Contribution (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Kenneth Fearing’s best novels are constructed around a core of mystery that seems to become more complex the more carefully it is examined. Set in the mean streets of Manhattan and within the claustrophobic confines of self-enclosed, self-protective organizations, their mood reflects the despair of the Depression and projects the postwar paranoia of the Cold War. Their language is the sometimes brittle, often laconic, rough-edged vernacular of a poet familiar with the underside of existence.
Fearing’s characters are isolated people, standing wary and apart from a mechanized world they despise and then driven further into a kind of exile by the loss of the only person on whom they counted for romance. Accurately reflecting the loss of certainty of the modern era, Fearing’s protagonists are both victims and avengers, their guilt or innocence never completely established, the ambiguity of their moral position forcing them to make decisions based on the precept that their only means of creating value is through action. In the process of solving the mystery they face, Fearing casts them as versions of the nonaligned detective as existential explorer, aware of the ultimate absurdity of existence, struggling to survive in a nightmare world.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Kenneth Fearing had a relatively successful career as a writer of mystery and detective fiction, combining an ability to fashion a complex plot that concentrated on a character trapped within the labyrinth of a large city or organization with a strong sense of the psychology of a relatively innocent man driven to commit murder. His novels are set in the streets of Manhattan and reflect the desperation of the Depression and the paranoia of the Cold War. Among his most enduring works are The Hospital (1939), which covers an incident from multiple points of view, Dagger of the Mind (1941), which examines the motives of an artist/killer from within the mind of the protagonist, and his most powerful book, The Big Clock (1946), which follows a man who is a witness to a crime for which he is being framed. The exceptional narrative tension of The Big Clock and the depth of revelation that makes the narrator especially compelling became the essential elements of the film version directed by John Farrow in 1948 and the remake called No Way Out (1987), which starred Kevin Costner.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
During the Depression, Kenneth Fearing was recognized as a major American writer, but although he has been almost completely ignored by scholars since the 1950’s and is largely unknown even to literate Americans, his poetry has scarcely been dated by the passage of time. His concern for the failure of official versions of anything to confront reality, his deep skepticism about socially sanctioned standards of “success,” his recognition that urban life could provide extraordinary energy as well as desperate loneliness, and his development of a laconic, terse voice that joined common American speech with an arch tone derived from centuries-old practices of ironic styles permitted him to produce a kind of poetry that is still engaging and relevant. He was an innovative artist whose work was admired by Ezra Pound, who published him in the magazine Exiles in the mid-1920’s. Fearing anticipated some of the rhythmic methods and structural devices of poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, while extending Carl Sandburg’s feeling for the proletariat into the decades when it became apparent that Sandburg’s optimism was no longer justified. In his examinations of psychic survival in a world in which absurdity was overcoming reality, Fearing was a pioneer whose initial reports are an accurate and chilling rendering of the twentieth century city as a landscape of desolation.
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Barnard, Rita. The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930’s. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Analyzes the political and social views of Fearing and Nathanael West and relates them to the history of American literature and popular culture. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Burns, Jim. Beats, Bohemians, and Intellectuals. Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England: Trent Editions, 2000. Fearing is one of the figures to whom a chapter is devoted in this study of American popular culture of the 1950’s. Bibliographic references and index.
Dahlberg, Edward. Introduction to Poems, by Kenneth Fearing. New York: Dynamo Press, 1935. Dahlberg is an eccentrically interesting critic of American literature, and his singular style is perfectly suited to examining Fearing’s peculiarities. A good overview of Fearing’s work to that time, a sympathetic response to the poet’s goals that is still timely.
Deutsch, Babette. “Flooded with the Immediate Age.” The Nation 149 (August 19, 1939): 201-202. An essay that contends that Fearing is an ideal spokesperson for his age. Deutsch considers his poetry in technical terms, concentrating on tone and rhythm in particular, but his analysis can be used to understand the place of...
(The entire section is 453 words.)