Alvah Bessie MARY McCARTHY - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The demons that haunt the Morris household [in "Dwell in the Wilderness"] are, of course, familiars of contemporary fiction, yet they are still terrifying. The psychopathological offshoots of nineteenth-century moralistic dualism have been studied before; they remain engrossing. Were Mr. Bessie equipped with the proper scientific implements with which to probe the character of Amelia, "Dwell in the Wilderness" might have been a fine novel. In its present form it is a disorganized, deceptively lifelike piece of work. It has moments of genuine horror and a continuous superficial verisimilitude. The material aspects of the family life are at all times sharply presented. Using a dozen different recent techniques of the novel—the interior monologue, the dream, the revery, newspaper citations, snatches of popular songs, the shifting point of view, the sharp parenthesis breaking the long, loose-jointed colloquial sentence—Mr. Bessie has contrived to make the behavior of his people recognizable and therefore half true.

Beyond this, however, he cannot go: behavior he perceives, but not its sources. The novel revolves about Eben and Amelia. It is the woman's sexual illness, plus the man's inability to deal with it, which poisons the family cell. Each action of the novel should, accordingly, spring, directly or indirectly, out of the central situation, or, conversely, impinge upon it, Unluckily, Mr. Bessie was unable to plumb the center of his story…. In many instances the characters, tastes, and careers of the four children are in no way predicated upon the marriage of their parents, with the result that they seem irrational, and the novel comes to remind one of a rambling family history, spirited but pointless. (pp. 278-79)

Mary McCarthy, "Middle Western Marriage," in The Nation (copyright 1935 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 141, No. 3661, September 4, 1935, pp. 278-79.