Mary McCarthy’s rapid fire, “The People’s Choice” is a review of the book scene in late 1938, and she chooses, as her targets, publishers, best-sellers, and the publicity machine during this time of uncertainty.
Taking the Herald-Tribune’s book review of October 23, the week she writes this essay, she lists the top best-sellers: Marjorie Rawlings, The Yearling; Howard Spring, My Son, My Son; Laura Krey, And Tell of Time. “Almost all summer and well into the Fall, this fiction triumvirate has been reigning unchallenged as the People’s Choice. And the fact that two of these novels deal with the pre-bellum South, and one with pre-war England would seem offhand to confirm the opinion, held by many superior people who never buy best-sellers, that the America public is finding in its reading matter an escape from contemporary social dilemmas.” So she starts with a crack at the facile and often patronising argument that people read to escape, which is a shallow shadow of Marxist critique.
In its stead, she offers the argument that “In 1938, most ‘people’ taken as a whole are not reading fiction at all. And even that genteel America that feeds on fiction is reading the newspapers, the news magazines, and the non-fiction best-sellers as well…. The romantic novel is not so much an escape for the reader from contemporary realities, as it is an escape for the novelist from competition in realism with the journalist and the photographer.”
McCarthy turns to subject the whole business of publishing and its ‘trends’ to this blunt analysis — in an age before focus groups and Oprah’s global market Book Club: “A trend is more likely to originate in the mind of the publisher than in the heart of the public.” “Always on the hunt for thought-saving devices,” she points out, a publisher who has had a ‘natural’ hit…” will cap one 1936 Gone with the Wind with a hundred outsized romances of the Old South.” And the person who buys Laura Krey’s…And Tell of Time, also a novel of the South garners the investment, not only of the reader who reads it in the hope of enjoying as much as they had enjoyed Gone with the Wind. A bit of surplus glamour will already surround the later …And tell of time, whose subject matter is life in Reconstruction Texas. McCarthy ridicules Krey’s novel by showing how, on the one hand, it has dead characters, with deadening personalities, White Southerners. “The most stirring episodes are all concerned with the glorious battle to deprive the Negro of his legal rights, and the indomitable spirit of the Southern Gentlemen who drove the Yankee meddlers and Freedmen’s Bureaus out of the free, white state of Texas.”
‘The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was another 1938 best-seller. When I was going into either 6th to 7th grade, we read it and loved it. I feel pretty sure that it was on the syllabus from 1939 till at least 1963…and may still be. I remember not liking it for the first pages but getting drawn in, and I mostly remember weeping in the chair in my bedroom when it drew to a close. McCarthy is quite kind to The Yearling, considering it to be a ‘natural. ‘
“Its setting is Florida in the post-bellum period, but the tropical forest in which it is centered is not truly moored in time or geography; it is the Garden of Eden of a child’s imagination… The twelve-year old hero of the story, inhabits a universe of wonder, in which each fresh sensation is a discovery that must be weighed, examined, and laboriously charted. To her close observation , Miss Rawlings has added a good, simple plot involving a fearful bear who is to be hated and hunted down, and a delightful fawn who is to be loved and finally relinquished. She concludes by noting that in The Yearling, “Pain exists, but there is always an antidote, hardship exists but there is not a hint of misery and squalor.”
The final best-seller in McCarthy’s piece is Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son. She objects here, as she had about ….And tell of Time, that there isn’t enough sex in it to compel a reading. She says that this is not one of those “antimacassar” novels which specialise in opening the cedar chest of the past. It tells the story of two men who each have a son, and they raise the boys in ways that the fathers believe will compensate for the families’ failings in each childhood and youth.
As a result, the son of a novelist who was denied love and affection as a child turns into a cheat and a cad, and finally is hanged for murder. The son of the other father, a man who lacked the courage to join the Irish Rebellion, raises his son to be an “Irish Rebel”, and ends by being shot in a barn during the Troubles by his childhood playmate, the novelist’s son, who, in his caddish way has joined the War in the Black and Tans.
“The moral of the story is that no man has two lives: if he tries to mould his sons career to compensate for his own frustrations, he will be punished for it.”
McCarthy goes on to give a psychological analysis of the reason for this novel’s success: “It is a success story which suddenly goes into reverse. Thus the reader is allowed to identify himself with the Man Who Gets Ahead, and also to revenge himself on that Man for being exceptional. As in the David-Absalom story from which the book gets its title, the hero is raised up to almost godlike heights, and then, as a punishment for his pride, quickly, brutally cast down to the level of common humanity. It is interesting that in both the popular Biblical story and in the popular modern novel the revenge is visited on the person of the son and only indirectly on the father. This is, I suppose, because the reader has so thoroughly identified with the father that the father must not be permitted personally to fail: only a certain part of him, a projection of the ‘bad’ side of him, his son, can be shamefully laid low.
McCarthy’s discussion shoots sparks of insight all over the issues of the time: the fear of war, the marxist analysis of literature, the problem of popular culture, which problem she shunts nicely over to the publishers’ heads and market goals, and the immediacy of newspapers and news magazines such as Time, Fortune, and Life, in showing us on a daily basis the starkest of American realities. I do love her energy and her ability to think with both her Vassar head and her Partisan Review partisanship. And the piece leaves us in the old ‘animal soup of Time’: the issues may simply be “that nobody takes fiction very seriously any more”.