The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, AUGUST 2, 1936
We Discover One Every
With Miss Mitchell As The Newest, But Our
Mr. Cash Holds His Tongue In His Cheek.
By W.J. Cash
Site ed. note: This article is certainly not up to Cash's usual standards, rehashes a theme he had adequately covered a few months earlier, and actually becomes boorish--or at least sophomoric--after the first couple of paragraphs--no matter how truthful the core point probably was at that time. Cash, mind you, had his heroes among the literati of the day, prominent among whom were James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, both of whom, given his lauding of them over the years and in the book, he no doubt considered possessed of true genius. Cash here, however, is more concerned with that subset of writers--especially relatively young writers--populating the best-seller list than the broader group in general. He regularly read the Saturday Review and obviously tired of so often seeing the word "genius". Regardless, he was primarily utilizing his time on the manuscript for the book during this period and consciously wanted little to do with other contemporary writers and books. What better way to create mental distance than to convince himself that all or most of his contemporaries paled by comparison to the more than amply listed classics?
Despite the relative fecklessness of the article, the thought nevertheless is brought to mind that had Cash lived so long to see some of the "geniuses" of today, he might have been more than happy to proclaim, without a shred of hesitation or inveighing, the likes of Hemingway, Wolfe, Caldwell, Faulkner and the rest as the Olympus of genius. But no names for comparison, please... We'll just say that those geniuses of today (and their genius agents) are geniuses at being geniuses--no doubt.
I WISH the boys and girls who grind out book reviews for the instruction of the eager American public could somehow be dissuaded from their habit of discovering new geniuses every thirteen minutes or so--and particularly from the use of that phrase "the greatest American novel."
Currently it is Margaret Mitchell, of Atlanta, who is being lathered as the last towering Everest of the genus literati: her "Gone With the Wind" which is being cried up as the final cosmic outpost of the novel form in the United States. And just before the fair Margaret, it was our Tar Heel, the immense Mr. Thomas Wolfe. Nay, the vast Wolfe's applause has been so mighty that he continues over to run to side by side with that of the fair Margaret--a Gargantuan roar soaring to hitherto unexampled heights, and giving us to understand not only that he is the dizzy summit of American genius in the novel to date, but even that he is the dizzy summit of all genius in the novel ever heard of anywhere on this idiotically whizzing globe before.
Plethora of Genius
And before the advent of this whale, it was Mr. William Faulkner or Mr. Erskine Caldwell or Mr. Ernest Hemingway or Mr. Thorton Wilder or Mr. Louis Bromfield or Mr. Floyd Dell or Mr. Oliver LaFarge or Mr. Percy Marks or Mrs. Caroline Miller or Miss Evelyn Scott or Miss Francis Newman or Mrs. Gertrude Atherton. I can even recall the time when, in the Cro-Magnon days of my childhood, it was the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr.!
I have no will to disparage Miss Mitchell or Mr. Wolfe, or to detract from the proper laurels of any of those whose names I recite. But genius is a terrible word, and has no more business being cast around indiscriminately than the Tetragrammaton. Like the dreaded YHWH, it means "The Creating-One." And the emphasis is properly upon the particle. The genius, that is to say, is not simply one who can create in some measure; every jack with the slightest authentic talent can and does do that. No, he is the one who can and does create with such marvelous power, in such unparalleled preeminence, that he stands for something unique--that to the eyes of men he seems to sum up in himself the whole power of creation.
What It Really Means
And as for "the greatest American novel"--that is a considerable term, when you take the trouble to examine it. It means that Miss Mitchell or Mr. Wolfe has--it meant, when it used to be employed with reference to them, that Mr. Faulkner or Mr. Hemingway or Mr. Wilder or Miss Newman or Mrs. Atherton had--written an opus which is (or was) greater than "The Scarlet Letter" or "Moby Dick" or "The Ambassadors": an opus, to bring the matter down to our own times, greater than Dreiser's "Sister Carey" or "The Financier" or than Miss Cather's "My Antonia."
And as for those other claims that have been made for Mr. Wolfe--the claims that he has not only produced "the greatest American novel" but sometimes even "the greatest novel of all-time" and very often "the greatest novel of his own time," that is a very large order indeed. It means at the extreme that he has actually written a better novel than "Tom Jones" or "War and Peace" or "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Wilhelm Meister" or "Notre Dame de Paris" or "Madame Bovary" or "Vanity Fair" or "Fathers and Sons" or "The Betrothed" or "The Return of the Native." And at least it means that he has written a better one than "Kristin Lavransdatter" or "La Recherche du Temps Perdue" or "The Magic Mountain" or "The Growth of the Soil" or "The Peasants" or "The Counterfeiters" or "The Forsyte Saga" Or "Of Human Bondage" or "Ultima Thule" or "Ulysses."
No Soulful Nonsense
No, I have no wish to disparage Miss Mitchell. By all accounts, she is a charming gal, and myself, I am greatly taken with the fact that there is no soulful nonsense about her and that she announces flatly, what every man and woman who ever pounded a book out of a typewriter would announce if only they were not commonly liars and show-offs, that she hates writing and proposes to have nothing else to do with it. What is more, she has undoubtedly written an excellent novel--a more than ordinarily excellent novel--the only really decent one dealing with its period and people which has ever appeared. If it has its due, it will survive for a good long time, and I hope it does.
As for Mr. Wolfe, he is soberly enough the most important young man on the American horizon at present. He has written two vast tomes which, for all their multiple and obvious faults, plainly entitle him to a place in the front rank of living American authors, and which may conceivably get him remembered after he is dead.
And as for the geniuses of yesterday, if some of them are, in the harsh perspective of time, plainly mere mountebanks or empty barrels, yet others, as Mr. Faulkner, Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Caldwell, Miss Scott, Miss Newman, or even Mr. Wilder, have produced books of authentic distinction--books which are remembered and which emphatically deserve to be remembered for years to come.
But neither Miss Mitchell nor Mr. Faulkner nor Mr. Hemingway nor yet the tremendous Mr.Wolfe is properly speaking a genius. All of them are simply more or less great talents. and not one of them has actually done the things they are (or were) alleged to have done in the epithets applied to their works. If Wolfe's novels have an excellent chance in getting into the first flight of American novels of all time, yet not even he has really succeeded in writing "the greatest American novel," let alone the other and mightier feats ascribed to him. He is no more the superior of Hawthorne and Melville and Dreiser than he is the superior of Fielding or Goethe or Thomas Mann. And it is at once damned nonsense and an evil service to Mr. Wolfe to say that he is.
Such loose and constant misuse of terms, such extravagant misstatement of fact, is the death of all true discrimination. Let us have the Mitchells and the Wolfes, the Faulkners and Hemingways, etc., proclaimed, certainly. Let us have them celebrated at any length. But let us have them proclaimed and celebrated in terms that have some measure of rationality in them.
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