From: Ed Lynskey (
Date: 21 Sep 2006

Nice discussion, miker. I wonder when "Bunny" wrote his Roger Ackyrod essay discussing mysteries.


--- Michael Robison <> wrote:

> 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

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