Elliott Baker Baker, Elliott

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Baker, Elliott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Baker, Elliott 1922–

Baker is an American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His first novel, A Fine Madness, is considered his best. A rebellious farce, it shares certain characteristics with the novels of Heller and Kesey. Baker has subsequently written other novels, but none has received the critical acclaim of the first novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Elliott Baker's first novel, A Fine Madness (1964), is a good example of the failure of much post-World War II American fiction to achieve artistic success. Whether or not this novel belongs to the category of black humor (if that is indeed a category) is of no real importance. But it does reflect the recent interest in the picaresque anti-hero whose misadventures in various aspects of American life are intended as a comment on that life and on the possibilities of a genuinely human existence in our time….

In the first sentence of the novel, the beginning of a poem appears in [the protagonist's] mind—a poem which is completed finally on the last page. During the novel, Samson accumulates the parts of this poem in bits and pieces. So the central action concerns Samson's recovery of his creative imagination in the face of all obstacles, including himself. (p. 71)

The examples of [Samson's] irresponsibility, his amorality, his cruelty, and his failures could be [expounded at length], but the point is clear: Samson is a representative of one of the mythic poetic types of the last hundred or so years—the literary bohemian who lives only in the holiness of the imagination. So his madness, if it is a madness, is a fine madness, as the title indicates. And the value for which Samson stands is the measure of all other values and people in the book.

The only counterpoise of any significance to Samson is Dr. Oliver Wren, a psychoanalyst…. [Dr. Wren] is committed to his own field as Samson is committed to poetry. For him the psychiatrist as scientist is the true pioneer, as for Samson the poet serves this function. Oliver is interested in particular in the study of genius and of evil, and he thinks that the psychiatrist may "hold the only possible existing key to genius and evil."…

Baker's choice of a psychoanalyst as Samson's main antagonist is more than accidental. As far as Samson is concerned, of course, all of society, from his former wife to literary critics, is out to destroy his poetic talent. But for him psychiatrists embody in a very concrete way the extent to which society seeks to probe and compel the mind of all those who violate its conventions…. [The] choice of psychiatry as embodied in Oliver is doubly appropriate: it is something that Samson dislikes, and it stands not only for science but for rationalistic humanism as well. (p. 73)

Samson draws the line of battle in terms of long familiar opposites: thought against feeling, reason against imagination, science against poetry, the real against the ideal. These pairs are, of course, some of the standard terms in a cultural debate at least as old as the Romantic movement of late eighteenth-century Europe. And it is a debate which … is still very much alive….

Baker has established a conflict of great potential interest. These two men, each personally complex, each representative of a view of life at war with the other, could provide a lively and illuminating conflict. (p. 74)

But Baker is either unwilling or unable to sustain this beginning. Probably he never intended to attempt anything other than what he has done. Unfortunately, what he does turns potential originality into the rather ordinary story of the rebellious poet against a hostile, anti-poetic world, the whole spiced with enough wit to sustain interest. The tone of the book definitely favors Samson. And to say that most of what he does is destructive either to himself or to others is to miss the point that this destructive quality is of the essence of the truly creative process. Were Samson of such a mind, he thinks, he could destroy...

(The entire section is 2,690 words.)