RARA-AVIS: George Jean Nathan and the Mystery

From: William Harker ( wharker@earthlink.net)
Date: 09 Jan 2004

For a prospective article I have been conducting research on Dashiell Hammett (in particular his mystery book reviews for The Saturday Review of Literature and his "Crime Wave" columns in the New York Evening Post). Because Hammett first wrote for _The Smart Set_ and then _Black Mask_, I necessarily wandered across the trail of George Jean Nathan.

In his "The Theatre" column for the _American Mercury_ (which he and Mencken also co-founded and co-edited) of November 1929, Nathan had some commentary regarding the mystery, particularly mystery plays dominating the New York season that year but also the mystery story.

He boiled his critique down to five "Analytical Meditations" that I shall summarize due to length:

1. Of all forms of entertainment, the mystery play or story most greatly flatters the cerebral vanity of persons without minds, in that it challenges the superficial brain cells with a showy substitute for ratiocination.

2. The late war [WWI] produced killing on such an enormous scale that, by virtue of its very magnitude, that killing became in turn incomprehensible and neuter...Killing on the grand scale became an impersonal thing and such is human nature that it lost personal interest. And, as the murder of a single citizen is always closer to the interest of the people in a town than the killing of thousands of men on some far battlefield, the public's emotions craved a reduction of murder, a narrowing down of murder to a point of personal interest and personal sympathy...The public, not seeing or knowing personally the tens of thousands of men killed in battle, could not feel half the personal concern in their murder that it can feel in the murder of an actor it lays eyes on or even in the murder of a character that a novelist has made intimately real to it.

3. The mystery play has much the same quality as a baseball game, a horse race or any other such popular competitive sport. Its excitement for the spectator lies in betting upon and determining the name of the ultimate winner. Everything is intensely directed toward the finish, the solution, the award...The other play other than the mystery play is not so greatly concerned with its outcome as with its intermediate by-play. It appeals to the relative minority who go to a horse race more because they love horses than because they admire jockeyship.

4. The mystery play, the world over, presently occupies the fancy of the generation of audiences that has grown up since the outbreak of the late war [again, WWI] and that, while it has out-grown childhood, is still not completely adult. Before the war these audiences, then at the sapling age, found delight in an endless succession of stage magicians, illusionists, prestidigitators and quick-change artists...The next theatrical rung after the magician, mind-reader and general goldfish-bowl hocus-pocus artist is the mystery play....

5. The public relishes the mystery play because it substitutes out-and-out plot for more or less shadowy and involved theme. The theme play develops out of itself slowly: what it is driving at is made only gradually to sink into the consciousness of an audience. But the mystery play states its intrinsic nature plainly soon after the curtain goes up, thus relieving the audience of metaphysical speculation and permitting it lazily and comfortably to enjoy its mental shortcomings in cross-word puzzle details.

Due to the length of this post, I will avoid adding my own comments on Nathan's writings. I do have a view but will refrain from expressing it at this time.

Bill Harker

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