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James T. Farrell

Discussion of a First Novel

Comments on Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home

(April 1947)


From New International, Vol. XIII No. 4, April 1947, pp. 111–114.
Copyright, 1947, James T. Farrell.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In an earlier article in these pages, A Comment on Literature and Morality (May 1946), I discussed morality as it was treated from the standpoint of personal experience, and reflected in some types of literature. I selected as an example of a current tendency, Lionel Trilling’s short story, The Other Margaret (Partisan Review, Fall 1945), and after an analysis I concluded such a story shows us “the high road that leads to the realms of the most cultivated banality.” Isac Rosenfeld’s first novel, Passage from Home, provides an example that permits me to carry my earlier analysis a few steps forward.

In A Comment on Literature and Morality I remarked on how moral questions were being discussed in so many fields at the present time, a time in which the entire world system has fallen into a moral abyss. The alarming signs of moral bankruptcy in the present period are constantly being revealed, directly or indirectly, in current writing. American writers have, in increasing numbers, lost all sense of any perspective, any guiding aim. There is a loss of vigor, a loss of breadth, a loss of depth and curiosity among writers. At the same time, there have been constant, though unclear, attacks on what is loosely called realism or naturalism. Most of these attacks have been over-generalized and abusive. Others have served as a means of projection of some state of dissatisfaction on the part of critics who have not made a sufficient effort to understand the causes for their real dissatisfaction(a) in themselves and in their own views, and (b) more generally by seeking rigorously to establish warranted co-relations between the condition of literature at the present time and the state of present-day society out of which this literature comes. This dissatisfaction further takes the form of a retreat into the self. This retreat into the self is variously expressed, but one form of it is found in the conception of the artistic self as cultivated, as complex, as especially perceptive. In analyzing Lionel Trilling’s story, The Other Margaret, I noted that the major character was presented merely as the moral spectator, and that this moral spectator regards moral questions in a way much similar to that in which he regards esthetic objects. The moral problem posed in the story does not call on him to act, to make a decision. His moral sense seems to deepen his wisdom, and in this way induces a mood of contemplation. And for this moral spectator, morals and manners are involved and bound together in such a way that they tend to become a kind of personal stylization.
 

The Critics of Naturalism

It is noticeable that various of our urban intellectuals, who in a greater or lesser degree, reflect this tendency in their writing, are among the persons more or less dissatisfied with what is so loosely called naturalism. Too much realism is not fashionable. Now realism and naturalism in literature cannot be seen as one monolithic tendency, and a diicussion of it is better to be reserved for another time when it can be dealt with more fully than can be done here. Hence, I merely wish to suggest that in the nineteenth century, and in America in the earlier part of the twentieth century, those writers who were called realistic or naturalistic, were often vigorous, productive, curious and broad in their sympathies and their interests. In many cases one found a tremendous love of life itself in the works of many realistic writers. Tolstoy was, perhaps, the master realist of the nineteenth century, and his great novels contain what almost amounts to an intoxication with life. Zola, who is sometimes mistakenly considered as the father of so-called naturalism, possessed a zest for life, a breadth of interest, a probing curiosity.

Some critics deal superficially with this phenomenon by stressing the point that realists have sometimes wanted mere experience for its own sake, and have not been discriminating, nor have they evaluated with discernment. A sense of intoxication with life, a curiosity motivated by an interest in life, an exercise of an active sensibility and an active mind on nature, on society, on characters and events; all this in itself reveals a positive value. In an epoch such as the present one, when there is such admitted intellectual deadness, such complaining, such lack of effort and energy in the literary world, we should be the more able to see the positive value in the mere love for and interest in life which so many earlier novelists expressed. One might, for the sake of argument, grant to critics of Zola, for instance, many of the false criticisms they make and then still say – it is better to have been Zola than it is to be half dead, and to find that experience narrows, that curiosity declines and that one outlives oneself creatively.

It would be unfair to treat Isac Rosenfeld’s novel as a clear-cut example of this general approach: likewise, it would be improper to make this book the sole representative of a tendency. However, this novel can be related to these foregoing remarks; also, it is not the only work of recent times which suggests such a tendency in formation among writers. But, before generalizing about this first novel, let us first see what is in it.
 

II

Passage from Home is the story of a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy named Bernard who lives on the West Side of Chicago. The time of the story is more or less that of the depression, the early 1930s. It is written in the first person and told in the words of the character himself, but told after the fact, so that in the story one cannot guess the age of the narrator as he tells of a period of growth in his earlier life. The boy lives with his father – whom he does not feel close to – and a step-mother. The father is a small business man who is getting on economically in a small way. Bernard is an unusually precocious boy and he appears in these pages as a lad with a sharp insight into the motivations of adults. The story deals with his relationships to adults.

This novel is, thus, an unusual one about boyhood. The boy here has no significant contacts with those his own age; we do not see him in association with any companions, nor do we meet him at a period when he is shown in love with any girl of his own generation. He seems to read a lot, but his reading matter is referred to as “books” and we don’t learn much concretely about his reading. He attends school, but school is only mentioned passingly or else referred to in a few sentences here and there in the thoughts of the character. He does not play with those of his own age. We can assume that he is superior to his own generation, but this must remain an assumption; other than in a passing scene with a cousin, he is never set against his generation. He is set off against adults. This makes the book additionally unusual as a story of boyhood, for the boy is intellectually superior to the adults with whom he comes into contact; he usually has greater insight into their motives and actions than they have themselves. Another striking fact concerning this as a novel of boyhood is that while the boy-hero is so precocious, so strikingly perceptive, he has little temperament and he has a very weak spirit of rebellion. For not only does he often appear superior to adults, but, also, he seems older than they. Thus, he sometimes doesn’t seem like a gifted boy of fourteen who wants to act as though he were, let us say, twenty-one or twenty-five: rather, he appears as though he were acting like a man of forty. Also, he is as much the spectator as he is the actor in the events of the story. A considerable part of the book deals with the affairs of the adults. These are seen through the eyes of the boy and they are presented analytically. Their words, their gestures, their movements, their quarrels are analyzed for hidden motives.
 

Bernard’s Family

Bernard is attracted to the hill-billy character, Willy. The latter had married a member of Bernard’s family who died. Willy seems to come and go in the family circle, where he is considered as a cousin. Bernard’s father does not like Willy. Temperamentally, they are opposites. The father is not expressive and is even possibly neurotic; Willy is meant to be natural, expressive, outgoing. Also, Bernard is attracted to an aunt, Minna. Because of a family feud, Minna does not see the family. The antagonism of the family to Minna is focused in the father, and there are contradictory stories as to why these two hate each other. One story holds that Minna wanted to marry the father when Bernard’s mother died, and that she even kidnapped Bernard as a baby. The counter version holds that the father wanted her to be his mistress. Minna, in her way, lives a free life, just as Willy does. Willy is a Gentile. Minna associates with Gentiles and observes none of the Jewish rituals. Willy has love affairs. So does Minna. Neither is married, it appears in the story, until the end, when it is divulged that Minna has been secretly married to a strange, older man, named Mason. The greater part of the story involves an account of how Bernard tries to live in and through Minna and Willy.

Bernard’s father doesn’t want the boy to see either Willy or Minna, but he sees them both. Willy lives at the YMCA and Bernard often visits him there. Bernard doesn’t like Willy’s sloppy habits of dress, his carelessness in speech, his bad manners; he tries by the force of example to correct these lapses of etiquette. He brings Willy and Minna together and, in fact, he engineers a love affair between them. He lives vicariously in them, and he watches them and analyzes their motives in a sophisticated manner. His “passage from home” consists of his leaving to live with Minna: she is at the time living with and supporting Willy. At a birthday party on the father’s fortieth birthday, Minna comes to the house; there is a violent scene. When Minna leaves, the party breaks up and Bernard goes with her. He is disillusioned, guilty; Willy is humiliated by Minna; and then Mifina is humiliated by Willy.

Behind the observations and analyses of the boy-protagonist, there are the phenomena of guilt and shame; these are related to the Oedipus relationship. Minna and Willy become substitute father and mother images for Bernard, and at one point the boy consciously realizes this. Willy and Minna bust up in a fashion that has a touch of the sordid, and then Bernard’s passage from home ends by his return. In the scene with his father that takes place upon his return, he manages to shift his guilty feelings; his father also feels guilty. Bernard perceives that fathers and sons carry a common load of guilt, and that before they were fathers, fathers were sons; also, he now accepts his stepmother as his mother.

Bound up with this theme is the loneliness of the individual in the world, the world which is “life’s vast meaningless profusion.” There is no way out against this unless one “fought against it; fought against it by never sparing a moment of the true life and the true human beauty ...” And concerning the individual in this jungle “Our lives contain a secret, hidden from us. It is no more than the recognition of our failing: but to find it is all of courage, and to speak of it, the whole of truth.” Father and son more or less recognize failure in the final pages. The act of courage here is personal, and is not completely expressed in the talk between Bernard and his father. It is, rather, an act of self-recognition. And the story is, further, one of the boy’s efforts at self recognition, a self recognition which comes from his observations of adults with whom he is in a relationship, and some of whom he is trying secretly to manipulate. This development toward self-recognition becomes a psychological mystery story. And the mystery ends in Freudian generalities, coated with pseudo-moral conclusions.
 

III

It is of significance that this novel is written in the first person and in an autobiographical manner. It is written as by the main hero of the story himself, but the story contains more revelation about others than about himself. The motivations of Minna, Willy, the father, the stepmother, for instance, are explored as fully as those of the “I” of the book, although by its very form this “I,” Bernard, is excluded from knowing surely whether or not he is correct in his analyses of these other characters. But neither are the readers. In this instance, the first person form prevents us from having any clear check on the writer himself as he tells his story. Bernard’s consciousness controls everything within the framework of the book. When other characters appear, and when they have collisions with one another, these collisions are reflected through Bernard’s eyes. In the story, then, Bernard tries to manipulate adults: and the form of the story is, in addition, a form of manipulation. At the same time, the novel is a fairly long one, 280 pages. But it is rather meager in its details. It is analytical, but the analyses are highly generalized. These analyses are sometimes shrewd, and they throw off many interesting observations; but also, they become pretentious. The narrator hero steps out of character, and the superiority which he possesses, by the very form of the novel which presents him as a manipulator, is revealed in even trivial ways. Thus, concerning the break up of the love affair of Willy and Minna, he tells the reader, apparently without realizing how empty and pretentious he sometimes becomes, that “It is impossible to observe the exact moment when the desire to be loved, like love itself, changes into its opposite.” Were this a comment on himself, it would be in keeping. But the comment, presented as that of a boy of fourteen about a man and a woman who have had a love affair, strikes one differently. It suggests the pretentiousness of the book. It reveals how the author has used Freudian commonplaces and pseudo-analysis as a substitution for real detail which conveys a sense of reality of life to the reader.
 

The Heart of the Story

The form of the story is further one which attempts to establish psychological suspense: Rosenfeld has apparently been influenced by James and Proust. The boy’s passage from home, that is, his step toward maturity is, in turn, a search for hidden motives. These hidden motives are the secrets of adults. The growth of the boy is charted by his ability to penetrate these motives. This in tum reveals another concealment, the concealed narcissism at the heart of this novel. The narration presents a character who tells his own story, and his own story is really the story of what he saw and discovered about others. And by being able to tell this story and to reveal the hidden motives of others, he remains superior to these others. In this way, the hero is revealed as a person having specially fine perceptive powers. Although the boy does not use cultural allusion, these faculties are cultivated ones, faculties which have been given a traditional character in the work of great and gifted writers, such as Proust and James.

The concealed cultural narcissism of the story is what links it with other writings, including that of Trilling, as part of what is developing into a contemporary literary tendency. This tendency presents as the hero or chief protagonist, the observer rather than the actor. The quality of the hero to observe is an outstanding trait. At the same time that the hero or protagonist has such faculties of observation, he does not match these with capacities to act or to experience. The experiences of such a hero are narrow in range. But, at the same time, his reflections, his observations and his conclusions are inversely broad and sweeping. In these observations, society sometimes becomes life – life’s jungle. Thus, the experiences of this type of hero, and especially when he is cast in the role of the observer or the spectator, are then used as the basis for glittering and pretentious conclusions about life. These conclusions do not carry the hero out into the world to perform his acts of wisdom and courage in public struggles. Rather they deepen his sense of himself, his confidence in his own powers of penetrating observation. Here we have suggested to us, courage and responsibility when there is no real responsibility. Thus we see what is the real significance of this type of writing. It is escapist. And the escape is one into cultural narcissism. Cultural narcissism in this way becomes “responsibility.”
 

IV

This tendency toward moral and cultural narcissism in literature threatens to become the genteel tradition of the 1940s. It is now promising to produce a hot-house literature. This hot-house literature will have, as a hero, the spectator who looks at other people and who has the wisdom, the knowledge and the analytical capacity to dissect their immoralities and to uncover the hidden motives of their actions. Set against the spectator here are the human mannikins whom the same hero can understand, analyze and criticize. Such writing in tum has its esthetic and stylistic traits. The style of such writing is banal on a high level. The form of such writing is one in which there are relatively few incidents. The incidents that are used are often presented in a reflected form: they are described by someone who saw them, or they are, as in the case of this book, told by an “I.” Further, there is here a self-conscious effort to produce an idea in literature. And this only ends in commonplaces expressing a turgid style that some critics call good writing. Above all else, such writing is weak in characters who are real and credible. This is true of Rosenfeld’s novel. His manner of presentation itself almost demands that his characters be mannikins. A formula of cultural narcissism demands mannikin characters. For the spectator is superior to his characters, and he is observing and analyzing them in the manner that we have already noted. These characters are, thus, precluded from coming before our eyes as real human beings with their own dignity and weaknesses. They are dangled on literary strings, turned into verbal puppets. The very form of the story is one of manipulation: the characters are manipulated: the boy here is, himself, a manipulator. This all should help to reveal to us the process of the new literary snobbery which is to be found in advanced intellectual circles of the present. This is the symptomatic significance of Passage from Home. And also, this is the type of writing which is being advanced as an alternative to realistic and objective novels that seek to explore the nature of experience.


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