The year 1929 still causes dread, if not in the mind of the public, then at least among the minions on Wall Street. “Black Tuesday,” October 29, saw the United States lose $14 billion in wealth, hurtling the nation into an economic depression that lasted until World War II.
Nineteen twenty-nine had something else going for it. Bouts of creativity are difficult to predict; they often happen when a society has received mortal blows and the poet is inspired to take pen to paper. Think of St. Augustine writing City of God after learning of the fall of Rome. The effects of World War I remained on the mind of the artist. Either way, 1929 was a year of unprecedented creativity in American letters. Three masterpieces—Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel—were all published within months of each other. One house (Scribner’s) and one editor (Maxwell Perkins) were responsible for both the Hemingway and Wolfe novels. It was a bright day in the life of the imagination.
Nineteen twenty-nine was not a good year to be a writer. Who would have the money to buy your book? Hemingway was an exception. Both his first novel, The Sun Also Rises and his short story collection, Men Without Women had made him a publishing sensation. Added to that was the Hemingway image, now being studiously crafted by Scribner’s: The young expatriate who loved to hunt, fish and fight in battle. Hemingway was a writer who refused to waste a single word. Deep revisions were preferable to even a whiff of overwriting. A Farewell to Arms is a more powerful novel than The Sun Also Rises. Still, the lead character, an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry was not as sympathetic a character as Jake Barnes, hero of the first novel. Barnes too was a veteran. He was disabled in The Great War, but working as a journalist in Paris, he harbors no self-pity.
Barnes has found God and that is enough for him. A Farewell to Arms tells the ill-fated love story between Henry and a British nurse, Catherine Barkley. The latter gets pregnant and then loses both the son and her own life. Henry is young enough and battle-hardened enough to get over it. The novel was also antiwar, which, along with the ill-fated romance is why it was so popular. Other World War I novels popular among the public, All Quiet on The Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun, were also antiwar. By the 1920s, Europe and America had seen enough of war. Disarmament was in the air. That, too, had unhappy consequences.
Like Hemingway, the young Faulkner got caught up in the romance of war, signing up for duty in the Canadian Air Force once hostilities broke out. For Faulkner, however, it was not World War I that shattered his world. For the native Mississippian, it was instead the Civil War and reconstruction that shaped his conscience. Faulkner didn’t remember the war, but both his grandfathers were veterans, and this impressed the young man greatly. The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner’s fourth novel. He tells the story of the Compson family, a middle-class clan now in total ruin. The couple had four children: Jason, Candace, Quentin and Benjy, the latter a 33-year-old retarded man. The family had the money to send Quentin to Harvard. While there, an incident from his youth, namely his inability to confront a man who has taken advantage of his sister, drives him to suicide. The family falls apart. Candace flees home. Benjy mourns her absence. Jason, coldhearted and cynical, tries to keep the family afloat. That Benjy is the same age as Jesus Christ at the time of His death is not coincidental. Nor is the closing scene, when Dilsey, the family’s long-suffering house servant, takes the young man to an Easter Sunday service.
These novels remain unforgettable. One can remember where he or she was when they first read them. Such is most true of the opening pages of The Sound and The Fury. Benjy is at a local golf course with his minder, Luster. The latter is looking for stray golf balls he can trade in to buy a ticket for an evening at the movies. On the links, golfers keep yelling, “caddy.” Poor Benjy thinks it is his long-lost sister they are yelling about. He howls away. Luster tells him to be quiet. Golfers keep yelling “caddy.” Benjy cries. It is the most heart-wrenching scene in American literature.
Look Homeward, Angel, too, cuts to the heart of family life. Thomas Wolfe was a frustrated playwright who turned his fiction once his plays failed to find a New York producer. Wolfe was the youngest of eight. His father was a verbose stonecutter; his mother ran a boarding house in the mountain resort city of Asheville, NC. Wolfe, then, had a front row seat to the family drama, vividly recorded on the pages of his first novel. The novel is about brotherly love. Ben, Eugene Gant’s older brother, was orphaned at a young age when his twin brother, Grover, died of pneumonia at the 1904 World Fair’s in St. Louis. Ben takes Eugene under his wing. Tutoring the young Eugene brings fulfillment to Ben’s life. Ben, too, perishes from that same pneumonia plague, while Eugene is now a star college student on his way to Harvard. In the novel’s final chapter, Ben is brought back to life as his ghost conducts a lengthy conversation with Eugene on the meaning of life.
Hemingway was a Man of 1914. Faulkner a Man of 1865. Wolfe rejected the “wastelander” or Lost Generation schools. He was an optimistic on the American prospects. If Mark Twain was shaped by steamboats and Jack Kerouac by the automobile, Wolfe was fascinated by trains and where they may take the young man. Hemingway’s prose is spare and unforgiving. Faulkner’s is elegiac and tragic. Wolfe’s energy is boundless. From A Farewell to Arms:
But after I had got them [the nurses] out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
And from The Sound and The Fury:
It was Grandfather’s [watch] and when Father gave it to me he said, Quentin, I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
Finally, from Look Homeward, Angel:
We can believe in the nothingness of life, we can believe in the nothingness of death…but can we believe in the nothingness of Ben? Like Apollo…he came, a god with broken feet, into the gray hovel of the world. And he lived here a stranger, trying to recapture the music of the lost world, trying to recall the great forgotten language, the lost faces, the stone, the leaf, the door.
O Artemidorus, farewell!
Wolfe was 29 when his first novel was published. By 1929, Hemingway was 30, while Faulkner was 32. Novelists in their youth! Plato once maintained that the fires only burn in a man’s stomach for 10 years of his life. These men were already prolific, and the future decades would bring more volumes, many of which will outlast the ravages of time.