The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 1936
Santayana's First Novel Is Hailed As Masterpiece
THE LAST PURITAN. A memoir in the form
of a novel.
By George Santayana. 602 pp.
New York. Charles Scribner's Sons. $2.75.
W. J. CASH
Site ed. note: The Last Puritan, published in 1936 about the 1890's and two decades hence, could just as easily be set down in the latter 1990's, or so it would seem. Could it be that the epic struggle thus recounted is ageless, just periodically forgotten, to be relived, individually and societally, again and again and again and...?
At the age of 72, the author of "The Life of Reason" has produced a first novel which is one of the most beautifully written tales which has appeared in America since the passing of Henry James. And more than that--and since it was, after all, only what was to be expected by anybody who was familiar with his prose--he has also produced a novel which, as such, is entitled to rank with the best which have appeared in the world during the last two decades--a magnificently full-bodied and living thing, quite worthy of old James himself, or of any of the greatest masters now living.
I am more than half inclined, indeed, to go whole hog and for once subscribe fully to the publisher's blurb which runs to the effect the book is destined to go down as one of the greatest of American novels, and a supreme portrait of American life from the '90s to the close of the Great War. For, though I approached the book with something of the same gloomy reluctance with which I sometime approached, say, the prose works of Shelley--though I approached it with dark doubts as to the capacity of a philosopher and a minor poet, however great a master of mere writing he might be, to shift successfully to the novel, and particularly in his old age--it has so completely gripped me that I have simply had to put aside everything until I could finish it.
The Narrow Tradition
The people with whom Professor Santayana is primarily concerned are the New England aristocrats or pseudo-aristocrats of the 19th and early 20th centuries--the tale he tells primarily that of Oliver Alden, sprig of this aristocracy, shaped in the womb of a long Puritan tradition, in his journey through a world in which that tradition is increasingly revealed as too narrow, as untenable, as being, to the very Puritan conscience itself, wrong--of his arrival at the conviction that it needs to be abandoned, of his efforts to escape from it to a freer life of the spirit, and continuous and ultimately final, and tragic, failure.
But the fable is in fact and, for America at least, and perhaps for the world, the universal one. This tradition which holds Oliver Alden in its grip is, one measure or, another, the dominant tradition of all Americans deriving from the old primary stock--including, as Professor Santayana himself seems to doubt, Southerners also. And the story of Alden's pilgrimage to the modern world is in essentials the story of the great body of those Americans in the time.
And how fully, and how richly that story is told! The portrait drawing here is quite good enough for the hand of anybody--say, even for Thomas Mann or the Dreiser of "Twelve Men." The protagonist; old Nathaniel Alden, the half-mummified product of the Puritan tradition in its full force; Peter Alden, the frustrate dilettante, resulting from an earlier attempt at escape; Harriet Bumstead, the female who was to become Peter Alden's wife and Oliver's mother, fancying herself as a free and enlightened intellect, but actually held absolutely by the old pattern; Letitia Lamb, who has sublimated her Puritanism into a preposterous worship of art (very arty); Jim Darnley, who has been kicked out of the British navy on account of sex, and, who, as captain of Peter Alden's yacht, first moves Oliver to long for escape; his father, the Vicar of Iffley, and his sister, Rose; Mario Van de Weyer, Oliver's cousin and antithesis, reared in Europe, and enjoying the world hugely; Edith--all these are people existing in three dimensions, whom you are quite conscious of knowing a great deal better than you know most of your actual acquaintances when you have finished reading about them.
That Rare Design
And the book definitely has that vague but real, that extremely rare thing in recent American novels--design. All these characters are caught up into a single web to a single purpose; everyone is an integral part of the whole movement, and contributes with cumulative force to the elucidation of the plight of the Puritan soul, fixed irretrievably in its hard, tight groove, in its efforts to adjust itself to a world which is no longer that which once lent more or less justification to that groove--in its struggle, foredoomed to failure, to achieve a richer life than that afforded by the attitude of mere denial.
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