Harvey Swados Essay - Critical Essays

Swados, Harvey

Swados, Harvey 1920–1972

Swados was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)

Swados is especially adept at short, incisive descriptions of people, a talent which is best exploited in On The Line. What is even a rarer talent is his ability at catching the spirit of a particular place in a particular time. Thus the Felton family is seen as rooted in contemporary, urban America, and, as the novel progresses, we begin to understand how their haunted lives, in many ways, tells us about ours. While Out Went The Candle is a powerful work, it suffers, at times, from ever shifting points of view, for often the transitions are rough. Unfortunately Swados has also seen fit to lace his tale with a number of super-obvious coincidences. And, most troublesome of all, the Lear equals Felton equation becomes too much of a literary cryptogram, a gimmick rather than an artistic device….

Swados, in a number of important articles, has shown his understanding for the problems of the industrial laborer; and in On The Line he extends this compassion. Not since Upton Sinclair's The Jungle have we had such a direct, steady look at the worker's world, one of hard dullness, continual pressures, and very little satisfaction. (pp. 188-89)

References to The Brothers Karamazov abound [in The Will], enough to offer hours of pleasure to the PMLA boys, but the horror of the suffering is more akin to, say, Saltykov-Schedrin's The Golovlovs. While the Swados book is a noble and often successful experiment, none of the characters [is] as well realized as Herman Felton, and not one is as successful as several of the figures who featured in Swados' shorter fictional pieces. What is splendid in The Will is the intelligence behind the narration and the quality of the structure. (pp. 190-91)

A good deal of Swados' most effective work appears in his stories, a genre in which he takes chances and more often than not succeeds in making art out of his severe social criticism. While he failed, in False Coin, to effectively depict the artist as he is spoiled by American life, this important theme does succeed in "The Man in the Toolhouse" and "The Dancer" (Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn)…, two stories which are strikingly different in concept. (p. 191)

Keenly aware of the social realities of today, Swados, as a splendid and imaginative creative artist is well equipped to transform these realities into fiction, a fiction that will give the lie to all who so patronizingly announce that the novel of social criticism is dying. (p. 192)

Charles Shapiro, "Harvey Swados: Private Stories and Public Fiction," in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore (copyright © 1964, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 182-92.

"Celebration" is Mr. Samuel Lumen's planet, an 89-year-old man's journal entries, resembling the "short views" of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler. "Inhumanly deified" for his long history of commitments to radical political causes and child welfare, Lumen lives in carefully managed repose. When memories and an insistent present disturb his packaged peace, Lumen begins a journal to explain to himself—perhaps to others—why the private man makes the public statue scream in the night. That journal, with almost daily entries, extends from April to September of 1975, from doubt to desperation and finally to a celebration as moving as Sammler's "we know, we know, we know."…

[Eventually, Lumen addresses] those questions Swados so often measured in his essays: How can radical ideas best be adapted to present circumstances? What is the proper use of personal and cultural authority? Where do the unique individual and the group action, private history and public work, best meet?

Swados's achievement is to gather these into one question: Does one celebrate American life in ritual or liberation?…

Sam Lumen wants to know if his past will allow him to celebrate at all. Ultimately, none of the alternatives is as important as the celebration of truth that is the journal itself. Realizing, like Eliot's "Gerontion," that "Unnatural vices/Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues/Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes," Lumen resists both the temptations of phony marble immortality and of phony youthful gesture. With a Whitmanian embracing of contradictions, Lumen celebrates himself, soiled but free. In the end, near his end, Sam Lumen begins: "No more explanations. It no longer matters to me what kind of figure I will cut for posterity. Posterity is here. Hello, from this old boy! Take it away!"

Swados avoids sentimentality by making Lumen earn his celebration; his test is understanding the ironies of living long. Sam has been a public man concerned with the future of others but he learns that the past is most real and, from Jung, that "only what is interior has proved to have substance."…

Although fable-like in its outlines, "Celebration" is longer than it needs to be. The journal form gives Swados an intellectually interesting voice, but it also introduces too much trivia, leads to artificial delays of information, and lets Sam include too many dreams. There is nothing drearier in fiction than a dream—unless it's the dreamer's interpretation. The question of how Sam Lumen will be used is also overdeveloped, perhaps because of the slow progress of the journal, perhaps for an unneeded suspense. However, despite the undue complications and quotidian fullness, the reader's after-image is not of a set of details but of a man thinking, both devouring and creating himself. While Sam Lumen purifies his life, the reader does so too by setting aside the verisimilitude necessary for life but not for fiction.

Readers who know all of Swados's novels may find "Celebration" his best, his most artful. While his essays were appreciated for their lucidity, passion and understanding of mass culture, his novels elicited artistic objections: old-fashioned, diffuse, linguistically impoverished. The language of "Celebration" remains analytical, rather than presentational, and the journal form leads to technical weaknesses, but the novel has qualities that suggest Swados may have been moving toward a different kind of fiction. His concentration of social themes into metaphor, his attention to subtleties of character rather than ideology, and his creation of an ironic complexity are signs of an intensive fiction more like his best stories than "Standing Fast." These qualities do not make "Celebration" a great novel, but they do combine with the perfect Swados persona—an educator and man of conscience—to demonstrate his considerable humane skills.

Josef Pieper has said that to celebrate means "to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole." Sam Lumen achieves this assent at the end of his journal. It's something Harvey Swados knew all along. (p. 4)

Thomas LeClair, in The New York times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 9, 1975.

Harvey Swados uses lines from Neruda as an epigraph to his last novel: "I have lived so much that someday/they will have to forget me forcibly,/rubbing me off the blackboard. My heart was inexhaustible."…

Celebration is a wonderfully serene novel. It accepts the conflict of generations as an inevitable fact of life; it acknowledges the need for liberation of fathers and sons. It refuses to flee from political, sexual and educational strife. It is an appropriate testament—not only to Lumen [the protagonist] but to Swados himself….

Irving Malin, "Posterity Now," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 22, 1975, p. 27.

Celebration [is] complex…. Most of the complexity makes for richness of concept, luxury of emotion: Generation conflict. Self-analysis in the classic Freudian context of pleasure and ego gratification. The difference between intelligence and wisdom. The passage of the myth as reality. The confusion of sex and love. Some of the complexity, however, cannot support its weight, for the characters and events of Celebration often miss the necessary conviction that this is how it had to be, there could be no other way. Despite an uncomfortable vagueness about his educational contributions, Sam Lumen [the protagonist] does live. He has space and time. The other characters of Celebration behave like ideas about characters. Perhaps the problem lies in their presentation through a diary. Or maybe in their conception as representatives of social attitudes—Sarah Lawrence liberalism, the inevitable conservatism of the power elite, naive youth in pointless revolt. And the seemingly endless comings and goings of Lumen's diary … do not take us deeper into the characters, but further from them….

Heir to the social novelists of the 1930s, cultural historian to radicalisms and upheaval, [Swados] seems to have been trying to put everything he knew into his last novel. What he knew most about—or tells us most about in this didactic fiction—was the terrible price a man must pay in human relationships to leave even a modest imprint on the world. And then, having made the imprint, to realize in time that he is alone and must seek self-preservation….

Swados seeks the bitterness of aging, the crookedness of achievement and the mysteries of personal and social change in Celebrations. He reaches enough to engage us. But the themes are great ones calling for, I suppose, the gift of genius. Swados did not have that. He had compassion and skill. Sometimes Celebration is an inspired novel. Usually it's a good one. We will remember him for it.

Webster Schott, "The Shrunken Vision," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 23, 1975, p. 3.

Celebration … has the virtues one cherished in Swados' fiction: decency, compassion and a gentle wit. Yet the book suffers from what was always Swados' noble flaw as a novelist: a talent never quite up to the demands he put upon it.

Celebration combines all the elements that should produce readability and substance in fiction. Sam Lumen's secret diary is told in the form of mixed memories, snatches of dreams and unsentimental musing about old age. But the clash of ideas, between old and new radicals, for instance, never reaches higher than Lumen's easy parries of nihilistic rhetoric. Above all, Sam Lumen's eminence is never convincing.

The diary form of the novel sees to this. Lumen is more intent on confessing his frailties than on contemplating the ideas and works that made him famous or the changes and conditions that are about to immortalize an old radical in federal concrete. The evolution of American radicalism was apparently much on Swados' mind when he wrote Celebration. He was a serious man whose leftist politics and social conscience developed during the Depression '30s. Sympathetic members of his own generation and background are likely to fill in the gaps. (p. K11)

R. Z. Sheppard, "September Song," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 24, 1975, pp. K9, K11.

It is no accident that there are so few serious novels about old people. We resist thinking about the very old; indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir has observed, we seem incapable of imagining ourselves old: it is someone else that we imagine in our place. Our novelists, who tend to write from experience, are themselves neither very old nor familiar with the very old, who in our society are usually hustled out of sight.

Furthermore, to write about old people with insight and compassion—as Saul Bellow did in "Mr. Sammler's Planet" and Harvey Swados did in "Celebration"—presents the author with a nasty array of technical problems. His hero will almost surely be in retreat from life, whether through loss of zest or an assortment of incapacities. His memory will fail him. He is likely to be paranoiac, garrulous, obsessed with trivia. He may fall asleep or have to be hurried from the scene just as the action grows heated. Poets and dramatists have an easier job; it is hard to write fiction about old age that is both realistic and interesting.

Swados (who died before this book was published) did not overcome these obstacles, but I salute him for trying. His protagonist, Sam Lumen, is an antique radical, a former pioneer in education, child care and lechery. As his 90th birthday approaches, he begins a diary in which he confides his guilt about his past and his fears that those who love him are trying to use him for their own sordid purposes….

Haunted by his past idealism and weakness, he is unable now to dismiss the puerile demands of the radicals laying siege to him, unable to see that his son is arrogant and cruel. An irritable, unlikable old buzzard, he is redeemed partly by his struggle against fossilization as a living monument and partly by his awareness of his own senility.

And so we have an ambitious, realistic novel, one in which Swados labored mightily to create a convincing old man who constantly observes his own deteriorating physical and mental performance. Denying himself the lengthy flashbacks that John Marquand applied in similar stories, Swados gives us only glimpses of Lumen's past—and no sense at all of his former greatness. We are left, then, with a very long portrait of a tedious man; the portrait, for all its virtues, cannot escape a certain tedium of its own.

Peter S. Prescott, "Antique Radical," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1975, p. 76.

The title of Harvey Swados' posthumous novel, Celebration…, could not have been more fitting. Swados was a man who lived not orgiastically, or even indulgently, but he had the capacity for infusing almost any encounter with a spirit of celebration, and his joy was happily communicable.

He was also the author of serious essays on literature for such periodicals as Partisan Review and New World Writing; contributed political articles, as a self-proclaimed socialist, to Anvil, Monthly Review, and The Nation; was a tough-minded intellectual and hard-muscled man who had served as a merchant seaman and an automobile assembly-line worker and who was deeply committed to both life and letters. (p. 91)

I have to admit that Swados' first three novels, Out Went the Candle, False Coin, and The Will, seemed to me, for all their virtues, to be strained, as if the characters were bowed down beneath the weight of the ideas and themes they were designed to carry. I felt, up to that time, that his most successful fiction was his short story collections, Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn and A Story for Teddy—and Others. The writing in these seemed at once sharper and more relaxed, as if the author, under no constraint to create a masterpiece, was able to be at ease, almost playful, and his prose took on mellow flavor and charm that was missing in the first three novels.

[Despite] the praise for his non-fiction, and sometimes his stories, at the expense of his novels, he still thought of himself first and foremost as a novelist, insisted on being a novelist, gloried in being a novelist—and the world be damned.

And so, in spite of everything, he sat down in the mid-sixties and started writing his Big Novel. It was a panoramic political novel with many interwoven threads of plot and character, stretching from the Great Depression of the thirties to the freedom rides of the civil rights movement in the early sixties. It was big in scope and achievement; it was stubbornly "old-fashioned" in its Dos Passos realism; and it carried in it the craft and passion of a lifetime. It was called Standing Fast. But by 1970, the year the book was published, its subject matter seemed as dated as the Children's Crusade.

The timing of Swados' novel was rather like that of Fitzgerald's story of the hedonistic Americans on the Riviera published at the height of the Depression, and James Agee's great book about the sharecroppers of Alabama which appeared at the opening of World War II. Those books were eventually appreciated for their intrinsic merits, but the hope of future appreciation is cold comfort to an author. (pp. 92-3)

As originally conceived, [Celebration] was to be the diary of an old man who had been a successful musician…. But somewhere between that early concept of the novel and its completion, the aged musician was transformed into an aged man of politics—not in the sense of elective, establishment politics, but as a social innovator, a journalistic muckraker, a pacifist who chose jail over combat in World War I, an educator who founded a famous progressive school, who fought for child labor reform and child welfare laws, and even in his later years was a champion of the causes of youth, both social and political.

It was artistically inevitable that Swados would make this hero a political figure, for it gave him the opportunity to grapple once more—and with his most subtle and successful results—with the complexities of politics in the most personal sense, with the ironies of self-aggrandizement through good causes. (p. 93)

When he wrote this novel in the vibrant first years of his fifties, Harvey Swados was able to make that leap of imagination to the feelings and perceptions of advanced age. That was the kind of dangerous fictional feat he had often ventured, but he never so successfully achieved it as he did in this, his final Celebration. (p. 94)

Dan Wakefield, "Celebration Man," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted by permission), April, 1975, pp. 91-4.

I have never wanted to like a novel more, but Celebration is not, I must admit, among the books I will remember Harvey Swados for. Because it is about a man on the verge of death, it will inevitably be read as Swados' literary last will and testament, perhaps even a premonition of his fate….

Exactly why Swados found the subject of Celebration appealing is puzzling. One cannot be certain of what he wanted to do. It is about the relationship between ideology and death, ideology and reputation, ideology and the need for a measured optimism in times such as our own. And it is recorded by a man who has experienced the necessity and joy of surviving not as a victim but as one who triumphs within his lifetime….

The journal technique is peculiar in that it works against Sam Lumen's credibility. There is a strange lack of intimacy about the narrative, as if Sam's consciousness had been born public….

At times, [Sam's] self-consciousness gives way and he sheds his pomposity, his sense of himself as a monumental force. At such moments, we see a man wounded by mortality and waiting to die but insisting on the prerogatives of individuality. But such moments are infrequent. One can care passionately about the people in the last novel Swados published during his lifetime, Standing Fast; their radicalism is the stuff of their lives. But Sam and his young photographer wife and the Children of Liberty—there is little we can care about here. Long before the novel's conclusion, Sam Lumen has been defeated, even if his integrity remains intact.

And yet, there is much here that is characteristic of Harvey Swados. His literary signature is upon all his work. And to read him today is to be made uncomfortable by one's adopted sophistication. For one thing, Swados wrote out of a compassion that was the basis of his honesty: it is note-worthy that Swados, whose politics was socialism and whose deepest sympathies were with the working-class victims of industrial society, should have written so sympathetically of that bête noire of the contemporary American writer, the much-berated middle class. In this, he resembles George Gissing and Arnold Bennett more than he does his American contemporaries…. But it was as a journalist and creator of short stories that Swados was particularly of our time. He refused to accept the myths of the 1950s. On the Line was not the only indication of that. At a time when other writers found the working class boring, Swados wrote a brilliant series of essays which showed exactly how the American worker had been victimized by the limited success of the trade union movement. (p. 565)

His commitment to socialism was matched by his commitment to the truth. In our world, the two do not necessarily go together. Like Orwell, Swados examined the working class, warts and all, while he retained his faith in its capacity to behave in a human way.

And yet, Swados wanted to be thought of as a writer of fiction…. In rereading his work, I have asked myself why he never attempted to achieve the kind of synthesis of novelist and journalist that one finds in Clancy Sigal's Weekend in Dinlock. No writer appears better equipped, both by temperament and talent, to have achieved such a synthesis. His fiction, whatever its stylistic limitations, makes sense to any reader who believes that the writer is the historian of his time, and his work must echo the discord of life.

Swados' imagination was so firmly rooted in the problems of our age that even his best fiction tends toward polemic. (p. 566)

He was a writer for whom words were instrumental to the deed, not the deed itself. And if his books emerged out of the man, as books inevitably do, they are not really autobiographical. He does not seem to have been particularly interested in himself. (pp. 566-67)

Leonard Kriegel, "A Distinctive Literary Voice," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 10, 1975, pp. 565-67.