R. V. Cassill Cassill, R(obert) V(erlin) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R(obert) V(erlin) Cassill 1919–

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and teacher.

Cassill's experiences in the academia of the Midwest provide the background for many of his works. He probes the sexual and psychological aspects of his characters, who often meet with tragedy in their endless search for power and personal fulfillment.

(See also CLC, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 7; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Mary Ross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Eagle on the Coin" is] a thoughtful novel in which Mr. Cassill writes with perception about the tangled motives in individual character and the open and submerged currents of fear, bigotry, idealism and ambition in the life of an industrial town. The extent to which he has delved into the subjective aspects of so-called social issues is both the strength and weakness of the book. On the one hand, it gives the story a validity that is lacking in attempts to deal with social issues in propaganda terms or clearcut lines of black and white. On the other, the author's interest in the intricacies of his characters sometimes leads him into digressions that slow down, even confuse, the narrative. Not wholly successful, "The Eagle on the Coin" is nevertheless an honest and interesting novel.

Mary Ross, "Probing a Hidebound Town," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), September 24, 1950, p. 15.

John Cournos

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It has become the fashion of late to drag in Freudianism, Communism, and homosexualism into our novels as often as not when they would have been best omitted. [The Eagle on the Coin] in particular suffers from their intrusion. If the author has tried to show that the little town of Riverton, somewhere on the borderline of North and South, is reluctant to elect a Negro to its school board, surely it clouds the issue to have the chief mover of the idea turn out to be a homosexual and thus sway the public against the Negro's election. As Tom Kettle was a radical, a complex-ridden individual, a homosexual, and a saloon-keeper to boot, you could scarcely blame the public of Riverton for looking askance. It would have been better for the story and for the author's thesis if he had Tom Kettle psychoanalyzed at the beginning and not at the end, if this unsavory character had to be analyzed at all. Scarcely less irrational is the notion that a man writing on a famous abolitionist of more than a hundred years ago should find it necessary to identify his cause with the present to the extent of participating in the political fight. After all, Cameron is a professor, not a politician, and scarcely a reader but will feel that it was only right that he should come a cropper. All of which is a pity, because the novelist is not without writing skill and storytelling ability, which he might have turned to better advan-tage if he could have eliminated modern superfluities which are in such great danger of becoming formulas.

John Cournos, "Reviews: 'The Eagle on the Coin'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1950, copyright renewed © 1978, by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 39, September 30, 1950, p. 33.

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The saddest subject for a literary journalist is a book in which talent and consecration and tremendous labor come to nothing, or at any rate to nowhere near enough. In "Clem Anderson" … R. V. Cassill has tried to show the rise and fall of a man of genius. At times Clem reminds the reader of Dylan Thomas, and occasionally other contemporary writers are brought to mind, but this is not a novel with a key. Clem is Cassill's creation, intended, I assume, to be a quintessential figure. Cassill tries hard to get to the bottom of things, but, unfortunately, the depths prove to be murky….

The second section of the book is made up of unpublished passages from Clem's novel, passages about his boyhood. This is a clumsy device, since considerable editorial explanation is necessary, but, what is more important, the passages do not give us much understanding of Clem….

[The rest of the story is told by Clem's friend, Dick Harsell.] His narrative, however, is of several sorts. Sometimes he describes what he has himself witnessed. Sometimes he reconstructs events on the basis of what Clem or other specified persons have told him. And sometimes he functions as an omniscient novelist, entering freely into Clem's mind or anyone else's. By the time the reader has adjusted himself to a series of shifts in method, he is likely to feel that Cassill has not chosen the best possible form for his novel.

What Cassill,...

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David Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That nothing fails like a certain kind of success is a standard theme in literary biography, and it has formed the substance, too, of a good many novels….

One feels that those writers who fail in their personal lives do so, as R. V. Cassill puts it in his novel, because "they choose to stand with one foot always outside the circle of their common obligations." That they seemingly must do so is the dilemma he presents in such detail in "Clem Anderson."

Clem is a study in the failure of artistic promise, and one can find in him, like pieces of shrapnel from the literary wars, fragments of a dozen writers whose achievements have been won at least in part at the price of self-betrayal. (p. 4)

"Clem Anderson" is an immensely long book, somewhat episodically assembled by means of both flashbacks and flash-forwards, yet so intelligently written that much of it seems to have been caressed into life. (pp. 4, 34)

Clem is one of those writers who is important primarily to his friends. Until the last, they never quite see him plain. And since it is they, for the most part, who tell the story, what comes across is a composite reflection, a metaphoric character who is all shimmering externals, bigger than life and yet not quite real.

This, I think, is the price Mr. Cassill pays for "universalizing" Clem; in a sense the milieu in this novel is more important than the man. There is a long section on a summer writer's conference that is a brilliant satirical study on both the teachers and the taught, as well as a masterful piece of comedy. Throughout, in fact, there is a running comment on the whole post-war generation that gives the story a unifying resonance rare in most novels. Happily, too, it is a work that gets consistently better. If Mr. Cassill never entirely succeeds in explaining why Clem fails, he is a master at showing us how; and it is this fascinating how that makes "Clem Anderson" a major novel. (p. 34)

David Dempsey, "Bigger than Life, Yet Not Quite Real," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 4, 1961, pp. 4, 34.

Gene Baro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R. V. Cassill has written fiction in a number of modes, often brilliantly, always competently. He is one of those writers who answer the demands of a particular project with ready intelligence; what is sometimes lacking—and ["Clem Anderson"], a loosely organized six hundred and twenty-four page novel, is a case in point—is a sense of the author's inner involvement. Though the theme of the book, the failure of the American writer to fulfill his promise, is both important and topical, the treatment remains much on the surface of things.

Himself an eminently talented writer, Mr. Cassill appears to have squandered his materials, though not his talent, with the prodigality of a Clem Anderson, the writer-hero of this massive attempt at the popular novel. Surely, there is material here for several books; acute observation and insight are in abundance, yet one wonders why so much excellence has been expended so inconclusively.

Perhaps it is because Clem Anderson, who seems to be Dylan Thomas at one moment and Thomas Wolfe at another, and who suggests other writers as well, is really no one at all, no one in his own right, but only a composite of writers' problems and histories….

If Mr. Cassill doesn't answer the real question in regard to Clem, the why of him, he does give us a largely believable picture of, and an often vital commentary upon, the several worlds in which his hero is asked to function. This is the book's great virtue, along with its unflagging pace and readability.

Gene Baro, "A Promise Unfulfilled," in Lively Arts and Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1961, p. 23.

Whitney Balliett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cassill succeeds remarkably well as a critical novelist; indeed, his hero, a novelist named Clem Anderson, is a better writer than he is. ["Clem Anderson"] is a sway-backed six-hundred-and-twenty-seven-page attempt to write the great American novel about the great American novelist. Anderson, a small-town Midwestern boy, becomes a voracious lover, an alcoholic, a psychotic, a flatulent talker, a big borrower, and an occasional writer who emits a couple of volumes of verse, a novel, and a play. He dies at forty, a composite of every unfulfilled genius from Hart Crane to James Agee. Cassill quotes a lengthy unpublished section of Anderson's novel. An account of his teen-age days, it is, in a tidy, James T. Farrell manner, by far the best part of "Clem Anderson." (The same cannot be said of Anderson's poems and war letters, which are morbid and turbid.) There is only one solution to this complex dilemma. Read Anderson's novel. (p. 70)

Whitney Balliett, "The Demon, the Tenderfoot, and the Monolith," in The New Yorker (© 1961 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 37, No. 21, July 8, 1961, pp. 68-70.∗

Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It may be tempting fate for a novelist to rewrite someone else's great novel, but R. V. Cassill has managed to do just that with a surprising degree of success. "Pretty Leslie" is rather explicitly patterned after "Madame Bovary."…

One way of looking at Leslie's story is as a study in the tense relationship between sexuality and personality. Leslie lives in fear of her civilized self being annihilated by something wild, lawless, animalistic, that she senses within her. The obverse side of this fear is an active desire to become a female thing instead of a woman, to submit to punishment and humiliation as part of longed-for physical ecstasy….

In this brief account, Leslie's connection with Patch may seem reducible to some convenient Freudian label like "id-fulfillment," but, in fact, the novel avoids any facile clinical schematizing. Characteristically, the narrative uses the methods of poetry to evoke a sense of complex psychological realities. The metaphorical animal that is born in Leslie in her first climax with Patch seems to be a cross between the "pair of ragged claws" in "Prufrock" and Yeats's "rough beast," slouching to an apocalyptic Bethlehem. But whatever the literary inspiration, the metaphor says powerfully what the novelist wants to say about his character.

"Pretty Leslie" understandably lacks the clean classic lines and the polished verbal finish of its French model. The tightness and balance of classic form which Flaubert imposed on the novel may no longer be possible because reality seems to us too intractably equivocal for neat reductions. Thus, the epigrammatic certainty of Flaubert's famous "Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage" is not a feasible mode of expression for Mr. Cassill because adultery itself appears to be more ambiguous. On the other hand, there is an occasional unevenness in the writing here which might have benefited from Flaubert's kind of painstaking revision. The language, rich in evocative metaphors, from time to time descends to clichés or climbs into rhetoric. And, occasionally, symbolic contrivances obtrude in the story….

But these are minor and infrequent lapses. In total effect, "Pretty Leslie" is a moving novel, honest in its conception and skillful in its execution.

Robert Alter, "Madame Bovary in a Mid-west Milieu," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1963, p. 3.

David Boroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

During the last few years there have been an alarming number of novels dealing with adultery and with the collapse of marriage. (Wallace Stegner's "Shooting Star" and Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road" are among the better recent examples.) The crisis of American marriage, to be sure, is one of the clichés of popular sociology…. [With] R. V. Cassill's "Pretty Leslie," we have the outlines of what would seem to be a new phase in the novel of adultery: the portrait of the middle-class woman as existentialist voyager….

This is no Midwest Madame Bovary. There is no fatal attraction to the lover. There isn't even the excuse of suburban ennui. Rather, it is the very repugnance [Leslie] felt for Don Patch that impels her to submit to him. Pretty Leslie turns out to be a spiritual sister of Dostoevsky's "underground man." (p. 26)

[Cassill] cheapens the harrowing mystery of experience by providing a too-clinical backdrop. (It is interesting how often Freudianism is used in fiction merely to explain, rarely to cure.) But this is a minor reservation about a novel of unusual power. Mr. Cassill establishes himself as an observer of rare trenchancy. His intelligence is tough; his grasp of characters is sometimes breath-taking (Don Patch is an absolutely brilliant creation), and his prose is always a delight. "Pretty Leslie" is a jolting, disturbing book—its revelations of the darkness within will make some readers cringe—but it stamps Mr. Cassill as a writer of the first rank. (p. 27)

David Boroff, "Lady's Lust for Drama," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 26, 1963, pp. 26-7.

Paul A. Doyle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The college president as a frank practitioner of homosexuality] sets the tone for Mr. Cassill's improbable and rather tiresome novel [The President]. The book is well-written and it possesses an intellectualization of viewpoint and insight which is occasionally perceptive and thoughtful. In general, however, the reader does not come to get involved in the book. The characters do not seem to take on life. They are puppets only—although puppets moved by a bright and intellectual writer. We view the people and setting externally and passively. Mr. Cassill has not been able to make us care what really happens to these people or to bring us to regard them as important….

Mr. Cassill's plot manipulations are too obviously displayed. The puppet strings show. The breakup of [the marriage of two main characters], for example, is engineered by the author in a heavy-handed manner, and this type of tampering adds to the unreality of the novel and to the pot-luck quality of the composition. Lethargy hangs over the tale, and while … Mr. Cassill has talent, it is not displayed at its best in this insincere, listless, and far-fetched story. (p. 117)

Paul A. Doyle, "Fiction: 'The President'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1964, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 24, No. 6, June 15, 1964, pp. 116-17.

David Boroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Typically, the academic novel deals with a college president whose show of liberalism masks the will to power. In R. V. Cassill's "The President," there is an arresting reversal of that pattern. Here the president is both an avowed organization man and a strange and disturbing visionary. Drafted to enhance the fortunes of Wellford College, a prairie school in Illinois, Winfred Mooney seemed to be the pure article—the faceless man who could prepare a face to meet any academic exigency. He seemed, in fact, "a figure of contrivance … too perfectly the physical stereotype of a college president to have been produced by human design." As such, he soon shows that he has the ability to transform the somnolent little...

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Robert M. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R. V. Cassill's fine new romance The President is stage-set in a small Midwestern academy….

Royce Morgan is passed over for president of Wellford in favor of a specious opportunist, Winfred Mooney. How he waits and watches and what this judicious process does to him, to the president, and to the two women whom they have entangled in their lives, is the story Mr. Cassill has to tell. On the whole, the two contrasted value-systems are not rendered with any fullness or particularity. Dean Morgan has fewer intellectual commitments—to the arts, to ideas, to specific knowledge—than any dean I'd want to have in my college; President Mooney, though Evil Incarnate, acts it out chiefly in a...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Stephen J. Laut, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a sufficiency of violence [in The Father]: one story ends with a suicide, another with a murder, a third with a fight. Yet there is a gentle nostalgia, too, in the story of the farm boy joining a band to get to Chicago in order to see Sally Rand perform. Most of the academic characters are handled with kindness, almost with reverence. (p. 14)

Mr. Cassill can be funny on occasion, as the Salinger parody indicates. Most of the time he is nostalgic or grimly terrible. His people are ridden by guilt, despair, lack of understanding, inability to communicate and social pressures. His scorn is obvious for the fake, for the easy out, for the materialistic. Unfortunately his genuine,...

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Ivan Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Father" contains eight short stories, a parody and a long, wonderful story called "And in My Heart."… In this and in the title story … Cassill, as storyteller and moralist, is at the top of his form, and at his best this writer is as good as almost anyone around….

Cassill's is a bumpy, difficult, ambitious style, able to redeem and enrich what may appear unpromising or overworked subject matter, capable of moving effects and sudden illuminations; yet skirting ponderosity, failing honorably almost as often as it hits the mark, and tending at times to rely on sheer verbal energy and references to myth to inveigle meaning or at least mystery….

[In] "And in My Heart," the...

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Bernard Bergonzi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I haven't read any of R. V. Cassill's novels, but as a storywriter he seems to me to hit it pretty consistently. He writes very tightly [in The Father and Other Stories], without any [vague free-wheeling prose] …, and with a high specificity of accurate placing detail. It's a pleasure to see language used with such precision, even though the stories carry with them a certain air of the creative-writing class; even if they weren't produced in one…. The genesis of most of his stories lies either in the memories of a middle-western childhood, or in the daily, or at least possible, experiences of a teacher or writer-on-campus. In the latter vein, one of Mr. Cassill's most impressive achievements is "And in My...

(The entire section is 361 words.)

Jonathan Baumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Father and Other Stories] is a surprising collection of stories. At his worst, his trickiest, his most melodramatic, R. V. Cassill is an exciting writer—passionate, serious, moral; concerned pre-eminently with character, with the possibilities of human behavior, and not (as are so many of his contemporaries) merely with the idea of our dislocation.

Largely, these stories deal with discovery and disillusion, guilt and loss, the irremediable impact of knowledge….

Like Katherine Anne Porter's "Noon Wine," to which it bears a certain resemblance, "The Father" has an inexorable quality, as though it were something engraved in the fate of the race. Years ago the father, to...

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David Roberts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cassill's best work has imaged a fictional world in which the populants are confronted with the fact that their own sufferings and losses and defeats parallel the ethical and spiritual vacuity of the world outside themselves; his fiction repeatedly represents the struggle of individual consciousness before the obliterating forces of a discrete and indifferent externality, a struggle whose aim is ultimately conservative in that the individual thus portrayed seeks only to cling to a coherent conception of self in the face of the overt failures of history's assumptions and past ideals regarding the impersonal dimensions of Time and Order. The dilemma of his characters, of his whole fictional representation of reality, is...

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Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

America's literary intellectuals have reached a consensus. They've decided T. S. Eliot was wrong after all. Ours is not a culture of a thousand lost golf balls. It's a culture of a thousand lost chances for coitus, and our activist novelists hasten to close the copulation gap for us—at least imaginatively.

Thus R. V. Cassill conjures up a new hero for our time: Rodney Buckthorne, fraudulent professor of classics; charismatic pied-piper to hedonist youth; and seducer of perhaps all the women of New York City except those accidentally stuck in elevators or lost in the far-off Bronx. Cassill's fifth novel, "La Vie Passionnée of Rodney Buckthorne," jokes blackly through his 51-year-old hero's...

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Thomas Rogers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R. V. Cassill can be thought of as the successor to Sherwood Anderson. Stories like "The Prize" or "The Biggest Band" have the funny, defeated sadness of Anderson's "The Triumph of the Egg." Moreover Cassill's attitude towards the lives he writes about has the same honest, helpless respect that one finds in Anderson. And there is this further similarity: just as Anderson has been overshadowed by the more willful writers of the Twenties—Hemingway and Fitzgerald—so Cassill has been overshadowed by the corresponding writers of our period.

La Vie Passionnée of Rodney Buckthorne is an effort on Cassill's part to emerge, to assert himself, to adopt a more energetic attitude towards his...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

James R. Frakes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Doctor Cobb's Game"] is clearly Mr. Cassill's most ambitious novel, encompassing as it does both white and black magic, bureaucratic labyrinths, the jagged pulse of swinging London, Russian defectors, diabolic possession, hermaphroditism, and more varieties of sex than have even been hinted at by Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson. (pp. 5, 55)

I'm not so sure about the narrator, "Hound Dog" Scholes, who performs for Cobb the same function that Carraway did for Gatsby but whose troubled, ironic voice fades in and out of the narrative, disappearing altogether for lamentably long stretches. Mr. Cassill is never really dull—but some of these narrator-less stretches risk vacuousness, even pomposity,...

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Best Sellers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

People do go on talking about the talented R. V. Cassill and waiting for him to measure up to expectations. The wait is not over. He continues to show a skill in characterization which is beyond the ordinary and a really distinguished ability to handle the English language, but he cannot put it all together to make a fine novel.

Actually, in "Dr. Cobb's Game" Mr. Cassill has done the impossible, or at least the highly improbable. He has taken for his basic plot, to all appearances, the testimony in the Profumo trial in England and has made this lurid mass into a dull piece of fiction. For this story of a pander who is motivated only by his desire to get the world under his psychic command, to go into...

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Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sigmund Freud told us that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But R. V. Cassill wouldn't believe it. Had Verlin Cassill lived and written a hundred years ago, we might be reading him as a fallen philosopher of sex. He has an obsession with it. And some very strange ideas about it.

But Cassill is writing now, when sex is what people seem to be doing for fun. His characters do it for power. Or better yet, they maneuver others into doing it with someone else while thinking of still another someone else—and thus reveal personal super power. The Goss Women is about the way Cassill's characters take charge of heads. It's a joyless, occult experience for Cassill's horny esthetes and intellectuals,...

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Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Goss Women] is not pornographic literature. To the contrary; its characters are gifted, generous, talented, visionary, sincere people only different in their extrasexual perception. Their affection is pure, often bordering upon transcendental ecstasy and lavish outpourings….

The reader's attitude wavers between irritation at vapidities and recognition of narrative power. Cassill possesses a storyteller's ability to maintain momentum, create diverse characters, develop ingenious variations upon a theme, and portray a selective segment of society. But the total effect is one of ennui. Despite the progression of events and the emotional complications of the characters, one knows...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Money is the real psychic force … in R. V. Cassill's "Hoyt's Child." Principle and person are possessed in the titles, and Cassill builds with sex, violence and social platitudinizing, but money is the middle-brow fantasy still. Cassill doesn't much like his Cooley Hoyt, a Vesco-like international manipulator who once sold Plymouths in Oregon, yet most of the novel takes place in Hoyt's El Dorado, a Mexican resort where the reader can see Hoyt float his deals and enjoy the fairyland of slap and tickle they buy. While the teller says Hoyt is just a shell, the tale lingers on the beauty of his surface and the gurgle of escaping juices. It's an old American duplicity.

Cassill has ripped a lot of this...

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Julian Moynahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

R. V. Cassill's ["Labors of Love"] is a wickedly entertaining novel in a semi-allegorical mode of fiction which, one could argue, has been the favored way of doing novels in America from Poe, Hawthorne and Melville on. In this style the details are sufficiently, even grittily real and historical but their implications are abstract, generalized, meta-historical. It all derives from the Puritans, men (not women) who viewed nature as a battleground of spiritual forces and would have approved of Mr. Cassill's title phrase connecting love with strenuous work. Emerson adapted the Puritan allegorical mode to a secularized society and literature by promulgating his doctrine of symbolic correspondence between natural facts and...

(The entire section is 526 words.)