The Charlotte News



Nobel Prize Booty:

Why Eugene O'Neill?

-- A Protest, By W. J. Cash

THE award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 to Eugene O'Neill leaves me far from enthusiastic about the acumen of the professors who make up the selection committee. Indeed, it leaves me feeling that, when it comes to Americans, these squareheaded profs are quite as muddled as those other professors who make up our own Pulitzer committee.

I was always inclined to account the selection of Sinclair Lewis for the honors a sort of crime against good sense, in view of the fact that old Theodore Dreiser was plainly present in the American scene. But still, something of a case could be made out there. As an artist, Lewis is simply not in the class with Dreiser, despite his superior skill at the mere mechanics of writing. He says what he has to say without Dreiser's fumbling, indeed--without the clumsy German backing and filling and the godawful ponderosity which distinguishes the old master from Indiana at his worst. But--he has so much less to say. I like his books well enough. I have read practically all of them as fast as they appeared, and in my time I have yelled my head off for "Babbitt" and "Elmer Gantry" and "Arrowsmith" and "The Man Who Knew Coolidge." But I can imagine nobody reading any of these books over and over again--as one does read "Sister Carrie" and "The Titan" over and over again--as one does read "Twelve Men" and "A Book About Myself" and "A Hoosier Holiday" over and over again.

He Was No Running Mate

Still, and if Lewis has never created a Hurstwood or a Frank Cowperwood; if his characters, with the exception perhaps of Arrowsmith, are hardly more generalized types; if he communicates to you in neither terror nor pity nor any profound human emotion; he has been for long our chief practitioner of social satire; and if his books are not often read, if indeed the earlier ones are already sinking definitely out of view and the newer ones are falling constantly to a lower and lower standard, the names of his characters have passed into the language. He was no running mate for Thomas Mann and Sigrid Undset and Knut Hamsun--as Dreiser, to my mind, indubitably is. But if John Galsworthy and Ivan Bunin and Ladislas Reymont were Nobel material, why then so was Lewis. One cannot make out a case for him as deserving the prize over Dreiser, indeed. But one could make out a case for him as, in general, of Nobel calibre.

But O'Neill... I think it a crying, indecent shame to hand him the prize over Dreiser. I think it outrageous to hand it to him over Miss Cather, if only for those two incomparably beautiful and touching stories, "My Antonia" and "Paul's Case"--over even the Fair Ellen of Richmond in Virginia, if only for "Barren Ground"--yes, and a thousand times more so, over the admittedly somewhat over-Olympian but still magnificent gentleman who has so long played Lord God of Poictesme and Lichfield.1 Still over half a dozen Englishmen or Irishmen or Frenchmen--over even a Feuchtwanger. I think, indeed, it should never have been given to him at all.

A minor playwright--and no more than that, I make bold to believe in the teeth of what we are told with loud and constant acclaim. In "The Moon of the Carribees" and "The Long Voyage Home," he has written two excellent and unpretentious one-act plays--plays that are genuine and moving. In "Anna Christie," he has written a longer and somewhat less meritorious, but still, and despite the critics who profess to think it something he should be ashamed of, good play. In "The Emperor Jones," something that builds up to a terrific climax and considerably roils your emotions without ever exactly letting you in on the secret of what it is all about. In "The Great God Brown," something that might have been grand if it ever really came off--which it doesn't.

The Hegelian Moonshine

And for the rest? A mess of hokum about the deathless love of a white wench for a black gentleman, about as dramatically convincing (to one who approaches it without any Ku Klux prejudices) as a dried mackeral in the hole of a whale. Another mess of hokum made up of equal parts of Hegelian moonshine, Goethe in his dotage, and the pseudo-scientific speculations of congenital New Thoughters (the thing called "Dynamo"), which is supposed to be symbolic and which in fact is only nonsensical. Still another mess of hokum, made up of such puerile technical monkeyshines as Luigi Pirandello introduced with his "Six Characters in Search of an Author" and more nebulous vaporings. And yet again, a mighty three-play mass of hokum compounded out of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, Dr. Freud, and German philosophical clouds, and brought to make in New England Puritanism--a mess guaranteed to wear out your backside, to leave your heart quite untouched and your brain flabbergasted.

In short, the man and all his later and "important" work seems to me to have been uniformly and increasingly given to mock-profundity and pretentious vagueness. And I believe that his great reputation rests almost entirely upon the fact that most people feel bound to yield respect to mock profundity and pretentious vagueness--simply because they find themselves bewildered before it and don't dare trust their own judgment in such matters. Upon that and upon the fact that he had organized in his favor one of the most formidable claques ever assembled.

Paul Green Is Better

I do not hesitate to believe that our own Paul Green, with those two fine and authentic productions, "The Field God" and "In Abraham's Bosom" to his credit, is by far the better playwright. I even venture to believe, indeed, that "The Field God" is the best American play I know anything about. What Paul needs is a claque.

1  Cash refers here to James Branch Cabell.

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