The Charlotte News



Comment on Soothsaying:

Artists Ain't Gents

--By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: For more Cash impressions of Thomas Wolfe, read "Wolfe: Genius Or Not?" - December 15, 1935, and posthumously, "On Living Forever" - October 16, 1938, and "His Sister Knew Tom Wolfe Well" - July 30, 1939.

For an earlier, similar, and more personal, and sardonically humorous look at the general topic of the need for the artist to tell the truth as he or she sees it, read "Criticism of Criticism" - July 5, 1936. And for a view of the critic's responsibility in this light--to critique only whether the artist has accomplished the goal he set out to reach, not to judge values, mores, or beliefs expressed--read H. L. Mencken's 1919 article "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism", available online at the University of North Carolina Southern Historical Collection website.

In the second biography of Cash, Bruce Clayton went so far to say that Cash, ever respectful of the artist's task, and being, himself, a true artist, humbly explored the truth of the South's dark and strange career so assiduously that The Mind of the South was wrenched from him "in blood". (W. J. Cash: A Life, Clayton, L.S.U. Press, 1991, pp. ___, 219-222) Perhaps, it cannot be expressed more respectfully and aptly of any true artist; yet, it should be cautioned that, as with any artistic metaphor, it is not meant to be taken too literally. For to the true artist-writer, at least as Cash saw it, ink--impressed with ample and roughly co-equal, indivisible parts of the author's unique imagination, observation, scholarship, and intellectual integrity--splashes to the paper as the ultimate lifeblood...


I HAVE seen it argued that the artist need not necessarily have any respect for the truth, but I do not think it is so. It is quite true that many men who had little respect for the truth have written very readable books while many others who had the most rigid regard for truth have written very bad ones. But the writing of good prose does not make an artist; and even the writing of poor prose does not keep a man from being a very good artist--as witness the case of Dreiser.

The artist, in his essence, is one who can seize on some phase of human life and somehow illuminate it--give to the common experiences of men a deeper and more profound significance than the ordinary run of men can perceive for themselves. And that being so, it inevitably follows that the artist who is genuinely such must be greatly absorbed in getting at the truth. For it is only the truth which is really significant.

The late great Thomas Wolfe was an excellent example of what I am talking about. And in his little "Story of a Novel," he set forth brilliantly the kind of woe a man is inevitably in for when he sets out to get down the truth. It is characteristic of humanity everywhere that it doesn't like the truth at first sight. Later on, it will begin to tolerate it reluctantly, and eventually it may even get around to liking it. But the first cold, baleful, naked look of the thing always sets off howls of pain and anger--as Wolfe painfully found out.

Thomas Hardy said that when he stuffed the first reviews of "Under a Greenwood Tree" in his pocket, and went out into the country and found a fence on which to sit while reading them--he wanted to die. And that, apparently was about the way poor Wolfe felt when he heard how Asheville was reacting to "Look Homeward, Angel." All his days, he seems to have been haunted by the wish to return to "Old Catawba" and have it take him wholly to its bosom. But, of course, it never did or could. Wolfe had told the truth about Asheville--and Asheville was shocked and outraged at the spectacle. They said it was spite, they said it was a morbid and twisted mind, they said it was treason and betrayal and indecent and ungentlemanly. But, of course, it wasn't spite. And of course it wasn't any morbid and twisted mind. And as for being treason and betrayal and indecent and ungentlemanly--well, yes, it was all those things, in the sense that they understood.

For, certainly, Wolfe had violated every convention of friendship and acquaintance--the everyday code of reticences and pretenses by which men everywhere live. Under the thinnest of disguises, he had stripped bare the lives of hundreds of men and women whom he had known since childhood, and who felt that he was bound to refrain from doing that. But he had to, in order to get down the truth which he wanted to get down, not out of any spite or any sadistic will to inflict pain, but just because it was the truth of human life as his artist's eye saw it--because only in this fashion could he paint the picture of the great teeming pattern which his vision saw superimposed upon the apparently chaotic flow about him. The choice before him was either to resign himself to not being a gentleman or to failing in his task. And he very rightly chose not to be a gentleman.

If the artist is going to be a gentleman, he had better take good care to pick himself out a very small field. Else sooner or later, he is going to run smack up against the problem of having to suppress and slur over the truth or having to violate the conventions as to what he can say and tell. And when he decides to suppress the truth, he immediately ceases to be an artist and becomes merely a manufacturer of spiritual cosmetics.

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