The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 25, 1936
Mr. Basso's 'Court House
Accurately Represents The South
He Shows The Small Towns
In Their Cruelty
And Their Loving-kindness Too
By W. J. CASH
[This view, without change in 63 years, other than that the trees are larger, appeared alongside this article in a black and white photograph with the following caption: "Shelby is by no leap of the imagination the scene of Mr. Hamilton Basso's new novel, 'Court House Square,' but that town does possess one of the finest court house squares in a state of many lovely beautiful [sic] county buildings. Here it is to illustrate what the reviewer, who lives in Shelby, calls the best book about the south to date." It is one of the few times a photograph, other than a stock author's picture, appeared with a Cash article. (The original is too degraded to reproduce.)]
Site ed.note: Apologies of the original editor who drafted the above-quoted caption notwithstanding, it is very probable, as is readily evident in the text, that Cash had in mind throughout every bit of this article, as well as during his reading of the book being reviewed, the very courthouse square depicted above, as well as that of "any of a hundred" other small towns, as Cash puts it, both as to the good and bad side of the milieu. It is probably for this reason, more than likely at Cash's request, that the Shelby square was depicted with the article. Such subliminal comparison, of course, was not meant as a cryptic slant on Shelby; just a reminder, in Cash's ever-present desire to teach as gently as possible those around him, of their many glaring shortcomings, as well as to remind them of their many strengths which ought enable them to rise above petty jelousy, racist hatred, or as Cash represented it by its origins, "sentimentality" or "false sentiment"--rationalizing the past into a romantic idyll, culminating in hatred for the supposed changes to that idyll, climaxing, as an outlet, in mob violence against the least powerful and most readily and immutably identifiable target for the hatred, the "different", the outsider, the foreigner, and most especially in those times the black man or woman who "got out their place". Cash, too, may have seen the Shelby scene as symbolically representative of that combination of gentility and dark forces, as it was the home of Thomas Dixon, Jr. And, sadly, in too many respects, like it or not, that venal side of small town South (and small-town America generally) still exists, though, from what we hear, on a much less mob-oriented plane than in earlier times. It is now more apt to come forth in isolated acts by individuals acting virtually alone--witness the 1998 dragging horror in small-town Texas--but, it should be remembered, no one acts in a vacuum. There is still ameliorative work to be done; though one hopes that through better and more universal education, more exposure, however crassly expressed and if only vicariously experienced, to more ideas and people than ever in earlier times were accessible to small towns, things will continue to improve.
Of all the younger novelists who have come up in Dixie, Hamilton Basso is in many ways the best of the lot. The inordinately publicized Tom Wolfe has, for all his Gargantuan production, almost no sense of the novel; and what is worse, he has in him a certain soulful mooniness which, while it makes grand reading in small doses, is apt to grow somewhat appalling in the doses Dr. Wolfe himself prescribes. Worst of all, the enormous Thomas has, so far as can be judged on the evidence available at present, only one story... At least, whenever he has occasionally attempted to tell some other story than this one of the lonely soul of the youthful Thomas Wolfe chasing its tale around this cuckoo globe, the result has been pretty dismal.
And even more serious charges lodge against that other less, but still inordinately, publicized figure, Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell apparently labors under the delusions that an accurate picture of Job is to be got at by a detailed description of each and every one of his boils, with some account of his more recondite physiological processes thrown in for good measure; and that the business of making a novel consists of piling horror on horror until the reader is reduced to a choice between hysterical screams and hysterical laughter. I am not quarreling with Caldwell for exposing the case of the poor-white and the black man in the South. Dammit, it needs to be exposed; it stinks to high heaven to be exposed. I am merely suggesting that there are better ways for the novelist to achieve his effects than Caldwell's way.
A Better Tale-Spinner
Basso suffers from none of these faults. Like Wolfe, he is sharply aware of the eternal loneliness of youth, and particularly of youth when it is gifted and exceptional. And like Caldwell, he is intensely conscious of the dark forces which move beneath the surface of Southern society, and continually boil up into detonation.
Indeed, I think we may go further and say outright that he is more disinterestedly aware of those forces than Caldwell, about whose fulminations there lingers an uncomfortable suspicion of bawdy showmanship. But unlike either, he has a definite sense of form in the novel; is able to get his reactions down in the course of a rhythmically advancing tale, without resort to disconnected rhetorical spouting or shouting at the top of his voice. And in addition, he has more than one story, and he has perspective.
So much was already plain before the appearance last Wednesday of his third novel "Courthouse Square" (Charles Scribner's Sons. New York. $2.50). But it becomes immensely more plain with this tale, which I frankly think is the best novel which has yet to come out of the South.
Return to the Small Town
The story is simple. David Barondess, having tried life in New York for ten years and attained some degree of success as a writer, returns to Macedon in the hope of finding in his native small town the peace he has not found among professional intellectuals--who, indeed, have been responsible for his separation from Eve, the wife he loves. But in Macedon he comes upon jealousy and mistrust for his success, and he comes, too, face-to-face with those habitual brutalities and injustices, which are to be found everywhere in the South, and nowhere so much, perhaps, as in the small towns; and above all, he encounters that virulent hatred and intolerance for anybody even remotely suspected of disapproving these things--that virulent hatred and intolerance, poised always on the brink of violence, which is the single darkest force in the South.
The Eternal Negro Problem
In the town, there is a Negro druggist who buys the old Legendre mansion to turn into a Negro hospital. But before he can announce his purpose the Macedon Mercury carries the story of the sale, effected through David's father, leading the town to believe that the Negro plans to use the house as his residence, and bringing down public anger upon David's family. David takes up the cudgels for the black man, attempts to make the editor of the newspaper set forth the facts, fails. A mob forms and sets upon the Negro, David rescues him, but is himself captured by the mob and beaten nearly to death before his brother Loosh rescues him. As a result Eve and David are brought back together. And David concludes that peace must be found within himself and will not come from the environment in which he lives.
The power of the novel lies partly in the sureness with which the story is told, in the fine economy with which it moves slowly but steadily to the mighty climax of the finest mob scene I have read anywhere--such a mob scene as Erskine Caldwell could never create--a mob scene that will get you out of your chair in bitter rage--a mob scene that will make you hate all mobs with the angry hatred that every decent man ought to bear toward all mobs.
There's Gentleness, Too
But it lies even more in this: that the people who move here are living flesh and blood and that this town is such a town as you will recognize as any of a hundred you know. There is brutality and injustice and hatred and intolerance here yes. But there are also gentleness and kindliness and high loyalty and a will to decency--and love. And often the two streams are paradoxically and inextricably mixed up in the same individual. Moreover, if brutality and injustice and hatred and intolerance are here, Basso never forgets for a moment the historical forces which determined them--never forgets that all this has come out of slavery and the long struggle over slavery--out, above all, of the the Yankee's gratuitous and stupid policy in Reconstruction days.
Sentimentalists will not like it. But for all others, the book is required reading.
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