Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419
Mr. Stribling has set out with the intention of embalming the South in a symbolic trilogy, which ["Unfinished Cathedral"] brings to a close.
"Unfinished Cathedral" makes it evident why the attempt to symbolize the southern scene, indulged in by any writer of less than genius, inevitably results in melodrama. To begin with, any theme of conflict is most forcibly expressed in terms of violence, and southern history gives precedent in abundance for this kind of treatment. In other words, the material is treacherously obvious. Secondly, the symbolic method tends to be—and in the case of Mr. Stribling is—completely conscious and accordingly mechanical. What this author has done, in short, is to take every event in recent southern history significant enough to have been reported by the Associated Press, and make it happen to one small group of characters…. All this more or less obscures the principal theme, the commercialization of religion, which has its own set of symbols….
Mr. Stribling has digested all the melodrama of ten years into one 380-page novel. A reader unfamiliar with the South will get about as good an idea of the region from "Unfinished Cathedral" and its innumerable counterparts as the European gets of America from newspaper reports of gang warfare. None of this is to say that Mr. Stribling does not understand the South intimately, in many of its most characteristic manifestations. It is only that his presentation betrays his understanding. When the author forgets that he is the … prophet of Mason and Dixon, he has a real narrative facility, and a talent for realistic caricature of people which is like Sinclair Lewis's without the humor. The absence of humor is significant, for it explains the absence of proportion. The characters are at the mercy of action motivated to suit the design; the younger ones particularly get flattened out by the weight of the symbolic devices, which grow heavier as the story becomes more modern.
That is why "Unfinished Cathedral" is a disappointing conclusion to "The Forge" and "The Store." But an inevitable conclusion, for the previous novels of the trilogy used the same devices, the difference being in degree, and in the easier digestibility of the past. "Unfinished Cathedral" is a good rousing story, and only its own pretensions make it necessary to add that its significance remains potential.
George Stevens, "T. S. Stribling Ends a Southern Trilogy," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1934 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. X, No. 46, June 2, 1934, p. 725.
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