‘The American Writer’

Lecture notes

Travelling through the United States for the first time, as I have been doing for the past few months, I repeatedly found myself thinking of certain remarks by three American novelists: Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. These remarks were to the effect that America was no place for a writer; the imagination could not flourish in a country so lacking in the traditions, the social structure, and the haunted castles to be found in Europe. As I travelled from New England to the Middle West and on to California – travelling, so to speak, with the steam of American history – it became increasingly clear that whatever truth was tucked away in those three nineteenth century complaints was truth no longer, and that a certain advantage now lay with the American writer.

Not that I came across any haunted castles. The advantage seemed to lie in a readiness to accept a wider range of possibility in human affairs than the English writer is disposed to admit. Probably this is due to the greater range of contrasts, racially and climatically, in the American continent. A more important factor, I suggest, is the social change which has been going on in Britain since, say, the 1914-18 war – a change which has led to the creation of a reasonably harmonious community and so deprived the English novelist of much of his traditional material.

The preoccupation of the English novel has, I take it, been mainly with class; the preoccupation of the American novel, on the other hand, seems to be primarily with society, and whereas the withering of class distinctions in England has brought in a curious uncertainty about the kind of novels we should be writing, in American there appears to have been no faltering. A jealous and sometimes self-conscious love for the society he lives in still fans the American writer’s imagination, even when that love is disguised as hostility.

This enables him to work on a bigger scale. He continues to write well on subjects the English writer could tackle only at the risk of being called old-fashioned: the fictional biography, for example, that ranges over a period of many years and involves a large number of characters; or the action that can be described only be bringing in some huge organisation, and army division, say, or the personnel of an airport. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and James G. Cozzens’ Guard of Honour have few English equivalents and none of any real consequence. The characteristic English novel tends to be about a limited number of people solving psychological problems they failed to solve in childhood.

Consciously or unconsciously the novelist is sustained by Shelley’s creed that ‘a man to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others.’ The challenge to imagine in this way comes more vigorously in a country of mixed population like America, where so many different people live in a theoretically classless society – or such was my impression.

This was not the impression the visiting Europeans of the past expected to form. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the eighteen thirties came to exactly the opposite opinion, namely, that in a democracy like America all men were very much alike, so that ‘each man instantly sees all his fellows when he surveys himself.’ Yet I cannot believe that I was mistaken about the diversity of American life, nor the existence of that sense, which so many people appeared to possess, of living in a community where other people were indeed other people, with obscurely different beliefs and observing different conventions. This awakened perception of the complexity of life is a considerable accession of strength to the imaginative writer. Who can doubt that the richness of meaning in the novels of William Faulkner is largely due to their having grown at the point where whites and coloured met, and where the effects of a past war were still sufficiently felt to confer on his narrative the added dimension of history.

These growing points are not scattered with the same generosity throughout British society now as they were in Victorian days. Or, to out the situation differently, for us the Frontier has been closed. The American writer still has a period of exploration before him; a period of timber felling and the tilling of virgin soil. The British writer sees consolidation ahead, a time for the more intensive tilling of land already bought under cultivation.

Does this sound tame? The prospect could be exciting. An intensive tilling of already settled territory is a fairly accurate description of the work of Jane Austen, because there is nothing in her novels not implicit in the novels of her predecessors. It is a reasonable description of any writing within a classical tradition; but it is not a reasonable description of romanticism. The American novel grew up under the shadow of European romanticism and evolved a romantic hero unlike any romantic hero who had gone before – a more of lore and skills pitting himself against natural forces, or savage forces, or animal forces. In Mr Hemingway’s latest novel, The Old Man and the Sea, it is fascinating to see how this peculiarly American hero lives on. Perhaps it is only in America that romanticism is still possible; for English writers the current is, surely, flowing the other way.

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P.H. Newby: later years

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

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