(Janet Miriam) Taylor (Holland) Caldwell Charles Lee - Essay

Charles Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Taylor Caldwell is an angry woman. She tells us so in a candid foreword to her curious new novel ["The Listener"]. Man does not need a new religion, she says. He does not require better bombs and missiles. He does not have to travel to the moon. What he really needs is someone to listen to his hurts and bewilderments. Of course, that Someone is the not very mysterious "Listener" of her book.

The role of "The Listener" is dramatized in fifteen chapters that successively feature troubled "Souls," each numbered and tagged, as, for example, Soul One, The Confessed; Soul Two, the Underprivileged; Soul Three, The Despised and Rejected. A troubled Soul repairs to a two-room marble sanctuary that is open to the public. Once there, the Soul begins to talk. In every instance, the supplicants receive unspoken guidance or undergo sudden conversions that produce admirably ethical solutions to their problems.

The fact that no one is ever interrupted in his soliloquy suggests that few actually make use of the sanctuary—though it is conveniently located in the heart of a big city. It is also, even more conveniently, located in the heart of the individual Soul. Since Souls are always made better for the expedience of the sanctuary, Miss Caldwell has a right to be angry. It is a righteous anger that has been shared down the centuries.

Using her fifteen chapters as a platform and her wide assortment of Souls as mouthpieces …, the author attacks a hundred vulgarizations of our spiritual sterility, our assembly-line populace, our intellectual sloth—in short, our collectivized cretinism.

Few will quarrel with the main thesis of this book or its motivations. Nevertheless, many will find "The Listener" a tediously contrived series of over-didacticized testimonies lacking tension and persuasion…. One cannot help wondering why she did not listen to her own foreword and write polemically to the point, with fist instead of fancy.

Charles Lee, "Unspoken Guidance," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 9, 1960, p. 56.