Calder Willingham Essay - Critical Essays

Willingham, Calder

Willingham, Calder 1922–

Willingham is a Southern American novelist and screenwriter. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Reach to the Stars, which concerns Dick Davenport, the youthful would-be writer working as a bellboy in a hotel near Hollywood, has no actual plot; instead the book consists of a series of fragmented scenes, jumbled as to chronological development, in which are depicted a variety of eccentric hotel guests and employees; and interwoven are some mock versions of Science Fiction stories, plus a number of letters written to and by Davenport. Reach to the Stars is apparently nothing more, except that the contents are extremely funny. Nothing profound, seemingly, has been "said" about the spiritual dilemmas of Twentieth Century Man. Curiously enough, however, this seeming triviality of artistic intention—the presenting of a series of comic events that do not appear to have any particular point—is really the measure of Willingham's tremendous achievement.

The significance of his writing becomes more evident if one sees it in relation to the general pattern of American fiction. For instance, Willingham's early novels center on a quest theme, and the quest motif essentially characterizes the traditional American novel. The quest is customarily a search for some kind of self-transformation: either through experience with the natural elements (the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn, of powerful sea creatures in Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea) or various social orders (Europe with the expatriates of James and Hemingway, or America itself for Thomas Wolfe's wandering protagonists and Fitzgerald's Gatsby). Distinctive about this quest format in Willingham's novels is the lack of a sense of ultimate purpose. (pp. 58-9)

[Willingham's first five novels] are masterful comic achievements, distinguished as well by having brought new life to American fiction by altering its basic themes and manner of presentation—anticipating the later "Black Humorists." Willingham seemed to sense the kind of world coming into being, what David Reisman described in the 1950's as the other-directed society, and what Marshall McLuhan now calls a global village. Willingham worked out from his awareness a suitable way of dealing with that world in fiction. Since the traditional novel involving some heroic individual (Reisman's inner-directed man, or McLuhan's linear-Renaissance type of man) engaged in a quest for near-magical self-transformation was evidently finished (no realistic basis for it existing in reality), Willingham offered instead a kind of mock quest series of situations: quests leading nowhere, except possibly toward marriage—which is what George, to his dismay, finds in Natural Child. Otherwise, everything—man's experience and his inner life, which could be affected only by Hollywood movies and "bug eyed monster" Science Fiction stories—was simply ridiculous. (pp. 60-1)

[In] the 1950's the serious novel in America virtually collapsed. Not only Willingham seemed to have nothing further to say; his contemporaries also experienced a prolonged state of muteness. Realization seemed to be that the traditional novel form, centered on the myth of the solitary individual seeking out some wondrous personal destiny, could no longer continue. Of course, Willingham had already managed to achieve considerable success through such a realization, but apparently his own special fictional milieu was unable to sustain him any further.

Some new conception of fiction had to emerge if the novel was to continue as a significant literary form. (Fiction would have to change, since society obviously was not going to. In fact, the other-directed trends noted by Reisman were becoming more and more pronounced. McLuhan, in preference to his earlier term "global village," now describes the world as a global theatre, where what matters are social performance and the communal arts: an excellent situation for movies, folk singing, and mixed media happenings, but a very grim one for the individually addressed written word.) What did emerge was Black Humor, accompanied by varying shades of Gray: a great wave of novels and stories by such writers as Joseph Heller, John Barth, Terry Southern, Bruce Jay Friedman, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon, closely modelled on early Willingham in their dealing with an absurd lack of pattern in life, but usually fiercer in tone. Then came Willingham's own contribution to this genre, Eternal Fire, a diabolically explosive fantasy set in the South of the 1930's—a work of such startling dramatic impact that, by comparison, his previous writings seem almost as gently soothing as the White Humor of P. G. Wodehouse or Thorne Smith. (pp. 61-2)

Eternal Fire is not simply an S. J. Perelman-like parody [of the Southern novel], but rather an ironic depiction of material that is customarily tragic. The black shadows of Gothic despair and decay have been exposed to the brilliant sunlight of Willingham's imagination and thus vanish from view. The usual guilt-ridden Southern novel, represented by, say, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote, has therefore been replaced by a new sort of Southern novel: one in which there are no absolutes of good and evil, but instead one in which there is an intermediate moral milieu filled with sardonic laughter…. Unlike his early novels, this novel has a definite story line, worthy of being compared to that of any other American novel for spellbinding appeal. As to why Willingham altered his fictional methods, the most obvious reason would be that he wishes to strengthen the nature of his artistic vision: instead of dealing with a fragmented society, he is concerned now with exploring a more fully realized fictional world, one of logical sequence, which is what is implied by a chronological plot development. At the same time, Eternal Fire resembles the earlier novels in its constantly unfolding series of ironies. Aside from narrative structure, another major difference is that Willingham has abandoned a real-life frame of reference (largely autobiographical, one might assume) in favor of an obviously make-believe tableau, more than likely to give free rein to his imaginative speculations about whatever reality lies beyond the ostensible real world. In other words, he is moving away from a social framework of McLuhanesque surface events to develop his own comic-demonic version of human experience.

Eternal Fire would thus appear to be a logical conclusion to the problem posed by all his earlier novels. Essentially what these novels concerned was the dilemma of the modern artist: how to find a meaning to life in a society that presented no discernible unifying pattern. Willingham's various young heroes were usually from the South, and were usually writers—or they wanted to write but could find nothing in their travels that would give them the necessary insight or sense of artistic purpose. With Eternal Fire, however, set as it is in the South and with a solidly established social framework, the suggestion is that the quest of Willingham's wandering artists has been fulfilled: they have returned to the land from which the wanderers had originally come, a spoiled Eden which is nonetheless a setting far richer in spiritual possibilities than anything encountered by Dick Davenport and all the others.

Willingham's [more] recent novel, Providence Island, lacks his usual impact, perhaps because the basic conception (a Madison Avenue television executive stranded on a desert island with two young women) is all wrong for him. The usual Willingham approach is along the lines of an ironic anti-myth: in the early novels he dealt with an anti-quest myth, and then in Eternal Fire he reversed the traditional myth of Southern novels. But leaving aside the debatable merits of Providence Island, one notices only one disturbing drawback to Calder Willingham's splendid list of achievements—a series of delightful models of how modern American fiction should be conceived and carried out; and that drawback is that they have not received the respect due them. Such disregard of literary distinction may perhaps represent one more irony of our times, a grim joke Willingham could certainly understand if not fully appreciate. (pp. 63-5)

J. L. Parr, "Calder Willingham: The Forgotten Novelist," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1969), Vol. XI, No. 3, 1969, pp. 57-65.

Calder Willingham's more knowing admirers may find the notion difficult to believe, but it would seem that he had rather serious things in mind when he began [Rambling Rose], his eighth and in many ways his best novel. It is a fictional memoir of his small-town boyhood in the deep South during the Depression, written "with love and continuing affection and bitter-sweet nostalgia for days long ago," but it is no exercise in sentimentality….

Rambling Rose is, as Willingham says in a funny "Necessary Note to the Reader," "unlike others I have written." That is because it is distinctly autobiographical and strongly motivated by nostalgia, qualities that give it a depth of feeling not always evident in his fiction. But the old antic spirit is there as well, the "pure sheer mischief" that has made Willingham one of our most irreverent and perceptive satirists. Each new Willingham novel is cause for laughter and celebration, so as we laugh let us celebrate Rambling Rose.

Jonathan Yardley, "Cause for Laughter and Celebration," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 29, 1972, p. 6.

Funny, inventive, boisterously dirty, cunningly crafted as it sometimes is, the dark nightside of ["The Big Nickel"] is essentially superior vaudeville—fine, clever clowning of an improvisional order, one good turn creating the terms and conditions of the next, a set-piece preparing the way for its successor, each tall tale providing possibilities for taller ones. While the joke lasts, it is cracking good.

It lasts a surprisingly long while, but not long enough. Willingham himself appears to tire of it before it is over….

And suddenly we are pitched onto another plane—no gradations, no steady descent, a violent catapult from comic pornographic fantasy (I say this with respect and admiration: Willingham is one of a handful of American virtuosi of pornography, and if anyone supposes that is a mean art let him count fingers against those reeking multitudes of pretenders)….

To say "The Big Nickel" is about art and life, success and failure, experience and imagination would be stretching the point past breaking: and to conclude as Davenport [the protagonist] does, and Willingham may, in a vertiginous lapse into homely sentimentality, that "one smile from a living and breathing human being was worth more than all the works of civilization" and that it is "in the service of that smile that those whose works existed" is entirely beside the point—beyond the life and energy of the novel, though it is one way out of it, the easy, ingratiating, popular way, which is no more available to serious novelists than to Presidents of all the people. One doesn't want to be unfair: Willingham's gifts are various, rich, prodigal; the novel is eminently "worth" reading for the simple pleasures it gives, never mind the "human condition", but it is a "brilliant," "promising," fitful, unresolved … novel…. (p. 12)

Saul Maloff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.

Willingham … is not an especially "serious" novelist, despite occasional lapses into Deep Meaning; his plots, to use a favorite Willingham verb, tend to ramble; his penchant for self-indulgence is considerable. He is, however, one of the most skilled, observant and purely funny satirists of the postwar generation. He took on, in Eternal Fire, every creaking convention of Southern gothic and destroyed the genre in a storm of laughter. In Providence Island, he took on both the "sex novel" and middle-class sex obsession, with similar results. In his screenplay for The Graduate, he had equal success demolishing the affluent society and its array of pretensions.

Even at his least successful, Willingham is fun to read—which is about all that can be said on behalf of The Big Nickel. There are a lot of entertaining passages in it, and one or two that Willingham nuts doubtless will want to read aloud when the impious spirit moves them, but a collection of occasional good moments does not a good novel make. The Big Nickel is barely coherent structurally, its characters sustain only marginal interest, and its conclusion is oddly sentimental.

Perhaps the problem is that Willingham is too consciously preoccupied here with theme—in this case, the theme of early success and the burdens it imposes on American writers. It is a solid, important theme … [but] Willingham doesn't seem to know quite what to do with it….

But if The Big Nickel fails as a work of fiction, it still contains enough of those marvelous Willingham moments to keep admirers happy. (p. 24)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 5, 1975.