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Elliott Baker

Elliott Baker Essay - Critical Essays

Baker, Elliott

Baker, Elliott 1922–

Baker is an American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His first novel, A Fine Madness, is considered his best. A rebellious farce, it shares certain characteristics with the novels of Heller and Kesey. Baker has subsequently written other novels, but none has received the critical acclaim of the first novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Elliott Baker's first novel, A Fine Madness (1964), is a good example of the failure of much post-World War II American fiction to achieve artistic success. Whether or not this novel belongs to the category of black humor (if that is indeed a category) is of no real importance. But it does reflect the recent interest in the picaresque anti-hero whose misadventures in various aspects of American life are intended as a comment on that life and on the possibilities of a genuinely human existence in our time….

In the first sentence of the novel, the beginning of a poem appears in [the protagonist's] mind—a poem which is completed finally on the last page. During the novel, Samson accumulates the parts of this poem in bits and pieces. So the central action concerns Samson's recovery of his creative imagination in the face of all obstacles, including himself. (p. 71)

The examples of [Samson's] irresponsibility, his amorality, his cruelty, and his failures could be [expounded at length], but the point is clear: Samson is a representative of one of the mythic poetic types of the last hundred or so years—the literary bohemian who lives only in the holiness of the imagination. So his madness, if it is a madness, is a fine madness, as the title indicates. And the value for which Samson stands is the measure of all other values and people in the book.

The only counterpoise of any significance to Samson is Dr. Oliver Wren, a psychoanalyst…. [Dr. Wren] is committed to his own field as Samson is committed to poetry. For him the psychiatrist as scientist is the true pioneer, as for Samson the poet serves this function. Oliver is interested in particular in the study of genius and of evil, and he thinks that the psychiatrist may "hold the only possible existing key to genius and evil."…

Baker's choice of a psychoanalyst as Samson's main antagonist is more than accidental. As far as Samson is concerned, of course, all of society, from his former wife to literary critics, is out to destroy his poetic talent. But for him psychiatrists embody in a very concrete way the extent to which society seeks to probe and compel the mind of all those who violate its conventions…. [The] choice of psychiatry as embodied in Oliver is doubly appropriate: it is something that Samson dislikes, and it stands not only for science but for rationalistic humanism as well. (p. 73)

Samson draws the line of battle in terms of long familiar opposites: thought against feeling, reason against imagination, science against poetry, the real against the ideal. These pairs are, of course, some of the standard terms in a cultural debate at least as old as the Romantic movement of late eighteenth-century Europe. And it is a debate which … is still very much alive….

Baker has established a conflict of great potential interest. These two men, each personally complex, each representative of a view of life at war with the other, could provide a lively and illuminating conflict. (p. 74)

But Baker is either unwilling or unable to sustain this beginning. Probably he never intended to attempt anything other than what he has done. Unfortunately, what he does turns potential originality into the rather ordinary story of the rebellious poet against a hostile, anti-poetic world, the whole spiced with enough wit to sustain interest. The tone of the book definitely favors Samson. And to say that most of what he does is destructive either to himself or to others is to miss the point that this destructive quality is of the essence of the truly creative process. Were Samson of such a mind, he thinks, he could destroy much of society with the simple force of his creative energy…. (p. 75)

Thus, when Samson seduces someone's wife, buys a camera without money to pay for it and gives a false address, lies to his boss, and causes a riot at the ladies club meeting, we are to understand that these and other deliberate floutings of any conventional moral sense are the inevitable (and hence genuinely moral) results of the contact between Samson's disruptive creative genius and society. And when Oliver proves finally unable to equal Samson; when Samson seduces Oliver's conveniently bored wife, Lydia; and when, with the connivance of Oliver, Samson is turned over to Dr. Massey to have a lobotomy, we are clearly to understand that Samson has won over Oliver. But he has won without a contest. For the farcical events of Samson's admission to Para Park (a sanitarium in Connecticut), his seduction of Oliver's wife, and the moral capitulation of Oliver to the opportunity for revenge on Samson, are not really a development of the conflict between Samson and Oliver. No conflict has occurred. It has been abandoned for the sake, apparently, of giving Samson an unearned victory. And once Oliver capitulates, there is no one left but a gallery of caricatures; Dr. Kropotkin, the easily seduced female psychiatrist at Para Park; Dr. Voegler, a lecherous oldtime orthodox Freudian, whose pet interest is what he calls the phallus thaumaturgist; Dr. Massey, the psychosurgeon who wants desperately to prove that schizophrenia is tractable to lobotomy; and X. O. Waterfall, the fastidious and pedantic poet-critic from Princeton who pronounces Samson no poet at all, not even a minor one. Samson emerges battered and bruised from the combined assault of all these and other enemies. But he is unbowed, and his personality and imagination, unaffected by the surgery, remain apparently beyond the reach of an evil society.

Such a conclusion should, presumably, be comforting. For the novel tells us that the most creatively vital part of a chosen few will always remain beyond culture, even if this chosen few necessarily despises its less fortunate contemporaries. But an important question remains: not a question of the rightness or appropriateness of Samson's victory, but of the imaginative realization of that victory. Baker has achieved neither the potential complexity in the character and conflict of Samson and Oliver nor a genuine social setting in which character and conflict can develop. We have instead simply moral Samson and immoral society—or rather, poetic Samson and unpoetic society. We are told that Samson is a great poetic spirit but not really shown why. We are told that the society he opposes is corrupt and uncreative, but we see only a group of caricatures as proof. We are asked to believe that Samson's creative energy can defeat all obstacles, but we are not allowed to witness the struggle between Samson and Oliver in a way which does imaginative justice to both sides. (pp. 75-6)

[The] view of life embodied in Samson is not only Baker's but also that of a whole literary generation, from the early 1950's to the present. It is a view which affirms the value of the spontaneous, the instinctual, the anti-intellectual, and the imaginative against the destructive and coercive forces of society. From this point of view, Baker's novel becomes almost a literary cliché or a thinly disguised sermon which indicts society and shows the only way to salvation in the person of Samson. Again, what is wrong is not the indictment or the way to salvation but the failure to earn either through an imaginatively adequate conflict. (p. 77)

A Fine Madness demonstrates the limitations of the novel of personal formula quite clearly: a withdrawal of imaginative sympathy from the reality of those persons and institutions which fall outside the sympathy of the author. The result is a resolution by manipulation and trickery, not by the natural interaction of the characters on each other. With its own brand of romantic primitivism, indeed, A Fine Madness reveals the incapacity of such a view of human conflict in the novel to represent adequately the moral ambiguity of that conflict and to avoid such trickery. But it also shows the existence of good fictional material, which a novelist of Baker's obvious talent should be able to turn to good account. (p. 78)

Richard W. Noland, "Lunacy and Poetry: Elliott Baker's 'A Fine Madness'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by the Bollingbroke Society, Inc. 1966), Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1966, pp. 71-80.

When it comes to American authors writing about nervy, basically serious adolescent boys, the line, as they say, forms on the right. J. D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Charles Webb; a host of lesser names would swell the list. Now Elliott Baker brings us his version of troubled youngmanhood—1939 version—in the shape of Tyler Bishop [in The Penny Wars]. To be fair to Mr. Baker, who often writes extremely well and never less than adequately, any close comparisons between Tyler and Holden Caulfield et al. would be fruitless; in that respect, he has borrowed nothing. The way in which the novel is organized, however, is undeniably familiar: a serious base (the discovery that the world is not such a nice place, that life is not so easy) with a somewhat farcical topping (making use of adolescent confusions, cumbersome virginity and so on).

The book is episodic, a technique which provides Mr. Baker with an opportunity to create incidents that stick in the mind like a good anecdote: the pompous Dr. Axelrod, for example, loathed by Tyler but favoured by Tyler's recently widowed mother, berates an audience in a rundown cinema for laughing at a caricature of life in Nazi Germany; "What about Leibniz?" he bellows, "What about Goethe?" Cameos like this are most often used to get laughs—Tyler's attempt at seduction is a successful instance—but Mr. Baker can use the method to other ends with equal success, and the book ends on a note of violence which is all the more effective for being unexpected. (p. 39)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 8, 1970.

["Pocock & Pitt"] is dangerously funny, whatever else it may not be….

The actual narrative line twists and doubles back on itself—with enough surprises and reversals to dazzle the most jaded reader.

Despite these surprises and reversals—and despite the presence of Super-Agents—do not think this is a detective story or spy thriller. Not at all. No Agatha Christie or Georges Simenon or S. S. Van Dyne or even Graham Greene (Greene's "entertainments" being, as everybody is aware, nothing but very fine detective stories) could have written such a book as "Pocock & Pitt." To do what Baker has done here requires a highly refined sense of the ludicrous, the blackest kind of insight into what makes man the comic and tragic creature he is, a mind that often hovers between reality and fantasy, and the willingness (one wants to say courage) to follow where fantasy takes him. The readers of Baker's first two books ("A Fine Madness" and "The Penny Wars") know that if he is to be compared to other writers, he must be put into the demented, brilliant company of such men as J. P. Donleavy and Joseph Heller.

Now, after all those roses, may I throw a gentle brick? If I could, I'd like to ask Mr. Baker why he felt it necessary to bring in all the spy stuff. Yes, yes, I know its funny. I know it provides the opportunity for that intricate and exceedingly clever plot line. I know that it is high farce and satire on the whole Secret Agent thing. But I also know that what makes this book memorable is Wendell Pocock, alias Winston Pitt. No spies enter the book for the first 85 pages. For all of Part I, Wendell has it by himself. And God knows he's enough.

We see him dying in America. We see his terrible wife, his terrible children, his failed dreams of education and making something useful of his life. He is a wonder. He is excruciatingly alive. Then the opportunity comes to desert, to leave America, to quit his awful job, to do some of what is in him to do. He takes the opportunity and we participate in his rejuvenation. When he finds freedom, his heart grows stronger. When he gets the chance to do something useful, it gives him the strength to act and to live again.

What I'm getting at is that Wendell Pocock holds this book together. He is the book. And the business of the spies and the complicated plot only serve to weaken his hold on our hearts. I was genuinely moved by him and his plight, and I was just sorry as hell that he had to haul around all that extra "entertainment."

Even so, I feel that Wendell Pocock will remain in my memory as long as, say, Major Scobie or Hazel Motes or Miss Lonelyhearts. And that's saying something.

Harry Crews, "For Elliott Baker, Roses and One Brick," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1971, p. 2.

It is not easy to describe what happens in Pocock & Pitt because the action is so involute, the turnings so strange and surprising. Yet all of the incidents have been prepared for in some way, are made to seem almost logical, leading like crooked corridors into other crooked corridors. One has the impression of a structured novel about the unstructured, disheveled, unreasonable world with which Pocock attempts to cope…. Pocock & Pitt, which assimilates a combination of elements as unlikely as Henry James's The Ambassadors and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, is essentially a cultural fairy tale, raising the question Can man survive as a human entity in an antihuman world he himself has created?

The best passages in Pocock & Pitt are those where reality lurches toward nightmare—moments when the reader is shocked into a recognition of the grotesque underside of reality. Yet, despite a gift for seeing life as a fine madness, Baker has not written a perfect novel. Too much of it depends on facility—on surprising twists of plot and a kind of farce that seems too easy to do. The central figure, Wendell Pocock, is treated as a foil, and the minor characters are all manipulated for whatever bit of tragic farce can be squeezed from them. The elaborate business of the espionage agents who leave a rose or (in the case of the American) a Tootsie Roll, as calling cards on the broken bodies of their victims is amusing, perhaps, as a burlesque of Ian Fleming; but in the meantime Baker's serious theme has evaporated. Baker seems unsure of what kind of novel he is writing. His vision of contemporary bleakness is conveyed with authority only intermittently in Pocock & Pitt; the rest of the book is devoted to a facile giddiness. (pp. 62, 69)

Emmet Long, in Saturday Review (© 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 16, 1971.

Mr. Baker's rue-laden stories [in Unrequited Loves] draw heavily on the memoirist in him…. If Mr. Baker has a trouble it is in the peculiar nature of his authority, an ironic intrusiveness that persists throughout the style here, and usually not to the advantage of the narrative. Still, it is a fault born of confidence, and on the whole that confidence is justified, for Mr. Baker is, in addition to being something of a didact, an inordinately witty writer. Two tensely wrought stories, "Celia" and "The Portrait of Diana Prochnik," are, each in its chilling way, emblems of the author's capacity for rendering the simultaneous nature of human experience. It is a sensibility capable of recording the seaminess, the pleasure, the embarrassment of any given moment and of appearing to do so, moreover, all at the same time. It is no small capacity, and Mr. Baker's collection of stories is no small achievement…. (p. 28)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (© 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 23, 1974.