From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 21 Sep 2006

The hardboiled genre originated in the violent Prohibition years and flourished during the hard Depression that followed. Its audience was the lower classes and blue collar workers, and this amounted to a stigma to ward off elitist critical review. Although there were occasional derisive comments from the critics, the overall policy was one of silence, as if left alone the offensive texts would disappear. In 1940 Edmund Wilson risked his reputation by lowering himself to read and comment on several of the writers of the genre. He opens the essay by declaring that he had only recently emerged from reading deeply into obscure nineteenth century works, and that to reawaken his literary senses to the twentieth century, he had just finished the complete works of James Cain, Horace McCoy, Richard Hallas, John O'Hara, John Steinbeck, Nathanael West, and others. It is in this essay, The Boys in the Back Room, that Wilson labeled them the poets of tabloid murder.

Wilson points to Cain's writing as the best of the bunch. Wilson identified most of the writers as being influenced by Hemingway's style and theme, but in James Cain he also saw an association with "the new school of mystery writers of the type of Dashiell Hammett." Although Cain vehemently denied the connection, whether he was directly influenced by Hammett is moot. The common themes involving tough and driven men struggling to dominate in a brutal urban landscape are too similar to ignore. Wilson sees Cain's work as being ingenious, but "trashy" nonetheless, and often in danger of being a parody of itself, but in the end he gives Cain limited credit,
"Yet even there brilliant moments of insight redeemed the unconscious burlesque." Curiously, he criticizes Cain's work for "its movie foreshortening and its too-well oiled action." After submersing himself for so long in the ornate and overwrought prose that dominated the nineteenth century, it is understandable that Wilson would object to the lean and terse prose he sees as foreshortened. It must have been a shock to read something written so straight and clean. As far as his complaint about the "too-well oiled action," it is hard to fathom that as a criticism.

Wilson interprets John O'Hara's writing more in the line of social commentary than a genuine literary effort. O'Hara's main concern was documenting social snobbery in the many subtle and unsubtle ways that it was expressed in the early twentieth century, between the Catholics and Protestants and richer and poorer. For the most part, Wilson's views on John O'Hara are on target. However, Wilson's complaint about Julius English's lack of emotion in An Appointment in Samarra seems misplaced. The novel makes it clear that English is significantly crippled by an upbringing that stressed the suppression of untoward emotion, and with this background, it's difficult or impossible for him to cope with or even understand them. It's not a lack of emotions that Wilson is seeing, but instead an inability on English's part to express them.

Wilson is also astute in noting that in An Appointment in Samarra, O'Hara does not create empathy in the reader for the character, the readers "do not share the experience of the sufferer." This clinical attitude might be to some extent purposeful on the part of O'Hara. It was paralleled to good effect by later authors such as Vin Packer. It harkens back to a naturalistic look at man as if he were participating in a laboratory experiment. Wilson also notes that O'Hara bragged about dashing his work off without revision, and Wilson says this is obvious in his work, with significant sections being "rather diffuse and rather blurred." As an example, he points to the relative pointlessness of some of the minor characters in O'Hara's novels, some fleshed out to considerable extent but of little use in the development of the novel. This is a fair criticism.

Wilson is best able to break from vague generalities and home in convincingly when he examines the works of John Steinbeck. Although he points out the obvious fact that The Grapes of Wrath is a "propaganda novel, full of preachments and sociological interludes," Wilson is perceptive in noting that Steinbeck's writing closely parallels a biological interpretation of man. Rather than raising animals to the level of humans, he is lowering his expectations of man to an animal level. At least at a symbolic level, this is evident in his numerous idiot characters, such as in The Pastures of Heaven, Johnny Bear, and of course, Lennie in Of Mice and Men. In The Grapes of Wrath he compares the travels of the Joads with a turtle, with other similar animal analogies. Wilson finds this biological realism as his end statement, and is sceptical that any high moral ground is hinted at by the animal comparison. Instead of rejecting animal instinct, Wilson finds Steinbeck celebrating, or at least accepting it in man. He quotes a character in Steinbeck's To a God Unknown, "He was not kind to animals; at least no kinder than they were to each other, but he must have acted with a consistency beast could understand."

Upon a closer inspection, this introduces questions about Steinbeck's true feelings about the communist themes that run through his work. When the doctor in In Dubious Battle is told by the young idealist that the violent struggle will be justied by the utopian end, he replies that in his "little experience the end is never very different in its nature from the means..." Steinbeck sees man as an animal with predatory instincts necessary to species survival, and the doctor's statement is closer to scientific fact than moral verdict. More overt, there is an innocence in the pure killing instinct in Lennie, even though Lennie knows right from wrong. In pondering whether Lennie is good or bad, Wilson paraphrases the scientific determinism discussed in Wolcutt's American Naturalism: A Divided Stream, "He is betrayed as, the author implies, all our human intentions are, by the uncertainties of our animal nature." This commitment to Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest in the social affairs of man does not find a good fit with communism.

Although Wilson believes that Steinbeck has a
"first-rate" mind, he is less than totally enthusiastic about Steinbeck's work. In the end, he finds Steinbeck's writing to be an uneven "mixture of seriousness and trashiness," and finally dismisses him with, "It is hard to feel that any of his books, so far, is really first-rate." Steinbeck doesn't equal the major American writers of the twentieth century, but Wilson's comment strikes one as overly harsh.

Wilson finds common ground with Richard Hallas in a fascination with the unreality of the California scene with a Hollywood background, and it is perhaps for this reason that he chose to review Hallas's I Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. There is contemporary thought that the book was written more in parody than as a serious effort, and Wilson himself calls it pastiche. Wilson makes an unconvincing pitch that the unreality is based on the weather and the geography. Compared to the overpowering social elements of California at this time, the Hollywood phenomena, the leftover rags-to-riches hopes of the Gold Rush, and the end of the line for raking in the magnificent harvest of manifest destiny, it seems a longshot betting instead on the sun, the rain, and the surf. California was the end of the rainbow, complete with a pot of gold.

Wilson's lack of understanding of Horace McCoy is another shortcoming of the essay. One need not like McCoy to appreciate the significance of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The French understood it, Camus calling it the most existential of American novels, he used it as a model for The Stranger. McCoy doesn't even rate a full paragraph in the essay. Wilson's only comment is that McCoy does not adequately explore his characters and their motivation. He states this in spite of frequently invoking Hemingway's influence throughout the essay. It appears that Wilson does not comprehend that one of Hemingway's strengths was his understanding of the significance of what goes unsaid.
 Wilson probably wondered what the husband and wife were discussing in "Hills Like White Elephants."

The edition of the essay reviewed here had a brief commentary on Nathanael West's works appended, and he is refreshingly positive towards most of his novels. He qualifies this by noting that West is influenced more by the French than the American school. Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust carry a lot of impact in a few pages, and the spiritual crisis and sense of human loss may not match the grace or philosophical complexity of Dostoevsky, but it's surely more palatable.

A food critic who doesn't like seafood would do well to avoid the subject. Similarly, a literary critic with no appreciation for a genre cannot be expected to comment intelligently on it. This particular piece is collected in a book of his essays entitled Classics and Commercials, and it's obvious which category he places hardboiled literature. Wilson, continually referring to the authors work as trashy and at least once as second-rate, leaves little doubt that his main impetus is to denigrate the subject. There are moments of worthwhile insight in the essay, but most of it suffers from vague hand-waving and blatant condescension. Poetically terse prose and a recognition of the value of what goes unsaid are both important techniques of the genre. His complaints about what he terms Cain's foreshortening and McCoy's lack of characterization raises serious questions concerning his understanding of this. In the end, Wilson's apparent inability to grasp the significance of the genre and its techniques casts doubt on his commentary, suggesting a greater suspension of disbelief for it than the literature to which he refers.

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