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Critical Essay by Harold C. Gardiner
SOURCE: "On Saying 'Boo!' to Geese," in his In All Conscience: Reflections on Books and Culture, Hanover House, 1959, pp. 108-12.
In the following essay, first printed in 1948 in America magazine, Gardiner commends Paton's artistic treatment of racial tensions in Cry, the Beloved Country, especially in comparison to contemporary trends in fiction.
At the risk, perhaps, of sounding like a proper Bostonian, I want to raise a standard to which I think all critics ought to be willing and eager to repair. I'd like to start a movement or found an organization for the Cessation of Adulation Heaped on Authors (generally Young Authors) Because They Write in a Bizarre, Shocking, Grotesque, and Violent Style of Bizarre, Shocking, Grotesque, and Violent Things. Will my fellow critics, of both the secular and the religious press, care to come in?
If they do join, they will find themselves in good company. They will meet, for example, Mr. Edwin Waugh remarking: "Exaggeration, violence, and vulgarity are [literature's] deadliest banes; reticence, modesty, and shy beauty are its infallible qualities." Or they will hear more famous S. H. Butcher, in his Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and the Fine Arts, proclaiming: "The esthetic pleasure produced by any ideal imitation must be a sane and wholesome pleasure, which would approve itself to the better portion of the community." Or even still better-known Arnold Bennett would tell them (in his Literary Taste): "The pleasure derived from a classic is never a violent pleasure; it is subtle—it will wax in intensity…. The artistic pleasures of an uncultivated mind are generally violent…. The pleasure of a classic does not at all knock you down—rather, it steals over you."
These are but three of a veritable chorus of critics who have affirmed, down through the history of our literature, that it is the common, universal human values, and not the shock techniques, which have been the touchstone of excellence. The persistence of this critical tradition is not invalidated by the undoubted fact that there are recognized masterpieces of macabre writing—Edgar Allan Poe's, for instance—but I doubt that anyone would deny that such work is automatically relegated to a lesser sphere of literary blessedness, perhaps almost to a limbo of letters.
And it is equally true that there are classics with violent and even distasteful themes—we have some of the great Russians and an Oedipus. But it will be found, I think, that these apparent exceptions but prove the rule; they are not violent for the sake of the violence, for beneath their fury and their immediate repulsion lies the common and universal human struggle, the all-pervading and supporting atmosphere of human morality.
However far afield a consideration of other literatures might lead us, I think it is demonstrably evident that in very much current American fiction the frenzied striving for the unusual, the shocking, the grotesque is dehumanizing the writing, stultifying the authors, and, it is to be feared, debauching the reader. And the evil, far from being checked, is not even noted by critics who award to neurotic exhibitionism the accolade of "genius" or "virtuosity."
This mild animadversion is prompted because I have just finished a magnificent story. Its subject matter is as explosive as any that can be handled in today's fiction—the tensions between Negroes and whites—and yet there is not the faintest whisper of shrill propaganda; it deals plainly with the lusts of the flesh, and yet there is not the slightest suggestiveness; it plumbs deep into human suffering and punishment without a hint of moralizing or of maudlin sentimentality. It is a fine, indeed a great book.
It is Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. The scene is South Africa, the main character a magnificently conceived native Anglican minister, the theme a twofold one: the struggle of the natives, attracted from the land and their tribes to the huge mining towns like Johannesburg, for tolerable living and working conditions; and the decline of tribal life and customs, fostered by the white man who had nothing to give the natives in return. All this is superbly told in a rather stately style, which is presumably a fairly literal transcription of the Zulu idiom and which gives the poignant tale a somewhat Biblically patriarchal tone.
Kumalo, the hero, is summoned from his little church among his tribe to go down to the frightening big city to help his sister, who has fallen on evil ways, and to find his son, from whom his parents have not heard since he left to work in the mines. The boy runs away from a reform school and becomes involved in a killing, the victim being the son of the white farmer whose lands lie near Kumalo's church; the son himself had sacrificed a career of great promise to work for the betterment of the natives. The pastor's sister agrees to return home with him but runs off at the last minute, leaving the crushed and, he thinks, disgraced man to go back to his tribe with his sister's child and the pregnant young wife of his condemned son. Drought and poor farming are threatening the life of his tribe when no one else steps in to assist them but the father of the murdered son, who does it in remembrance of his own son's devotion to the natives.
But the story is pre-eminently one of individuals. There are no sweeping and grandiose statements about "the race problem." Jarvis, the white father, and Kumalo, the black one, are two men sorrowing for their sons, and the reader soon realizes that it matters not a tinker's dam what the color of their respective skins is. It is the human (and divine) values by which the two men live, the human dignity both portray, the sublimation of human suffering they achieve, which puts the black man and the white man shoulder to shoulder in the book and suggests by implication that the black and the white populations of South Africa and indeed of all the world can work shoulder to shoulder as well, if only every person will stop looking at the "race question" and start looking at the individual soul. This thought the book presents superbly. Though its very theme is race tension, in the inner workings and motivation of the characters the book shows utter unconsciousness of "race."
I wish there were space to quote many of the deeply moving passages of this most truly compassionate book. There is the scene in which Kumalo tells Jarvis that it was his son who had killed the white man's, or the scene in which Kumalo says farewell to his son, awaiting execution, or that which depicts the old pastor, back with his parish, leading prayers for his condemned son. But as I want to draw the comparison suggested at the start of this discussion, I must leave you to read these for yourself. I must remark, in passing from this truly noble novel, that there is one defect in it. It is marred by a page or so of some very shallow remarks on what law is and whence it derives its authority….
The loud and the startling things are not always the significant things in life; they are rarely the important things in a novel. Cry, the Beloved Country is an Everest in the flat wastes of modern fiction precisely because it is not shrill about the riots, the broken heads, the sullen hatreds of race tensions, but rather delves deeply into the serenity of love, compassion, consideration, and devotion that can alone solve race tensions.
The literature of exaggeration may be inescapable today. We live in an age of exaggeration—millions of slave laborers in Russia, sky-blanketing fleets of war planes, supersonic flight. Who knows when we will return to the human level again and leave the apocalyptic? Literature can, I think, help in its relatively small way to lead us back, but it will first have to rediscover the truth about life as well as about itself—the truth that "the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire: the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air."
And the Lord—of literature as of life—was and is in the gentle air.
This section contains 1,384 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)