Budd Schulberg Essay - Critical Essays

Schulberg, Budd

Schulberg, Budd 1914–

An American author of novels, dramas, biographies, short stories, and prize-winning screenplays, Schulberg has been praised for consistently selecting powerful subject matter and for his "journalistic pursuit of fact and truth." He became a celebrity with his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, for he created an unforgettable protagonist and presented a remarkably candid view of Hollywood. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

[What Makes Sammy Run?] is Mr. Schulberg's first novel, and he is more concerned with saying what he sees and feels than with how he says it, and that is as it should be. The book is uneven; the first part is badly written and developed; there is too much of the paltry patois of small-story sophistication and typewriter chatter. One finds a paucity of expression ("her body trim and cool and confident"), and the snappy conversation is at times oh so nugatory. But each of these charges is controverted as one turns the pages, and it is a pleasure to watch the author write through and past what really is his "first novel" to find his own form and content. Toward the end Mr. Schulberg does say what he wants to say, the writing is good, the plot blooms, and the form is there. Hollywood, that junction of theater and audience, is more honestly, amusingly, and instructively covered than in any other book I know. It is an integral part of the story and the natural habitat for Sammy.

I do, however, protest against the niggardliness of the expression of sincerely felt emotions that recalls bright books now faded. The careful indifference, the special argot of understatement and underplaying, the determined bathos of the characters before the probity of their feelings are exasperating. And the quantity of Scotch consumed in the course of the book is alarming, far too expensive for the sober writer's budget, to say nothing of the sober reader's. One remembers the flowing bowl of the twenties, both literary and economic, and ponders the reason why the novelists of that generation are still suffering from hangovers.

H. P. Lazarus, "Sammy Glick," in The Nation (copyright 1941 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 19, 1941, p. 471.

There have been novels about Hollywood and novels about heels. "What Makes Sammy Run?" combines the two and is the novel to end all novels about Hollywood heels. Sammy Glick is no minor-Pal-Joey kind of a heel, but a major get-to-the-top-no-matter-whom-you-slaughter-on-the-way sort of vermin….

Although author Schulberg merits praise for an impressive, well-constructed first novel that glitters with freshness, realistic lingo and keen observation of his specimens under the magnifying glass, he should be censured for his unnecessary overdoses of profanity and indecent language and for several instances of sensationalism. At times his sammyglickia verges on embarrassing anti-Semitism. He is harder on Jewish Sammy Glick than was James Farrell on Irish Studs Lonigan.

Schulberg knows the Hollywood whereof he speaks so cynically (for years his father has been one of the industry's leading producers). But he implies that all Hollywood is running, with his own Sammy running a little faster. Implications like that confuse the question concerning Sammy's marathon. Surely all those Sammies couldn't have the same reason for running. When Al Manheim, the I of the book, finally pieces together Sammy Glickstein's childhood—or the unchildhood of a cruelly congested Manhattan Jewish neighborhood—he knows some of the reasons for Sammy's determined, breathless racing. People aren't just results; they're a process.

Rumor now hath it that this book is being banned in certain places, that city fathers are objecting to its frankness, its 1941 reality. Full well may they deplore its rudeness and shocking immorality, but they cannot disregard its factual evidence. Recently I met one of the brighter movie stars and I asked him what film people thought of the novel. He whispered his reply: "All Hollywood is reading the Schulberg book and admitting its truth—behind closed doors." (p. 163)

Philip T. Hartung, in Commonweal (copyright © 1941 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 6, 1941.

["The Harder They Fall"] is very cleverly written and at all times is brilliant, witty, and amusing. As a reflector of the prize-ring gentry, it is far more accurate than most modern writers have been in their numerous works on the subject. With all its cynicism, humor, and wit, it still contains enough pathos to equal Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," and it has the practicability of "Fifty Grand."…

It is a vulgar book about vulgar people, but the vulgarity of this book is highly amusing, and I confess that I did not get the full significance of its gems of wit and sustained amusement until the second reading. However, in my opinion, the story, good though it is, unfairly presents the boxing writers from coast-to-coast as a group of unimaginative stooges waiting for news hand-outs and free drinks. This is a criticism of the story not necessarily made in their defense. They are able to defend themselves. (p. 9)

Like "Cashel Byron's Profession," which was a vehicle for expounding the social reforms of the twenty-four-year-old Shaw, "The Harder They Fall" is a vehicle employed by Mr. Schulberg to bring about reforms and possibly shatter what might seem to him romantic foibles. (p. 10)

Gene Tunney, "Carneravorous Fight Racketeers," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1947 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 9, 1947, pp. 9-10.

Budd Schulberg has already had uncommon success with his first two novels, and "The Disenchanted," his third, is not going to lose him any readers. For this is the story of a famous writer's crack-up, the death of a talent, the final days in the life of a man called Manley Halliday, whom rumor had it, before ever I picked up the book, bore a remarkable resemblance to F. Scott Fitzgerald….

"Is this novel about Fitzgerald?" The question will be asked by many readers, in spite of Mr. Schulberg's borrowed admonition from Henry James ("… let us have as little as possible about it's 'being' Mr. This or Mrs. That"), and it is a reasonable one, for depending on the answer is, to a large extent, the manner in which he will react to the book. I guess there's little doubt that many of the incidents involving Halliday are based, loosely at least, on certain events in Fitzgerald's life, enough to remind one fairly constantly of that tragic writer. To say more than this would be entirely unfair to the memory of Fitzgerald. But the fact in itself is enough to give the story a poignance beyond that supplied by the inherent qualities of the writing….

The book … has a strangely disjointed effect upon one. You believe on one level and disbelieve on another. Part of this may be due to Mr. Schulberg's failure to convince you of Halliday's past greatness. You almost never see him as the craftsman, the perceptive observer of his society and his time, the serious workman he would have had to be in order to make so deep and lasting an impression on a public. The celebrity aspect is covered, but not the artist, certainly not enough to create full belief. The fall of Halliday seems more pathetic than tragic. For we lack, in the book, the necessary insight with which to comprehend it.

I have the feeling that it is the magnitude of the project, perhaps too large for a man of Mr. Schulberg's talents and experience, which has, in the long run, defeated him. Glenway Wescott, in an essay on Fitzgerald written some ten years ago, had given the warning: "He was our darling, our genius, our fool. Let the young people consider his untypical case with admiration, but great caution …" (p. 11)

Hollis Alpert, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1950 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 28, 1950.

"The Disenchanted" is entirely readable. The prose is unpretentious, tight, and swift. It penetrates no depths, but in the Hollywood scenes, at least, a bright surface was all that was intended. (pp. 487-88)

Yet "The Disenchanted" is not a successful novel. "I think that's what real literature should be," Mr. Schulberg has his only partially naive young man say at one point, "entertaining and convincing as contemporary reporting and yet with overtones of interpretation." Whether or not the author is speaking here, this plausible doctrine sums up in great part the effect of his book. It is entertaining and convincing as contemporary reporting—that is, its surfaces convince. It has no overtones, only a spate of fugitive generalizations about the artist and America, about Hollywood and the artist, about the literature of the twenties versus the literature of the thirties, about Life, and so on, as the dialogue flows hither and thither. Their soundness or unsoundness is not relevant to the fiction. (They read, however, like a mishmash of pseudo-anthropology, pseudo-sociology, and pseudo-history, the sort of easy and momentarily arresting culture-analysis that has been fashionable of late.) But it is to the point that they are merely attached to the characters and the plot. "Attached," for any one of these profundities might have been uttered by any one of the central characters—the producer-villain excepted.

The result is one of those novels which are eagerly read for information: to find out what life in Hollywood is like, or what the Jazz Age was like, or what it feels like to be a has been. All these inquiries and many more are duly answered, for "The Disenchanted" is crowded with gossipcolumn information. But the characters, except for a few Hollywood and Ivy League stereotypes, are obscured in a cloud of explanations, labels, and deft verbalizations of external detail which, whatever their value as comments on American culture, are no meaningful re-creation of Manley Halliday and his defeat. (p. 488)

Ernest Jones, "Defeat of an Artist," in The Nation (copyright 1950 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 25, 1950, pp. 487-88.

Sanctuary V is about political asylum in the same way that Nineteen Eighty-Four is about working in a future propaganda ministry. Schulberg uses Justo's ordeal as a vehicle for studying the significance and moral values of Castrostyle Latin American revolution. (p. 6)

Sanctuary V is an intelligent, humanistic examination of Cuban-style revolution as well as a vivid portrayal of deterioration in captivity. In some passages Schulberg matches Orwell's eye for the grubby details of oppression and imprisonment….

But the novel doesn't come up to some of Schulberg's previous performances. Beneath the Latin setting with its special problems, Schulberg is dealing with a favorite theme, the conflict between the sensitive, ethical man of thought and the brutal, immoral man of action. The major difference is that where the social contributions of Sammy Glick and Lonesome Rhodes were altogether negative, Angel Bello, monster and fraud, also appears to be a necessary—perhaps even valuable—man. Neither the oppressiveness of diplomatic sanctuary nor the wickedness of Angel Bello is sufficient to invoke the moral indignation that gave What Makes Sammy Run, Waterfront or the screenplay A Face in the Crowd their impact. But this combination of suspense novel and novel of political ideas offers entertainment and a fairminded look at Latin revolutionary politics. (p. 7)

Robert J. Shea, "Victim of a Revolution," in Book World (© The Washington Post), January 18, 1970, pp. 6-7.

I do not suspect Schulberg of trying to make a gang of money by plucking off a politically ripe topic. Still, the locale of [Sanctuary V]—a fictionalized Cuba—presents one of those readymade topics that attract the fictioneers who write for profit only….

The rampant dishonesty, the weird mixed-bag of co-asylees, the petty pecking order, and above all the heavy hands of the clock as they try to move a bureaucratic and diplomatic clockworks make the best part of the book, or at least the most interesting, for in sanctuary we meet a rare collection of oddballs who probably would—in any real world—incur the wrath of a tyrant. (p. 29)

[Remember, though,] that we are talking about Budd Schulberg, a good and honest—if sometimes a bit hokey—writer who has never before attempted to pass off something slick.

Think back on What Makes Sammy Run, read it now and see that even though many lines stick out in all the wrong directions it is still a good good book that tells a true and moving story about a credible, vibrant being. And remember the other books and films, right up to and including the Watts anthology with its self-conscious yet appealing introduction. And remember the idea, at least that of On the Waterfront—and all the other things that this man has written that combine to shout out: I CARE. And he did, and does; but this book doesn't succeed in getting that message across because the shout is too loud and obvious, and we finally begin to wonder about it. (p. 30)

John Greenya, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 7, 1970.

It was widely accepted at the time The Disenchanted was first published that the novel's hero, Manley Halliday, was F. Scott Fitzgerald drawn directly from life, though Schulberg has since declared that Halliday was a "composite of all the walking wounded novelists and playwrights I had been observing through my years of growing up in Hollywood." And no doubt this was true, for the Halliday of The Disenchanted lacks something of the charm and wit that always seems to come through in portraits of Fitzgerald by his biographers and in memoirs by his contemporaries.

But reviewers and readers could hardly be blamed for seeing Fitzgerald in Halliday, for the circumstances of the two matched, item for item, almost precisely. And the action of The Disenchanted is based directly on an actual episode involving Fitzgerald and Schulberg about which Schulberg had written in an essay some years before….

The Disenchanted is a fine, honest, solid novel, one that is deeply respectful of its hero and treats the writer's vocation with a dignity and seriousness that is very rare in novels today. If you want to know how writers used to think about their work before Norman Mailer started appearing on television, then you can find out right here. Occasionally, too, there are flashes of real brilliance in the book. The dialogue flows on and on marvelously well, giving a sense of actuality to every scene and sequence. However, the quality of the narrative prose is not quite as good as I remembered it—a little thicker, a bit less supple than I would have liked. In this, however, Schulberg suffers because the nature of this novel is such that it urges comparison to Fitzgerald's own work—and no writer in America wrote more gracefully than Fitzgerald when he was in his best form. Such a comparison is, of course, patently unfair.

And "unfair" may be your word for this sort of change-the-names-and-tell-it-as-it-happened approach to fiction. Or does "improper" suit you better? But wait. Before you take offense in loving memory of poor Fitzgerald, you should know that he himself borrowed heavily on Budd Schulberg's background and experiences to create the narrator of his own Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. "All writers are leeches," Fitzgerald said then. "They fatten on other people's blood." (p. 4)

Bruce Cook, "Shock of Recognition," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 2, 1975, pp. 1, 4.