-bellied, unhappy man of affairs. Augie March is less certain of what he wants to do. He is bright, engaging,uncommitted, so that dozens of persons want to pick a career for him, enlist him in their schemes, adopt him as a son, or take him for a lover—and Augie always consents in the beginning,but there is something stubborn in him that makes him follow his own path even though he isn’t certain where it goes. Always he remains uncommitted;always he breaks away and is ready to start a new adventure.

The adventures, interesting as they are in themselves, are chiefly occasions for introducing new characters. Each of these has a separate life, and many have something more than that, a sort of demonic power. Among others there is Anna Coblin, who appears at the beginning of the book. “As she had great size and terrific energy of constitution,” Augie says of her, “she produced all kinds of excesses. Even physical ones: moles, blebs, hairs, bumps on her forehead, huge concentrations on her neck; she had spiraling reddish hair springing with no negligible beauty and definiteness from her scalp.” Most of Bellow’s Chicago characters are like that: excessive, but with definite features of no negligible beauty.

Augie, who tells their stories, has a feeling for the integrity of each separate person; he is ready to love and admire them all, so long as each embodies a different pattern or principle of life. His own development from one episode to another is simply toward a greater awareness of his own nature. “I have always tried to become what I am,” he tells a wise old rascal named Mintouchian, whom he also loves and admires. At the end of the book Augie is living in Paris and acting as Mintouchian’s agent in black-market deals. He adores his wife, but she is getting ready to deceive him with a French aristocrat, and he has had to relinquish his dream of starting a foster home in which to educate many children. But he is happy enough simply observing persons in their endless variety. “Why,” he says at last, “I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze.”

All three of these novels have “big” subjects of the types that are usually treated in naturalistic fiction. All three are concerned with social forces, but they don’t leave us with the impression that the forces are everything, or that the characters are “nothings, mere animalculae,” as Frank Norris called them at the end of The Octopus. A few other novelists have been writing in such the same spirit; I might mention Herbert Gold (Birth of a Hero and The Prospect Before Us) and Harvey Swados (Out Went the Candle).I suspect that these novels and others belong to a new category of postwar fiction, not a large category as yet, but perhaps important for the future.

Is there a name for this tendency or group of school? The name may be suggested in Swados’ first novel, not yet published, which I read in manuscript. At one point the hero, on a visit to Pompeii, is accosted by a little boy selling filthy postcards. He buys all the cards and destroys them. “There are times,” he explains, “when you have to do things you know are useless. … It isn’t just conscience-salving. It’s a way of proving to yourself that you’re still a person. And that’s something you have to prove over and over.”

Since all the novelists end by affirming the value of separate persons in conflict with social forces, I have thought of calling them personalists. The name, of course, has been used in other connections, but it has the present advantage of applying to the different styles in which the novels are written as well as to the doctrine they all imply. Each of the novelists seems to believe that the author himself should be a personality instead of a recording instrument, and therefore he keeps trying to find a personal approach and a personal manner of writing.

The effort is sometimes carried too far and all the novels have faults that are easy to discern. Algren, for example, keeps falling into a burlesque of himself, Ellison sacrifices his sense of reality to his passion for symbols and Bellow, though he writes with more authority than the others, still has trouble holding his long book together and making it more than a series of separate adventures. These faults, however, are the price each of them pays for taking risks that other novelists of the postwar era have been a little too willing to avoid. If there is a single tendency that will mark the fiction of the era, perhaps the personalists are suggesting what it will be.