Alvah Bessie William Rose BenéT - Essay

William Rose BenéT

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


["Bread and a Stone" shows that Bessie's] writing of fiction has come to maturity. However he first became interested in his protagonist, Ed Sloan, his problem became to present Ed in all his dumbness (in several senses) and complete lack of any advantages or graces, and yet make us see the potentiality of the man and sympathize with him in spite of his becoming a liar and a murderer. He has succeeded. His Ed Sloan is alive in every fibre and thought, and how in the world he managed to sit inside that brain and follow that thought, catch the exact accent of the thought-speech (as he convinces us he does), and reconstruct with overwhelming conviction the half-witless sequence of causes, impulses, and events, is the secret of a true artist. At a certain point in the story he begins to use the cutback in a fashion that this reviewer at first found dubious and ended by entirely approving. The structure of the book alone is worth close attention by students of effective writing.

I should not call Mr. Bessie a sentimental writer, though many accuse anyone of being sentimental who views a crime as anything but just a crime. This crime happens to be an indictment of the imperfections of our society; and, however you slice it in criticism, it remains that. But the story contains no propaganda, and needs none. You see what happened to Ed Sloan, you know how it could happen, and you see why. Incidentally, you are reading as exciting an unravelling of tragic events as I have come across in a long time.

[As] an accurate reporter of the underside of American life, it seems to me that Alvah Bessie is to our period what Stephen Crane was to his own.

William Rose Benét, "Alvah Bessie's 'Ed Sloan'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1941 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 33, December 6, 1941, p. 11.