Mari Sandoz Clifton Fadiman - Essay

Clifton Fadiman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The design on the jacket of Mari Sandoz's novel, "Capital City," suggests a bursting bomb. While the book's materials are potentially explosive, I doubt that its final effect on the reader will be more than that of a mild concussion. For one thing, Miss Sandoz is too obviously out to shock: her very sentences show the strain. For another, though the journalistic value of "Capital City" is high, it is simply not a very good novel.

Miss Sandoz aims to pin down with the brass tacks of fact the picture of American Fascism that Sinclair Lewis drew so tellingly in "It Can't Happen Here." In the not-so-imaginary Midwestern State of Kanewa is the not-so-imaginary capital city of Franklin. Things are going on today in Franklin, and in a hundred Franklins throughout the land, if we are to trust Miss Sandoz's angry eye and pen. Gold Shirts, college-boy Storm Troopers, mysterious deaths of people with names like Greenspan; demagogues and new democratic leaders rising in opposition to the demagogues; the town's "best people" scared into violence by fear, desperate with the knowledge that they are not the men and women their pioneer forefathers were; the loose-enders, the intellectual outcasts uniting around social issues instead of aesthetic issues as in Carol Kennicott's day; newspapers, puzzlingly subsidized, with names like the Christian Challenger, printing open incitements to pogroms. In brief, not Fascism but the possible setup for Fascism.

That's what "Capital City" is about. All the material is real enough, perhaps even yanked out of newspaper files, and yet "It Can't Happen Here," which was based on a mere hypothesis, has greater solidity, as both art and propaganda, than Miss Sandoz's book. In "Capital City" the town itself has a certain vividness, but the characters have none…. The author has plenty of hardbitten talent, as "Old Jules" and "Slogum House," her previous books, testify, but I think "Capital City" makes very little use of them.

The message of "Capital City" is not one American citizens can lightly disregard. It seems too bad that it has not been clothed in more convincing form. Indignation alone does not make novels. (pp. 94, 96)

Clifton Fadiman, "Sandburg Finishes Lincoln—Setup for Fascism—Why We Travel" (copyright © 1939, 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., reprinted by permission of Lescher & Lescher, Ltd.), in The New Yorker, Vol. XV, No. 42, December 2, 1939, pp. 94, 96-7.∗