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Critical Review by Henry Seidel Canby
SOURCE: "Gusto vs. Art," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 13, October 17, 1931, p. 201.
Canby was an American editor, educator, biographer, and literary critic. In the following review, he contends that while. American Beauty is well-constructed and realistic in its surface details, it lacks the subtlety and depth of a great novel.
The Poles came in. They tore up the brush-grown fields of old Connecticut and forced new yield from them. They settled in those loveliest of American landscapes and, utterly oblivious of their dim beauty, saw them only as land, unused land, cheap land. They brought a peasantry on a soil that had never known a peasantry before, clucked heartily to hearty women and beat them when they needed it, gawked at the faded New Englanders who first hired and then sold to them, grasped drunkenly at the new vulgarisms of the towns, and in the second generation ran hungrily to the mills and the movies, the peasant starch in them turning sour at the first touch of industrialism. They had energy instead of a code; they were hot for undiscriminated experience, and rushed on change.
Their New England hosts, who lived in the clapboarded, green-shuttered houses, with moulding about the eave's line, remembering what they had been, looked at the present with sardonic resignation. Poverty, disorder, and drink were powerless to touch their inmost being, which was still that of a chosen people. The ill kept highway of their lives followed a row of ruined elms down through wrecked pastures until it ended in a swamp, yet never lost its essential dignity.
The Poles were not like that, nor did they resemble the Colonial ancestors of these warped New Englanders, who, though land hungry, full-blooded, and energetic also, brought with them an idea of an ample, decorous, and ordered dwelling-place, the outward and visible sign of an inward and, if not spiritual, certainly intellectual, grace:—Litchfield, Southbury, Ridgefield, the white, elm-shaded farmsteads, the great brick houses of Connecticut.
The Pole wanted to be American but he could not understand American beauty. It was unreal to him and his gusto was for reality; and indeed American beauty had become unreal. It was a shadow of a shade of the past in the great houses, like the house of the Orrange Oakes in Edna Ferber's novel [American Beauty], it was shrunk into ugliness in the old maid, Jude, and bloated into eccentricity in Big Bella. These women kept the strength the men of the family had lost, but it was sterile strength. Their mates, if they had any, were mated to their vices and decays, their souls were strong, but so caged by circumstances that they could not get back into what should have been their world. Men and women of their sort had gone up in the world, or down and out.
The Pole was the reality New England seemed to need. He looked it, he felt it, the old soil renewed for him, and his children raced over the acres. But though he saved the farms and propped up the decaying houses, he could not restore them to dignity and independence. And when he married with the old stock his children inherited both the tenacity of the peasant and the pessimism of the run-out race. They were, perhaps, the makings of a new people, but you could not tell. Reality, which had been so vivid in their Polish fathers, so vigorous in their English great-great grandmothers, lay only on the surface of these half breeds. What was beneath the novelist does not tell us. Her power ceased when she stopped writing of the thwarted eccentrics and the full-blooded, tangible Poles.
It is the very interesting novel of Edna Ferber called American Beauty I am describing, and I am trying by indirection to get at a true criticism of a writer whose vigor and sense of tangible reality are unequalled, and yet who here and elsewhere seems curiously to fail to attain her objective, no matter how brilliantly she mops up the trenches as she goes. In a sense, she is like her own Poles, full-blooded, virile, with an imagination that wrests the essential circumstances from a scene, and builds scenes which, in her novels and afterwards in the movies, captivate the American mind. And yet she has too much gusto to pause to capture the spiritual realities of her American scene. Her New England past (of which much is made in this novel of generations) has a conventional heartiness like the stories told to a child. She sees it as the Poles saw the great brick houses, as the medievals looked at the Roman ruins. Something is lost, something that was New England. No one can question the reality of her genre pictures, no woman has written more vivid and vigorous scenes than Big Bella's in this book. They shine with vigor (like her Poles), they sweat reality, but those more elusive realities with which a great novelist must equally struggle are dim or undiscovered. You get the American beauty rose, but not the aster, the gentian, not even the goldenrod.
This is a definition of what Miss Ferber has done, not an assertion that her art is necessarily limited by her gusto for the high visibility of certain kinds of living. But circumstances have not favored her art. She has been too popular. Audiences wait for her, knowing what to expect. She cannot disappoint. For them, the last Oakes descendant marries the millionaire's daughter and saves the old home—and that is the outline plot of American Beauty into which Miss Ferber has stuffed such vivid scenes and such compelling contacts of alien and native. For them, the ancestors are made rich and nobly mannered, for them romantic aristocracy broods over degenerate moderns. For them she is a showman for her novel, playing up romance and sentiment, writing by climaxes, twisting and inverting the order of her narrative so that her goods may be displayed to the careless millions who have to be tricked into reading. Her art is naturally primitive and objective, slapdashed in broad strokes, with little thought of a third dimension in her composing. But her craftsmanship has become too sophisticated and tricky. She dangles stock characters and stock situations before the door of the museum in which she has collected so much that is novel and vivid and well-observed in American life.
Powerful, popular writers like Edna Ferber must make the choice between the easiest and the hardest way in writing. External reality, when once you learn to capture it, is a bait for any public; but it requires eminent self-control not to play with it, not to use this power to make trite characters and stock situations sure-fire for the public taste. Books which, though not subtle, might be consistent and harmonious in composition and vigorous throughout, become patchworks of bright scenes in a stale pattern. This is Edna Ferber's danger. Her gifts can be too easily vulgarized. She should go into a retreat. She should hide away from the editors of The Ladies Home Journal and The Delineator. She should practice austerity like Willa Cather, or set herself to harmonize her rich imaginings like a Persian rug. No one wants her to be a New Englander, but she should stop playing the Pole. She should lift her reality into that higher and finer stage in which it becomes a creative element in the true but unreal world of the finest fiction.
This section contains 1,249 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)