Calder Willingham Willingham, Calder

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Willingham, Calder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Willingham, Calder 1922–

Willingham is a Southern American novelist and screenwriter. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Reach to the Stars, which concerns Dick Davenport, the youthful would-be writer working as a bellboy in a hotel near Hollywood, has no actual plot; instead the book consists of a series of fragmented scenes, jumbled as to chronological development, in which are depicted a variety of eccentric hotel guests and employees; and interwoven are some mock versions of Science Fiction stories, plus a number of letters written to and by Davenport. Reach to the Stars is apparently nothing more, except that the contents are extremely funny. Nothing profound, seemingly, has been "said" about the spiritual dilemmas of Twentieth Century Man. Curiously enough, however, this seeming triviality of artistic intention—the presenting of a series of comic events that do not appear to have any particular point—is really the measure of Willingham's tremendous achievement.

The significance of his writing becomes more evident if one sees it in relation to the general pattern of American fiction. For instance, Willingham's early novels center on a quest theme, and the quest motif essentially characterizes the traditional American novel. The quest is customarily a search for some kind of self-transformation: either through experience with the natural elements (the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn, of powerful sea creatures in Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea) or various social orders (Europe with the expatriates of James and Hemingway, or America itself for Thomas Wolfe's wandering protagonists and Fitzgerald's Gatsby). Distinctive about this quest format in Willingham's novels is the lack of a sense of ultimate purpose. (pp. 58-9)

[Willingham's first five novels] are masterful comic achievements, distinguished as well by having brought new life to American fiction by altering its basic themes and manner of presentation—anticipating the later "Black Humorists." Willingham seemed to sense the kind of world coming into being, what David Reisman described in the 1950's as the other-directed society, and what Marshall McLuhan now calls a global village. Willingham worked out from his awareness a suitable way of dealing with that world in fiction. Since the traditional novel involving some heroic individual (Reisman's inner-directed man, or McLuhan's linear-Renaissance type of man) engaged in a quest for near-magical self-transformation was evidently finished (no realistic basis for it existing in reality), Willingham offered instead a kind of mock quest series of situations: quests leading nowhere, except possibly toward marriage—which is what George, to his dismay, finds in Natural Child. Otherwise, everything—man's experience and his inner life, which could be affected only by Hollywood movies and "bug eyed monster" Science Fiction stories—was simply ridiculous. (pp. 60-1)

[In] the 1950's the serious novel in America virtually collapsed. Not only Willingham seemed to have nothing further to say; his contemporaries also experienced a prolonged state of muteness. Realization seemed to be that the traditional novel form, centered on the myth of the solitary individual seeking out some wondrous personal destiny, could no longer continue. Of course, Willingham had already managed to achieve considerable success through such a realization, but apparently his own special fictional milieu was unable to sustain him any further.

Some new conception of fiction had to emerge if the novel was to continue as a significant literary form. (Fiction would have to change, since society obviously was not going to. In fact, the other-directed trends noted by Reisman were becoming more and more pronounced. McLuhan, in preference to his earlier term "global village," now describes the world as a global theatre, where what matters are social performance and the communal arts: an excellent situation for movies, folk singing, and mixed media...

(The entire section is 2,100 words.)