Conrad Aiken Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 1)

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Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aiken, Conrad 1889–

Aiken, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of America's foremost men of letters, is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Conrad Aiken is one of the most remarkable figures modern American literature has produced. The extent and variety of his writings are so impressive as to defy classification, or so it may seem at the beginning. But, within the richness of conception and the quantity of result, some essential themes persist; and they are developmental—that is, they grow in clarity and importance as Aiken's many approaches to them gradually diminish and as Aiken's grasp of the fundamental distinctions between major and lesser forms becomes more certain. Ultimately, the product is impressive, not for its quantity and variety but for its excellence and depth. (Preface)

Aiken's writings—perhaps all of them—are essentially an attempt to recover consciousness, to reestablish it on a secular basis. This effort comprehends several patterns in the work itself: the preoccupation with the artist as person; the uncomfortable sense of separation, of isolation, from "raw life," which leads both to a contempt of it and a sense of "inferiority" to it; the constant search for a "compromise" with the flesh, manifested in the frequent experiments in adultery in which his characters are engaged; the compulsion to suffer and to offer oneself as a secular Christ in an anxiety-burdened crucifixion; the fearsome and fearful preoccupation with death, and—on another level—with the nihilation of consciousness…. Aiken's writings are perhaps the most thoroughgoing effort in modern literature to establish a formal and a secular refuge from the threat of chaos. More than that, they are dominated by a formal dialectic, comprehending the relationship of consciousness and form to the universe. Superficially, the poles of this dialectic are living and dead matter; the human consciousness mediates between the two, dramatically rescuing living forms from death and insistently risking its own obliteration in the process. (pp. 19-20)

Taking short stories and novels together, we find both variety and consistency. Like the poems, they bear the mark of Conrad Aiken, but of course the forms enable him to develop different perspectives. The personae of the poems are often imbedded in technical displays: they become sui generis, consciousnesses reflecting tonalities which are subservient to the poetry. The fictional ego is much more sharply focused, localized; in most cases, he survives technique or is immensely benefited by it. These differences are not unnaturally a consequence of the general distinctions of genre. In the short story especially, Aiken is more clearly the servant of contemporary fashion. Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others are echoed in the short stories, as is Joyce in at least one of the novels. This is merely to say that Aiken is aware of the most interesting examples of the forms. But many of Aiken's stories survive the threat of imitation and remain distinctively his, as we might reasonably expect. (p. 32)

The basic requirement of the Aiken story is the fact of human relationship. His fictional world is inhabited by persons at its center (not necessarily happily so) engaged in tense struggles for "understanding"; by persons moving from the edge to the center, in a voyage of emotional discovery; by persons far from the center, who have deliberately separated themselves from it, from a delusion of superiority; and by persons (usually the very young or the very old) who have left the center and are moving, alone and pitifully, toward "infinity." All of these figurations of the ego assume a basic aloneness—and of the kind suggested so often in Emily Dickinson's poems about God and "that gentleman guest," Death. At his best, Aiken is a superb storyteller. He succeeds much more often in the short form than in the novel. His sharpness of observation...

(The entire section is 2,198 words.)