The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, JUNE 5, 1938
Brass and Woodwind:
Footnote to Fantasy
--Words by W. J. Cash
A review of Ben Lucien Burman's "Blow For a Landing," reminds me of something I have often observed: that fantasy is a trick which seems beyond American writers.
We have plenty of tall tales of the frontier, of course. And there is a kind of fantasy in Cabell, obviously. Mark Twain tried his hand at the thing, too. And various moderns have attempted a sort of social fantasy, though without much succes--without anything like so much success as Englishmen have had with it. Set Carl VanVetchen's "Peter Whiffle" beside the "Happy Hypocrite," for instance--"The Blind Bow Boy" beside "Zuleika Dobson."
But all this stuff is either humorous or ironic in intent. And I doubt that true and genuine fantasy is ever either. Fantasy is something you give yourself up to utterly--or it becomes a somewhat dubious and tiresome form. I have never believed in the labored notion that Lewis Carroll meant Alice for a deep dark satire on the politics of his time, for it is far too successful as fantasy. But not even Alice is completely successful as fantasy. Or rather it isn't so for grown-ups. The book, I know, is much more one for adults than for children. But its fantasy is still that of a child. Its essential note is a sort of sober gaiety, whereas fantasy at its very best has always been haunted with melancholy and sadness. The Celts are incomparably the world's greatest masters of the thing, and there is more of it in one page of the old Irish sagas or in a play of John Millington Synge than there is in all American literature. We have had our attempts to catch that Irish spirit, certainly, but, as Lillian Smith says in the North Georgia Review, it is mainly "merely making bottle music. Mighty pretty, yes--for there's a power of music in bottles, in jugs, too, and rubber bands and in a pump and tire when Ben Burman plays them. And he can blow the calliope till you can hear it up in Memphis. But all the time we are wishing he would sound again that eerie fantastic startlingly lovely note which sinks deep into the roots of phylogenetic memories..."
What explains this failure of fantasy in America? After all, there is a great deal of Celt in the American make-up, and in the South it is perhaps the single greatest bloodstrain. But to quote Miss Smith and William Butler Yeats, the old Celts and of the sagas "brooded and sorrowed--and pleasured in it, for 'life was so weighed down by the emptiness of the great forests, and by the mystery of all things, and by the greatness of its own desires... and seemed so little and so fragile and so brief, that nothing could be more sweet in the memory than a tale that ended in death and parting and a wild and beautiful lamentation...' "
But in America the frontier has operated upon us to replace that spirit with a too-facile optimism. We are beginning plainly to find out different, but we still insist on believing that there is nothing so tragic that it is beyond remedy. Out there beyond the horizon the free land is gone but we will have it that it is still there. Work and win. Buck up and grin. Tomorrow is another day. It is an attitude fatal to the natural aptitudes of which we inherit.
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