Stribling has never been the first by whom the new was tried; he has nothing of the experimenter in his literary constitution. Nor is he the last, precisely to lay the old aside…. Stribling is primarily interesting as the index of a fashion which he has flattered with sober conscience and profound unoriginality.
Stribling's novels will appear in the history of our literature as a paragraph in the development, or conceivably the decline, of what is generally called critical realism in fiction. (p. 463)
As the naturalistic novel, in one sense, is based on a science, biology, so the realistic novel that we now know is based on a pseudo-science, sociology. The realistic novelist, like the sociologist, professes a scientific objectivity in dealing with his materials, that is, in making his surveys. What this objectivity amounts to is no more than the objectivity of the naturalistic writer…. But by differences in nature of origin the realistic and naturalistic novels differ in one fundamental respect. The biologist, the anatomist, when about his professional business, is, as far as is humanly possible, a mere observer…. The sociologist, on the other hand, is engaged in a study which, finally, must involve values of a kind, and which, therefore, has a prescriptive, as well as descriptive, aspect. (p. 464)
It is reasonable that, in view of its origin, the realistic novel is never purely realistic; it is critical, which generally means satiric and propagandist as well.
And so it is with the novels of Stribling.
There are two primary issues which appear in the study of a novelist of the order of Stribling. First, what is the actual content of his criticism; that is, what things in society does he dislike, and to what set of ideas do these dislikes refer? Second, what is the effect of this preoccupation on his work as an art form?… [The] very crudity of much of Stribling's work, especially in the novels before The Forge, makes the task [of evaluating his work] less arduous. And the various elements in a novel like Teeftallow are so rudely assimilated that the mayhem of abstraction rests lightly on the aesthetic conscience.
The critical premises of Stribling's early and recent work are identical. He has developed in narrative expertness (his mechanical ingenuity has always been considerable), but his point of view has remained unchanged; he has only transferred his method from the contemporary to the historical scene, following what in most current examples of the type is but a fashionable device to heighten the critical importance of a work by making it parade as historical explanation of a contemporary social situation. As such, his historical novels are but an extension of the sociological principle of his previous work.
The critical realist, ordinarily, is sparing of a forthright exposition of constructive ideas in his work; and as a novelist rightly so. But his work is very fruitful of his distastes. And his distastes lend the work its special aura, or in less expert instances, its special mannerisms. They are a clue to the novelist's principles, which may, or may not, according to his powers, be orderly, consistent, and intelligent.
I shall sample some of Stribling's distastes.
In Teeftallow the hill boy comes to Irontown to work on the railroad construction gang, and attends for the first time a drinking and gambling party in the woods…. (pp. 465-66)
[This incident] is a fair example of the sort of thing Stribling dislikes, and of his method in dealing with it. He is not content to describe the drinking manners of the men and the...
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effect on the boy; he must describe them in terms,culture and urbanity, which are foreign to the boy's way of thinking, and which provide the irony and the criticism. He must cast the scene against a drawing-room background. Such irony, characteristic of all the books before The Forge, is too easy; and it may be vulgar.
That agreeable drawing-room, with its culture and urbanity, is never far from Stribling's consciousness; and the theme of his treatment of manners is that it is very far away from the Tennessee and Alabama back-country. (p. 467)
The point is this: as a criticism of humanity in general, too busy about gratifying its practical appetites, or too weary from so doing, to take what compensation nature affords, Stribling's … [discussion] might be just, or partially just; but the trouble with it is that a commentary on human nature in general is paraded as a special piece of social criticism referring to a special locality…. Irontown has simply stood whipping-boy for the world.
In large part Stribling's criticism savours of the easy hickbaiting of a dead decade. It is dated. For him almost any young white man who does not live in a large city is a "hobbledehoy". No decency of spirit is possible in a house without modern plumbing. All lives lived in sections he deals with are "humdrum" or "monotonous". This sort of thing defines the pervasive tone of his work; by cumulative effect in any of the novels it defines the author's, and possibly the reader's, set toward the material. Thus far it is a snobbery based on radio and nationally advertised mouthwashes. Further, a man like Stribling would, in all probability, find the society of Florence, Alabama, in the sixties and seventies or the society of Lane County, Tennessee, in the 1920's an inappropriate milieu for the proper exercise of his education, manners, and talents. Let that be granted, if desired. But it scarcely requires some half-dozen novels to establish the fact; and such preoccupation does not, to employ a phrase once popular among hick-baiters, seem adult.
Stribling does not confine himself to such peripheral items, but has treated, likewise, certain more fundamental social ideas. Teeftallow is dedicated to the "hill theocracy", and devoted to the study of the social effects of religion, a theme which also appears in Bright Metal and Birthright. Religion, for him, is "greasy". And according to Birthright, Teeftallow, and Bright Metal, it is impossible for a person to be devout without, at the same time, being a fool or a knave, usually in his novels the latter…. Stribling's doctrine [is that] religion is abnormal. It is also necessarily associated with dishonesty and cruelty, swindling, slander, lynching; on the evidence of Teeftallow, the only citizen of Lane County who is capable of unselfishness or idealism is the village atheist.
It remains an open question whether Stribling is ready to apply this description to all religion whatsoever, or whether he reserves it for Lane County fundamentalism. (pp. 468-70)
Stribling's method of dealing with the race question in the South, another issue that absorbs a considerable amount of his energy, is compact of equal realism. His method is to bring into collision a noble Negro, or rather a mixed-breed, and a white society considerably less than noble. Peter of Birthright, and Toussaint and Gracie of The Forge and The Store, are examples. Through the eyes of Peter, a graduate of Harvard who has come home to found a school, the oppressions, stupidities, and brutalities of the white community are presented: Peter is swindled in buying land for his school, loses the confidence of the Negroes themselves as a result, and, in the end, only marries the wife he desires after she has been blackmailed into becoming the mistress of her white employer. Peter's moral and intellectual superiority is constantly held in contrast to the society about him. The only other educated man in the community, the old aristocrat who, presumably, is Peter's own father, is the intellectual foil for Peter's emancipation, since in the old man's library there are no books that indicate a respect for Darwinism. Peter finally gives up the unequal struggle, beaten by the prejudice of the whites and the inertia and fatalism of the Negroes, and goes North to seek his and Cissie's personal salvation; he goes North where he would soon be "moving briskly, talking to wide-awake men to whom a slightly unusual English word would not form a stumbling block to conversation", where he and his wife could "lead authentic lives".
What is the reference of Stribling's method to actuality? Is it sound sociology? In one respect I have already hinted that it is not. For instance, it is probably bad sociology to assume that religion is necessarily connected with moral depravity. But it is in attempts at social comparison that Stribling's sociology is at its worst, that is, when the snobbery of mouthwash is transferred into the field of ideas. The principle of comparison Stribling uses is to bring the Peter Siner of Birthright, the Ditmas of Teeftallow, or the Gracie and Toussaint of The Store into conflict with the Southern society of his novels. These heroes and heroines are either Yankees or Negroes. They would be, as persons, exceptional in any society: they are not representative by reason of education or individual quality. (pp. 472-73)
[Stribling] has never been interested in the dramatic possibilities of a superior Southern white man brought into conflict with his native environment, a theme which Faulkner has used in Sanctuary and Caroline Gordon in Penhally. This is simply one piece of evidence that Stribling is not primarily interested in the personal and dramatic at all; his imagination is only concerned with a documentation of his thesis.
In the treatment of his favourite critical themes in the two historical novels, The Forge and The Store, Stribling exhibits another characteristic which impairs, even more than mere prejudice, the value of his sociological observations. His historical sense is deficient. The injustices of the social and economic arrangements of the South, the "narrowness" of its life, are interpreted as a sort of intrinsic brutality, a brutality mystically inherent in the Southern white man and special to him. The Forge begins just at the outbreak of the Civil War, the topic which involves most of the author's energies throughout the book. The nature of the system of life which preceded the war is never touched more than casually; consequently a reader of The Forge would scarcely understand the issues of the struggle. One character, apparently a spokesman for Stribling, refers to the conflict as one between two opposing forms of wealth, or two forms of capitalism. And even less would a reader understand from The Store the complexity of the problems which confronted the South after the Civil War: the problem of labour, the problem of franchise, the problem of race. The fact that these problems have not been solved is accounted for, in implication at least, by a basic stupidity or brutality. And certainly Stribling is unaware of the possibility that the social structure he seems to abhor is to be understood, to a degree, only as a result of the commercialized liberalism and uninformed idealism which directed the consolidation of the conquest of the South in the years immediately following the Civil War. He is trapped in the same sort of paradox as Sinclair Lewis, his master. Lewis satirized small-town life, provincial life; at least that is what he thought he was doing. But an analysis of Gopher Prairie shows that most of the things that distressed Lewis there are largely the result of the attempt on the part of Gopher Prairie to imitate the big city. Gopher Prairie is the kind of village that can be expected in a country where Chicago and New York are the great cities. What Stribling is attacking is merely the frailty of human nature; but when his attack takes more specific terms its final object, though many times removed, is only the victorious liberalism of the sixties and the several following decades. (pp. 474-76)
Stribling has indicated much abuse and narrowness in Southern society that is indefensible. That is obvious. But there have been three defects in his surveys. He has been consciously or unconsciously disingenuous in his social comparisons. He has been too absolute in his definition of Southern character. He has failed to understand the historical context of the incidents he cites, and consequently has failed to give any final meaning to his criticism. The criticism remains as a sort of exhibit of chaotic observations, keen enough in detail, but incoherent. The state of mind from which the books are written remains a strange compound of hick-baiting, snobbery, and humanitarianism: in a word, disordered liberalism. But that was the state of mind fashionable in the decade when Stribling developed his literary powers.
But there is another, and more important, question: what is the effect of Stribling's preoccupation on his novels as novels?
His novels, even the most recent ones and the most expert, show a quality which is fairly common to writers who are propagandists, that is, who keep their critical doctrines, as doctrines, in the foreground of the reader's consciousness. This quality is a detachment from the material [which is not mere dramatic objectivity]…. It is something else: the propagandist, finally, is never quite close to his material because he is infatuated with some system of abstractions and fears that, if he gets too close to his material, the cherished "truths" may be absorbed in the complexity of its being. His interest in the special persons and the special incidents of his stories is essentially an interest in illustration.
In the books before The Forge this detachment is most obvious, for it appears as a commentary that keeps pace with the narrative. The business of this commentary, as Stribling apparently conceives it, is to generalize the particular aspect of character or particular incident and affirm it as a trait of the class he happens to be dealing with at the time. Instances of this mannerism are almost innumerable. (pp. 476-77)
Other evils, which impinge less immediately on the reader, are more fundamental. I have said that Stribling is most ingenious in the working out of plot. He is able, especially in The Store and The Forge, to contrive a plot which involves a great number of actors in several series of co-ordinate incidents. But this ingenuity is, in a sense, wasted. It is wasted because the ingenuity too frequently remains ingenuity: it is applied to the business of illustrating his general propositions. In Birthright the mulatto Peter Siner must be brought into contact with as many Southern types as possible; he is the focus of the social survey Stribling is making. And so with Agatha Pomeroy of Bright Metal, or Abner of Teeftallow. This is the object of plot. (p. 478)
[But his manipulation of plot,] however, can only be called arbitrary in terms of its relation to character. It is conceivable, for instance, that a Negro graduate of Harvard might decide one fine morning to call on all the businessmen of Hooker's Bend, Tennessee, and give them a lecture on racial amity and higher wages for cooks, basing his claims on sound economic doctrine and a Christlike vision. But when Peter Siner does this it is a fairly transparent device on the part of Stribling to bring into debate the enlightened with the traditionally Southern view on Negro labour. Peter Siner, as a human being, is as wooden as a post and perfectly irrelevant to the debate…. The rape of Gracie by Miltiades Vaiden in The Forge is equally arbitrary and unmotivated, or unmotivated except on Stribling's assumption that every Southern white man is prepared to assault any Negro woman at the drop of a hat. The fact that in reality such things have occurred with more or less frequency is without bearing on the special case. Stribling's obligation as a novelist is to make the act plausible in its special context; but this is the very thing he does not even trouble to attempt, for he is so easy in his basic assumption that he dismisses any psychological concern. (pp. 478-79)
Character, like plot, is treated with an illustrative bias. In The Forge and The Store, which set out to give a picture of Southern life for several generations, the characters are selected to illustrate certain preconceived types…. These characters do not remind one of life, but of … other fiction. (pp. 479-80)
Occasionally Stribling is betrayed into a moment of irrelevance when he neglects his ordinary preoccupation, and when, just for those moments, he is an artist. In The Forge old Mrs. Vaiden comes suddenly alive for the reader when the daughter-in-law Rose sees her taking an afternoon nap on a pallet on the floor and experiences a wave of tenderness at the smallness, the childlikeness, of the old woman…. On such occasions Stribling's principle of composition disappears, lost in the too momentary vitality of his characters. (pp. 480-81)
But to return to the general effect of all this on Stribling's art: propagandist art is necessarily incomplete. It is incomplete because the emotional reference, and in fact all reference except for matters of technique, is external. Character appears as a long-hand for a social proposition. Event appears as a sort of allegory, a morality play of "social forces". The whole is a documentation in dramatic form of a social proposition which, presumably, the author wants to see realized in actuality. Propagandist art is never pure propaganda in the first place, for something other than a social conscience forces the choice of the art form, but the purity in this respect depends on the degree in which the author desires to see the practical triumph of his critical ideas and obtrudes that desire. In so far as this aim is possessed, and is obtruded, the work is scientific: it appeals to the scientist, the economist, the sociologist in us, and makes us say, we ought to do something about this. Grant that it may be an abuse we ought to do something about. The response, nevertheless, is not the response evoked by a first-rate novel, play, or poem.
The point, I think, may come clear if Stribling's work is compared with that of certain other novelists who have treated the same material; for instance, William Faulkner. Take the "poor whites" of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as compared with those of Teeftallow or The Store. As a citizen, in his practical and public rôle, Faulkner may want to see a broadened way of life possible for the back-country people of Mississippi; but he is too much of an artist to commit himself to the easy satire of the reformer or aesthete. (pp. 482-83)
Light in August employs all the material familiar in Stribling's work, race prejudice, class prejudice, sectional prejudice, and violence, but with a far different effect. Christmas, the white Negro of Light in August, unlike Toussaint of The Store, is caught in an insoluble problem that can only end in tragedy…. The death of Christmas has some tragic dignity; the lynching of Toussaint is a mere butchery, or on another view, a competent piece of legerdemain to point a moral if not adorn a tale.
The primary difference, a difference perhaps more of intention than of achievement, between the work of Stribling and that of Faulkner seems to be this: the drama that engrosses Stribling is a drama of external circumstance, a conflict drawn in the purely practical world; the drama that engrosses Faulkner concerns a state of being, a conflict involving, to some degree at least, the spiritual integrity of a character. (p. 484)
With Stribling … a novel is a device for communication, that is, a device for illustration. The author "intellectualizes" his perceptions so that their vitality is forfeited. The work approaches allegory. But Faulkner, and a considerable group of the younger Southern novelists, are more conservative; they conceive of the novel as itself the communication. They are interested in putting, so far as their powers permit, the question about the destiny of certain obscure individuals, their characters, so that the question will remain alive. Perhaps the questions, or some of them, are unanswerable. But that sort of passionate, yet disinterested and patient, contemplation is, presumably, the business of an art, even the art of the novelist. It is a contemplation rooted in the poetic attitude.
But to the critical realist poetry, like religion, would be, I take it, somewhat "greasy". (pp. 485-86)
Robert Penn Warren, "T. S. Stribling: A Paragraph in the History of Critical Realism" (reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc. on behalf of the author; copyright © by Robert Penn Warren), in The American Review, Vol. II, No. 4, February 1, 1934, pp. 463-86.