Joseph Wittlin Stanley Edgar Hyman - Essay

Stanley Edgar Hyman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Salt of the Earth"] is the simple, vivid and quietly passionate story of an unknown Polish soldier in the early days of the last war, the Polish Everyman, the eternal fall guy…. It is an intimate and always ironic picture of the war, not on a canvas of titanic battles and vast strategic movements, but on the smallest canvas imaginable—Peter Neviadomski….

The war picks him up, packs him off to some place called Hungary, claps him into a second-hand uniform and prepares him to die for a senile and foolish old man named Franz Josef, whom Peter has never seen but whom he regards with a decent peasant adoration….

In a really magnificent beginning, the book focuses the war deliberately on Peter, for all the world like a good movie opening. Wittlin's camera first picks out the ominous black double-headed eagle of Austria-Hungary, shifts to the council of bewhiskered incompetents around Franz Josef as he signs the proclamation of war, moves outward to reactions throughout the vast empire, and slowly comes to rest on Peter in his tiny Huzul village, where it remains. Only toward the end of the book does a character as central as Peter appear, Regimental Sergeant-Major Bachmatiuk, the incredibly perfect military machine (he gets himself out of bed in the morning with whispered commands). Even he, although he may emerge in subsequent volumes as a secondary protagonist, seems to be no more in this volume than a brilliantly executed counterweight to Peter, the flint and steel to Peter's tinder….

Wittlin has created a novel to rank easily with the best war literature of our time. (p. 559)

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Patient Foot-Soldier," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1941 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 105, No. 17, October 27, 1941, pp. 559-60.