The Nation’s Fall Books Supplement of 1924 served up an especially spicy potage
As those of you who check in with us regularly know, one of our guiding lights is our regular visits to the past. Whether it’s an archive for In The Stacks, collectible books for a homage to an author or book, or referencing some past event to help us make us sense of the present we are always deeply indebted to what has come before.
We are delighted to have Richard Kreitner contribute this piece to Book Patrol. In celebration of the current Fall Books issue of The Nation, Kreitner, Special Assistant at The Nation and editor of its Back Issues blog, shares some book juice from the October 8, 1924 Fall Book Number.
This year’s Fall Books issue of The Nation featured a diverse medley of criticism: an essay by Martha Nussbaum on cyber-harassment; a 9,000-word appraisal—a veritable treatise—by Timothy Shenk on the new histories of capitalism and slavery; an appreciation of Italo Calvino by the regular Nation contributor Aaron Thier; a tender tribute to The New Republic, on the occasion of its centennial, by yours truly.
Fresh, dense, piquant: come autumn, that’s just how The Nation do.
Since 1919, The Nation has devoted most of one issue every fall to reviews of new books of the season. A comprehensive study of these supplements will have to await some intrepid scholar of the future, but for now a close examination of just one of them—published 90 years ago—will serve to exemplify the almost intolerable pleasures awaiting any bibliophilic explorer of The Nation’s online archives, available for free to all subscribers.
The Nation of October 8, 1924 served up an unusually sumptuous meal. After easing through front-of-the-book appetizers like a mock elegy to the Ku Klux Klan (then in decline); a consideration of the merits and the faults of Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s candidacy for the New York governorship (he lost); and an essay on “The Chinese Student Mind” by an obscure teacher at the University of Nanking named Pearl S. Buck, readers were free to enjoy the main dish: the Fall Book Section, a diverse and nourishing potage.
First up was an essay on “Truth and Realism in Literature” by the Greenwich Village poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim, who argued against what he considered bare-bones realism. “A literary creator should regard the words and actions of men and women as nothing more than a luring taunt to his virtues as a dangerous, persuasive, and unfair liar—as a first shove to his distorting intentions,” Bodenheim wrote. “He must be able to daze certain men into accepting his version as a veracious one by the vigorous skill of his conscious or unconscious misrepresentations, and to force other men to retorts and disagreements which will seem angrily impotent when compared to his own words, or lure these men to an unwilling silence.”
D.H. Lawrence’s books, for example, were inferior “to the more subtly compact work of brilliant, young English writers such as Virginia Woolf,” Bodenheim continued, because “Lawrence created nothing but an unconscious, clumsy, redundant caricature of the original men and women.”
Flipping pages, past an essay on “Iceland’s New Birth” and a third-person self-appraisal by the critic Henry Seidel Canby—the seventh in a series that also included entries by Heywood Broun and H.L. Mencken—readers would have found a review by the poet Genevieve Taggard of two volumes on Emily Dickinson, one a Life and Letters, the other a Complete Poems. Both were edited by Dickinson’s niece, Martha, and Taggard found them marred by the influence of that famously oppressive family: “Reticence, good taste, Amherst sensibilities—all the forces that stifled and warped the living girl are here again, silencing the events of her life and destroying her letters, as perfect in many instances as her poems.” But the treatment of the poetry was, if anything, worse. “In every instance this freshest of spring water has had to come through the filter of common and cloudy minds,” Taggard wrote.
Two pages later, the poet Edwin Muir reviewed A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, advertised by its publisher as “the novel of the season” elsewhere in the issue. For its author Muir had high praise, if not entirely pure approbation:
His work is a work of inclinations, adroitly balanced, and rarely slipping into the faux pas of a decision. With great tact he knows how to go half-way in any given direction, and his talent consists in knowing exactly where the half-way point is. This knowledge implies a great deal of experience in reserve behind it, and there is no doubt that experience is real. Mr. Forster gives his reservations the weight of categories which everybody would be more intelligent by accepting; and no doubt they would, though Mr. Forster attaches too much importance to intelligence. He writes always as a man who knows better than any one else while not insisting on the fact. And he writes thus because he is, first, a capable man, and, secondly, a man of taste. He knows where he stands; he has found his place, and there is a note of assurance, accordingly, in all he says. But although his utterance is genuine as that of few of his contemporaries is, one doubts whether it is profound. The intellect is not exercised to its utmost in going half-way in all directions. Practical expedience, intelligence of a rare kind, may be shown in doing that; but hardly wisdom, not the passion for truth which animates great art. Mr. Forster does not possess these qualities; on the other hand, he has an intelligence of greater force and purity than that of any other imaginative writer today. That intelligence is a scrupulously truthful one; but its distinguishing character is its refusal to pursue truth beyond a certain point. This is why his books, in spite of their skill, produce a total effect which is not decisive.
A Passage to India, Muir continued, was “executed with rare scrupulousness.
The writing, when it does not slip into fine writing, as it does once or twice, is a continuous delight. The novel is a triumph of the humanistic spirit over material difficult to humanize. It is this first of all; it is also a work of art exquisite rather than profound. Last of all, it is a peculiarly valuable picture of the state of India seen through a very unembarrassed and courageous intelligence.
Later in the issue, the unjustly forgotten essayist and critic Konrad Bercovici reviewed Walter Francis White’s novel The Fire in the Flint, which, he wrote, “struck deep into the problem which must agitate the Untied States for centuries to come—the problem of the colored race.”
The novel told the story of a young black physician who studies medicine in the North and returns to the Klan-dominated South. After summarizing the plot and the protagonist’s grisly end, Bercovici concludes:
In such a mold Mr. White has poured all that he knows, all that he has observed in years, all that he has dreamed and all that he has experienced, interpreting everything with his own passion and leaving art to take care of itself. The result is a stirring novel, beautifully and passionately written, the exact like of which has never been seen in the United States. I am thankful to Mr. White that he has not tried to give also the “lighter side of Negro life.” In the best creative work of the Negro now there is a certain Slavic tendency, self-searching, analytical; this is revealed superbly here. “The Fire in the Flint” may be but the first of Mr. White’s novels of Negro life, and more should follow from the pens of others in the interest of a better understanding between the white race and the black—the almost white and the almost black.
Earlier in the October 8, 1924, Nation, readers might have noticed an advertisement for Time magazine, then less than two years old. The ad copy is perhaps best enjoyed by reading it aloud with a high-pitched, crackly, old-timey radio voice:
People are, for the most part, poorly informed. To say, with the facile cynic, that it is the fault of the people themselves is to beg the question. People are poorly informed because hitherto no publication has adapted itself to the time which active men and women can devote to keeping themselves thoroughly informed.
News comes from a thousand fronts—politics, science literature, business—How can a man get it all? grasp it? put it together? make it his own?
Comes TIME,—America’s first news-magazine.
From every news-source, TIME collects all available information on every event. TIME analyzes the news. TIME condenses, verifies, resolves, organizes, clarifies, completes. This complete report of the week’s world news is yours in 26 brief pages, which you can read in the hour before dinner. No man—not though he possessed the greatest mind, an unimpeachable vocabulary and a faultless memory—could tell you as much about what is happening as TIME will tell you in its 26 compact pages.
That is the news-magazine idea.
Lower on the page, a bold header asks, “Does it WORK?” A discount, supposedly the first ever offered by the magazine, is specifically directed to “the critical readers of The Nation.” I am fairly sure there is a compliment in there somewhere.
Richard Kreitner edits the “Back Issues” blog of The Nation magazine, which next year turns 150 years old.