Edward Lewis Wallant Wallant, Edward Lewis (Vol. 5) - Essay

Wallant, Edward Lewis (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wallant, Edward Lewis 1926–1962

Wallant, an American novelist, was the author of The Pawnbroker. His protagonists are Jewish-Americans immersed in anguish; his settings, harshly urban; his message, optimistic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Edward Lewis Wallant … can be considered "minor" only in terms of what he might have done had he lived beyond the age of thirty-six. I shall not be surprised if future critics award him a high place in our literature on the basis of the four novels he did complete; but in the meantime his inclusion in a volume devoted to minor figures is justified by the fact that he is almost unknown to the public. (p. 118)

It is … the sudden hunger to know what lies in the hearts of others … that is at the center of Wallant's fiction; or rather, as the theme characteristically appears in a framework of exhortation, the absolute obligation of all men to acknowledge this hunger, and to satisfy it by communion with their fellows.

This is the battle cry of the romantics; it does not require much reflection to locate it in central position in such important contemporary works as Franny and Zooey, A New Life, Henderson the Rain King, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. (p. 122)

Wallant was [deeply involved] in the affairs of the new romanticism, which combines the moral concern and savage sincerity of a Nathanael West, a Dos Passos, or Hemingway with a new, sometimes mystical acceptance of life, and most of all, an imperative call to action. (pp. 122-23)

Wallant says it this way: "We all have to hold hands in all this dark." The words are given to that daemon ex machina, Sammy, the orderly of The Children at the Gate. To take the hand of one's neighbor may be an unsavoury task, and in any case will prove a difficult one, because all of the wisdom of the world is ranged against it. Yet Wallant like other romantics insists that the effort be made; and the clash of that effort against that wisdom—sensibility against sense, if you will—resounds through his fiction.

Wallant sets up these confrontations with great skill. No contemporary novelist was more gifted in the sheer grace of constructing a novel…. In each [of his novels] there is a careful positioning of the central figure from the beginning in a fixed state symbolic of his life—in each case, an unsatisfactory life. The characters then initiate or take part in certain symbolic acts which eventually result in freeing them for the kind of deep human relationship which their author demands for all men.

The key word is separation. In each novel the hero is set apart, sometimes bound; more often fixed in unproductive orbit around a world of chained sufferers. (pp. 123-24)

Charles Alva Hoyt, "The Sudden Hunger: An Essay on the Novels of Edward Lewis Wallant," in Minor American Novelist, edited by Charles Alva Hoyt (copyright © 1970, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 118-37.

[The] New York where Holden Caulfield has his nervous breakdown is an almost benign place when compared with the urban landscapes, created only a few years later, of Edward Lewis Wallant. He lived to write only four novels, but that was long enough to plummet the city to the absolute nadir of the human line. Whether the city is of middling size, like the New Haven of his first novel, The Human Season (1960), or the vast New York sprawl of the last three, it bears the accumulated stigmata of the century: it is squalid, noisy, oppressive to the senses, numbing to the mind, antithetical to the spirit, hostile to hope, ambition, and the free flow of human energy. No matter at what end of the physical or spiritual scale one takes it, Wallant's city is horrendously, wonderfully ugly—ugly à l'outrance. A necessary stage in his art as an urban landscapist is that he carry the idea of the anti-Periclean city to its logical end, to paint it as a reductio ad absurdum of horror and frustration. The Athens that was friend to man is now the modern megalopolis that is his foe.

But it is not Wallant's intention simply to state, even in its ultimate form, the verdict of the century. It is indeed his peculiar distinction that he embraces that verdict imaginatively only to reverse it. The city is a nightmare but contains at some inscrutable source within itself the seeds of its own resurrection. Resurrection is a theological term. There are others. Rehabilitation is the sociological synonym, restoration the architectural, reawakening the emotional, revival the secularly human. Wallant embraces this whole verbal and modal range. He believes uncannily in the regenerative powers of the city, and his novels bear intimate witness to the rebirth of his wounded characters inside the urban framework. This is made both possible and credible only because they and the cities they inhabit have, in a kind of spectacular symbiosis, reached bottom, the very bottom, at the same time. Because Wallant catches this descent with mordant accuracy, the movement, or the first stirrings of the movement, upward are rendered psychologically convincing. It is part of his difficult creed that sentimentality be avoided at all cost, that he stay deliberately clear of la nostalgie de la boue, that he be as hard-eyed on the way up as on the way down. It is my sustained impression that he succeeds. And in succeeding, he performs a miracle that is at once astonishing and unexpected: he revives and dramatizes in contemporary form nothing less than the Periclean ideal.

Wallant's first novel [The Human Season] sets the stage for all the others. Its protagonist is a fifty-nine-year-old plumber named Joe Berman who has just suffered a devastating injury, the death of his wife to whom he was profoundly attached. He feels as though his nerves have been severed, as though his connections with the world have suddenly disappeared.

The city in which he lives and works supplies his misery with an appropriate background. It is high summer, Wallant's favorite urban season, and utterly merciless. Joe and his partner are pounding along in their truck: "He tried to rest his arm on the door but the metal was burning hot. Even the wind of their passage was a warm breath of heated tar and pavement. The trolley tracks were fiery ribbons leading them to the shimmering distance. The people they passed moved slowly, resigned to the harsh dream of summer"…. (pp. 253-55)

Toward the end of the book, on a particularly hot afternoon, [Berman] leaves the city and goes off to the beach, only to sit on the sand fully clothed—a bizarre and alien figure among the semi-nude bathers. Wallant's characters do not know what to do with themselves away from the city. On ritual occasions they may find themselves in the country, where they act like displaced persons and return to their native habitat with a sense of obscure relief. (p. 256)

In The Pawnbroker (1961), Wallant's second novel, the city is just as overwhelmingly there. Again it is high summer: "The air was thick and hot…. The sky stared down at all the stone and brick, a pale-blue monstrous eye"…. "The heat seemed to soften the very stone and brick of the buildings…. Metal burned to the touch, and there was a constant density to the air that made him feel he moved through an infinite number of transparent woolen curtains"…. Nor have the odors changed: "The hallway, with its tile floors and broken windows, smelled of garbage and soot; Tessie's apartment gave forth the more personal odors of bad cooking and dust"…. Nor has the city's surrealist quality: "The evening sun made the street shimmer in a golden bath through which the passers-by moved like dark swimmers in no hurry to get anywhere"….

All these urban effects have been deliberately intensified to suggest the pawnbroker's total despair. A concentration camp survivor, with a tattoo number on his arm, his wife molested and killed by the Nazis, the very bones in his body rearranged in medical experiments, he is physically alive and emotionally dead. He simulates all the life acts—earns a living operating a Harlem pawnshop as a front for a powerful gangster, lives with his sister and supports her unappetizing family, makes love to another survivor of the Holocaust—but goes through these activities mechanically, without feeling anything.

Perversely, his disengagement from life makes him a power figure in the eyes of others…. Even his customers, trailing their miseries into the shop, look upon his cold, remorseless detachment with awe. Berman had been badly injured, but not like this. With the pawnbroker, we descend to the absolute last rung of Wallant's Inferno. Only there could the following horrifying curse on man be issued: "Ah, our youth, the progenitor of our future. Maybe the earth will be lucky, maybe they will all be sterile"…. Only there can the pawnbroker boast somberly that he is free of racial prejudice: "'I am nonsectarian, nondiscriminatory. Black, white, yellow are all equally abominations'…". (pp. 256-57)

Having written two books which dealt with men severely injured in middle age, Wallant wrote two more—his final two—about young men waiting to be born. The younger, Angelo, appears in The Children at the Gate (1964), a book that was composed third among the four novels, though published last. At nineteen, Angelo's mind—tough, clear, scientifically rational—exercises such a tyranny over his feelings that they can be said not to exist. (pp. 257-58)

In the end the whole thickened carapace of Angelo's disillusioned rationalism shatters, allowing his smothered emotional sensibilities to breathe at last….

In Wallant's final novel, the comic masterpiece The Tenants of Moonbloom (1963), the city and its inhabitants become one, fusing in a joyous renaissance last heralded in the words of Pericles. Norman Moonbloom, at thirty-three, is still waiting to be born. It is the year not of death and resurrection but of birth and resurrection. (p. 259)

No brief account of the novel can do justice to its brilliant images, its apt handling of semi-hallucinatory states, its poignant gallery of human types, its sense of bottom-level urban immediacy—rotting pipes, cockroaches, and the smell of urine are Wallant's attar of roses. He is a poetic naturalist, touched by the influence of Joyce, Dos Passos, and Nathanael West. And his virtuosity is uncommon. He is as deft with offstage presences … as he is with figures onstage. (p. 260)

But dominating the field of his art is his vision of the great city, at once sickeningly ugly and disintegrative, yet in its swarming vitality holding forth the promise of some soul-stirring, spellbinding rejuvenation. Not to allow reality to enslave possibility, to keep both yoked in energetic fusion, suggests Wallant as our ultimate urban novelist. He carries the landscape we inhabit as far as it can go in both directions—into the dark abyss of The Secret Agent and into the invigorating light of Pericles' sublime oration. (p. 261)

Leo Gurko, "Edward Lewis Wallant as Urban Novelist," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), October, 1974, pp. 252-61.