The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 18, 1936
REALISM AND ROMANCE: SOUTHERN VIEW
By W. J. CASH
As a critic Cash sharply differentiated between sound romanticism and sentimentality, between sound realism and literary photography. In this article he defined his categories and gave examples that fell into each.
from W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet by Joseph L. Morrison
(This article appeared in the Reader section of Prophet.)
NOW THAT Literature has finally come upon Dixie, and at least half the boys and gals currently in our southern colleges no longer yearn to be governor or to queen it over society in the old home town but to write the great American novel or at least the great southern novel, a question which still asserts itself now and then is this: ought the said boys and gals, in order to do their duty by God, the human race, and the Confederate dead, to make their masterpieces realistic or ought they to make them romantic?
But for my part, I think they might well make them neither or eitherand I think they might better make them both. And if you suspect me of merely playing the paradoxical Smart Aleck or of warming up for the psychopathic ward, then let me hasten to say that what I'm really trying to do is to suggest that distinctions are necessary.
When we speak of a romantic novel, what is almost invariably understood is something after the manner of, say, Mr. Thomas Nelson Pageor Mr. Stark Young. And say that a novel is realistic, and what we immediately suppose is that the author has set himself down laboriously to "copy life," to give us actual people and actual scenes from his own experience with photographic exactnesswith the additional proviso, of course, that all the people he has known have been unmitigated swine, and all the scenes hogwallowsafter the fashion which has more or less incorrectly been assigned to Mr. Theodore Dreiser and Mr. William Faulkner.
But I venture to think that this is grossly to abuse two perfectly good terms. Nobody ought to write a novel in the fashion of Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, nor yet in that of Mr. Stark Young. But that is not because they are in the romantic traditionthey aren't. But because they are in the sentimental tradition. The charge against them is that they are simply not true. They give us Cloud- Cuckoo land inhabited by cardboard figures, made to move and talk by a machinery taken straight out of the romance of Galahad, the rule of chivalry, and the sermons of Rev. De Witt Talmage. And they give us this, not as Cloud-Cuckoo land but as the Old South; not as cardboard figures in a fantasy but as the actual men and women of the Old South.
Sound romanticism is quite a different thing. It is in nowise equivalent to falsity. It is simply the recognitionand representationof the fact that man is himself a romantic creature; that there is a strange aspiring and upward reaching in him; that, condemned to death and inevitable defeat in the flesh, he can and does (and wholly apart from theological determinations) assert his spirit as immortal and incorruptiblea shining sword and a flame against which Time and the grave may not prevail; that he builds up in the little round cell where he dwells his inexplicable images of Beauty and of Glory, and most wistfully serves them in justification of himself before destiny. Serves them imperfectly, in stumbling and frequent apostasy? Oh, yesno true romanticism could ever forget thatas witness the best loved tale of modern times, that of Sidney Carton. The very essence of true romanticism, indeed, lies precisely in the contrast here.
But if nobody has any business writing a novel after the fashion of Mr. Page or Mr. Young, neither has he any business taking Dreiser or Faulkner as a model without first taking care to understand their method. And in so far as their method is that of mere photography, I think he has no business imitating it at all.
Sound realism is not photography. It can't be. For the business of the novelist, as of all artists, is with essentials. It is his function, exactly, to discover and represent the forms which, under the very terms of the case, do not lie on the surface of the phenomenal world, the forms that nature never makes overtly manifest. To that end he must be free to simplify and arrange, to add to and take away from, to break down and recombine, to turn the elements of a hundred characters, a hundred scenes, a hundred actions, into one. Shelley sums it up after this fashion:
He will watch from sun to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy bloom;
Nor heed nor see what things they be,
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.
Nor does a sound realism mean an exclusive eye for the appalling and the revolting On the contrary, it is simply the perception and the rendering of man's life as a whole: the refusal to blink any part of it. It may concern itself with running sores and sewers, on the ground that these also exist. But it will hardly imply that these are all. It will recognize that dungheaps and syphilis and dogwood in April and starving babies and the snow that fell last year and the Man on the Cross are all integrally and equally real. It will recognize specifically that man is a romantic creature, and take account of his eternal encounter with destiny, of his infinitely pathetic and his infinitely proud aspiring.
Still, granting that there is, after all, perfectly good room for both a sound romanticism and a sound realismthat these boys and gals who are coming along can go either way in safetyyou doubt that they can well go both ways, that the two can be combined in a single author and a single book? I point you to Joseph Conrad's magnificent "Lord Jim," and his scarcely less magnificent "Victory." Here are two of the finest romantic novels ever written in the world. And here also, and precisely, are two of the most perfect and surefooted examples of realism which have appeared on this marvelously wheeling ball.
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