Callaghan, Morley 1903–
Callaghan, the Canadian novelist, short story writer, and playwright whom Edmund Wilson once described as "perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world," has been active in the literary world for more than fifty years. Throughout his career his work has been characterized by its clean, journalistic style, ironic tone, and strongly moralistic themes. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
In some respects Morley Callaghan is by far the most interesting member of the contemporary hard-boiled school of fiction. Under the surfaces of a prose style that runs in deadly parallel to the familiar technique of Ernest Hemingway, he uncovers a warm, vibrant, boyish personality. He exhibits a curiosity about human behavior that seems to be at war with the very method he has chosen as his medium. His short stories and novels are actually concerned with the subtle, often tender, sometimes downright sentimental phases of human relationship. As evidence of his vitality he displays a wholesome sense of humor in his very short story about a young priest facing a problem in practical theology as he tries to expel a drunkard from a confessional. Even in the hands of Ernest Hemingway, the hardboiled manner is suspect—behind a brightly polished exterior you discern a soft, almost tearful admission that the world is no place for sweet young lovers—and in the case of Morley Callaghan you half expect the apparition of another Booth Tarkington, gifted with the naive curiosity of a Sherwood Anderson. (p. 45)
Horace Gregory, "Mr. Callaghan's Medium," in The Nation (copyright 1930 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CXXX, No. 3378, April 2, 1930 (and reprinted in Morley Callaghan, edited by Brandon Conron, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1975, pp. 45-6).
Callaghan's importance has nothing to do with style. His control of language, despite the triumphs of a dozen short stories and numerous passages in the novels, was for many years uncertain; and his tendency to synopsize rather than dramatize led him to substitute hazy case histories for living patients. Having learned the fashionably flat accent of James T. Farrell and Sherwood Anderson, the youthful Callaghan was content to present people who dressed "nicely" or "neatly"; who looked "lovely" or "handsome"; who felt "sad" or "jolly" or "simply splendid"; and who spent interminable hours chatting "easily", just out of earshot. But where Farrell's mannerism was relentlessly consistent, Callaghan's was erratic. He could rise to moments of brilliant description when he remembered his native Toronto sharply, and he could recreate a fight or a lunch-counter conversation with the authority of a good documentary film. Too often, however, his interest in theme led him to abuse the expectations that he had established in his reader. He had not learned, and did not learn until 1937 (More Joy in Heaven), that each scene could simultaneously delineate character, forward the action and develop meaning; or that the illusion created by fiction, whatever the convention adopted, must be fully coherent. It is an evasion, moreover, to say that Callaghan creates "thin" characters because he wants us to see them as symbols…. [The] whole success of his fiction depends on our willingness to accept his characters as living men.
Callaghan, then, is not primarily a stylist. The critics of the 'twenties who enthusiastically and mistakenly compared him with Hemingway were soon stricken with amnesia. Their young discovery, careless of the fashionable idiom as well as the dernier cri of socialism, wrote as badly as Melville.
But Callaghan, like Melville, had something to say, and he has learned to say it with increasing richness and power. He has given us a modern vision of the human condition which has no parallel in Canadian fiction. It is this that makes him an important writer. Beginning, like the other writers of the 'twenties, with the ruins of a world just "saved" by a War to End War, he reacted to its confusion and despair with complete originality…. [He] faced the facts of his generation and probed through and beyond them to find a secure ground for action and belief. He became, in short, a religious writer—not one of the apologists who defends traditional religion by contriving convenient modern exampla, but an artist who looked searchingly at his experience (including the potent -isms and -ologies of the day) and concluded that the temporal world cannot be self-redeemed; that human frailty is bearable only in the light of divine perfection.
In this sense, Callaghan's vision is closer to the art of T. S. Eliot than to any of the novelists whom he resembles superficially. But his consuming interest in the life of the ordinary, inarticulate man and his compassion for human suffering has given his work a unique character. Confining himself largely to people who "feel"—people who are barren of "ideas" in any sophisticated sense—he has had to discover a means of revealing dramatically the nature of their quest for significance in the terrifying flux of the modern world.
At length (and this takes us to the story of his development as a novelist) he has wrought out a fictional form in which the surface events function simultaneously as realistic action and symbolic action, revealing both the empirical and the spiritual conflicts of his protagonists. This duality, moreover, is never merely a tricky fictional device calculated to entertain both the naïve and the knowing; it is fundamental to Callaghan's perception of the interdependence of the spiritual and empirical realms. Man's career occurs in the imperfect world of time, but its meaning (man's dignity or "place") depends finally on a larger reality out of time. To escape the first world is physical death; to ignore the second is to embrace the condition of the Wasteland—life-in-death. This tension, to which Callaghan's best fiction gives dramatic form, is the fundamental tension of life. By exploring the relation of these two worlds—empirical and spiritual—Callaghan has written the "little man's" Ash Wednesday and Burnt Norton. (pp. 60-2)
Undoubtedly [Strange Fugitive], with its jazz-age atmosphere of speakeasies and available women, and its dramatic testimonial that crime does not pay, said what a conventional reader wanted to hear. Harry Trotter, after all, was a weak-witted, dangerous little rat who got what he deserved. Society maintains its health by exterminating such unscrupulous rodents, or by allowing them to exterminate each other.
But the book is crowded with a host of things which suggest that Callaghan wished to communicate something quite different than this conventional platitude; that he was interested not in the feelings of an outraged community but in the plight of an inarticulate and confused soul such as Harry Trotter. (p. 63)
[The] fabric of the novel is so full of untied threads and accidental knots that no reader could be expected to see its pattern clearly, or to be convinced by its statement. For all its surface "freshness", what we see in Strange Fugitive is the uncertain attempt of a young artist to say something that he has felt profoundly.
It is worth dwelling on the defects of this book for a moment more so that we may see clearly the artistic problems that Callaghan had to overcome. On the realistic level, he failed to give all of his dramatis personae an organic function in the action. In real life, perhaps, every person with whom we have more than casual contact adds his pebble or sliver to the developing structure of our identity. But in fiction, where the artist strives to create an illusion of completeness within limited space, there is no room for passing minutiae; these things must be distilled to produce the maximum effect with the minimum of means....
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In … A Fine and Private Place, Morley Callaghan writes in the familiar parables that have marked his work since his first published novel came out in 1928. He is concerned with the conscience, the moral part of humanity, the part that makes man different from the animals and more interesting to watch. Yet throughout his long career he has observed people as though they were beasts at play. He records our battles, our coupling, our struggles for supremacy, our defeats. He is delighted to show how men behave badly in a social world of their own creation. He does this with tightly organized stories that are almost Biblical in their spare directness. From Strange Fugitive, a working class Decline and...
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Content with the assumption that [Morley Callaghan] is a Roman Catholic novelist, most criticism simply ignores the seriousness of his quarrel with the Church, and to date there has been no acknowledgment of the aesthetic nature of his views. It is possible, at least, given the importance Callaghan attaches to his vocation as an artist, that his moral philosophy owes as much to aesthetic considerations as it does to Roman Catholic doctrine. Such, indeed, has proved the case. Whether or not Callaghan's criticism of Christianity arises out of his youthful determination as an artist to look at the world freshly for himself, it is clear that he plumps for individual insight and imagination in preference to doctrinal...
(The entire section is 1430 words.)