Dalton Trumbo

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Bruce Cook

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Eclipse is a first novel any writer could take pride in. It tells the story of John Abbott who is, when we meet him in 1926, the most successful businessman in the town of Shale City, Colorado. (pp. 79-80)

[On] the eve of the 1929 stock market crash … Abbott receives word that his wife, who has now left him, has died.

He faces the Depression alone. One by one, those who had admired him and sought his favor reject him as his enterprise declines. His bank fails. His department store goes into receivership, and he is kept on as an employee. Physically disabled by a stroke, Abbott has sustained even greater damage to his psyche. Disoriented, bewildered, he is partly to blame for the fire that sweeps the Emporium, the one in which he himself perishes.

Thus Eclipse is a kind of Babbitt-in-reverse. Where George Babbitt loses his identity and is all but swallowed up by his own success, John Abbott is made unique by his failure. Among Sinclair Lewis' cast of Zenith businessmen, Abbott is personally much more like Sam Dodsworth. He is a personable, honest, intelligent man, one who has good impulses. In fact, Abbott is the very model of the enlightened capitalist: a philanthropist, a man who accepts the responsibilities of his wealth. And it is in this that Trumbo succeeds most impressively in Eclipse: he successfully attacks the business ethos at its strongest point, presenting Abbott as simultaneously the champion and the victim of small-town capitalism. John Abbott is no caricature. He is a man of dimension and depth, a man worthy of admiration, yet even he is crushed by the system he serves and the town in which he believes.

This makes Eclipse sound more tendentious than it really is. It is no tract, after all, but a novel and a rather good one: one of Trumbo's purposes in writing it was to present a picture of life in Grand Junction—the ebb and flow of events, the frustrations and choked passions—and he does this well. But if anyone should doubt that his primary purpose was something more than offering a slice of small-city life, he need only consider a few of Abbott's conversations with Hermann Vogel. Vogel is something of an amateur scholar and philosopher; he is inclined to take a coldly intellectual view of things. Of his friend, John Abbott, for instance: "I think you're going to die of pedestalization, old friend, just as your archetype did." And his archetype, Vogel tells him, is Napoleon, who made the condition clear when he declared, "'Your legitimate kings can be beaten twenty times and still return to their thrones. But I am a soldier parvenu … and my throne rests upon my successes in the battlefields.'" And so we are invited to see John Abbott as a businessman parvenu, one whom society and the system say must continually earn and re-earn his place on the pedestal with new triumphs in the field of business, ever grander gestures of philanthropy. Let him falter, let him fail to produce, and he will be tumbled down…. (pp. 80-1)

Washington Jitters' satire may strike us today as rather obvious, its targets sitting ducks. It is not that it is a bad book, but rather that it is a slick and inconsequential one, and this is what is distressing. For Trumbo to follow a book of real quality and great promise like Eclipse with one such as Washington Jitters seems an abuse of his talent. Even in the writing of fiction he could not resolve the conflict he felt...

(This entire section contains 1549 words.)

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between the literary impulse on the one hand, and on the other, the desire to influence, to be part of his time—essentially, a political impulse—and to be commercially successful into the bargain. (p. 97)

[Trumbo thought that a novel written from the point of view of the] basket case, war's most extreme victim, could surely make the most eloquent and persuasive statement against [war] if only a novel could actually be written under such difficult restrictions. And so very early, the composition of Johnny Got His Gun presented itself to Dalton Trumbo as a series of technical problems to be dealt with and solved. And perhaps that was just as well, for if he had allowed himself to become totally immersed in the dramatic reality of this emotionally loaded subject, then he might have been tempted to raw excesses of passion—to bathos or to rage—and the book that was Johnny might never have been written as it was written. He managed to solve those technical problems by the intelligent use of a number of devices. Since the action of the book was to take place totally within the brain of his young soldier—"a dead man with a mind that could still think," Joe Bonham calls himself—Trumbo quite properly employed a modified stream of consciousness technique and deviated from it only toward the very end of the novel (doing some slight damage in the process to Johnny's integrity of tone).

Trumbo also uses film techniques to good advantage. Flashbacks, in such a context as this one, seem so inevitable that if the technique were not then available, it would have had to be invented. The success of the flashbacks in Johnny is due partly to the skill with which they are handled: each of Joe Bonham's memories is sharp and incisive, introduced logically, and each is essential to the structure of the novel. But partly, too, the success here is due to its naturalness in the context of the novel's situation. You would almost expect the entire novel to be done in alternating flashbacks and soliloquies. What is perhaps more remarkable, given the fact that his protagonist has lost all senses but touch, is that Trumbo is able to extend his narrative through present time in the latter half of the book, putting Joe in contact with the outside world, and ultimately in conflict with it.

Trumbo also employs the movie technique of montage, covering space with sound brilliantly in the scene of Joe's departure for war. Bits of talk between him and his girl Kareen are jumbled with an orator's highfalutin rhetoric, shouts from the crowd, and lines from "Over There," the George M. Cohan War anthem that gave the novel its title—all of it sketching in the scene and evoking the period with a shorthand that is essentially cinematic.

And finally, though this may seem a bit vague, his treatment of time in Johnny Got His Gun is not novelistic in the usual sense, but more in the nature of what you experience seeing a film. There is little of the density of detail and incident that you usually get in a novel: it is actually a rather short book. Yet time passes. This in itself is surprising in a narrative that is so nearly static, the only real action coming in the second part with Joe's breakthrough to the outside world. But what is especially impressive is that although the period of time that passes is an unspecified one, Trumbo manages to create the impression that it is of rather considerable duration, several years certainly. He uses fade-outs suggesting loss of consciousness. He fixes our attention firmly on Joe so that Joe's subjective experience of the passage of time, whether faulty or not, is totally believable to us. It is like movie time, an emotional dimension, an empathetic reality. (pp. 125-26)

The Remarkable Andrew starts promisingly in Shale City, Colorado, the thinly disguised Grand Junction [the young Trumbo's hometown] in which Eclipse and much of Johnny Got His Gun are set. (p. 142)

Some of the details of small-town life are done well in the opening chapters. And if Trumbo draws his characters rather broadly, they are at least recognizable as small-town types. And finally, the situation in which Andrew Long finds himself, while uncomfortable for him, is one rich with plot possibilities.

Rather than treat any of them, however, Trumbo summons up the specter of President Andrew Jackson—visible, of course, only to his young namesake. Except for the last chapter or two in which Andrew successfully defends himself before the townspeople, the rest of The Remarkable Andrew … is a kind of extended seminar conducted by Old Hickory on true American values. These turn out to be, for the most part, populist (certainly consistent with the historical Jackson) and anti-war in his international position (can this be the Jackson we remember as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans?). It may seem remarkable that the issue of war or peace should have come up at all in their extended colloquy. But remember that Trumbo was writing in 1940, and the burning issue of the moment was whether or not America should enter World War II as a gesture of solidarity with Great Britain in her darkest hour. Jackson, of course, was simply the mouthpiece for Trumbo. As it comes from Andrew Jackson, it sounds like old-fashioned isolationism.

There is eloquence in The Remarkable Andrew, but it is rhetorical eloquence, essentially political oratory. It has nothing to do with the art of fiction. (pp. 142-43)

Bruce Cook, in his Dalton Trumbo (reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons; copyright © 1977 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1977, 343 p.


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