Concerning Poshlost

From John P. Marquand’s Wickford Point:

No one could teach anyone else to write. You could be as industrious as you pleased; you could steep yourself in the technique of all the Flauberts and Maupassants and Dickenses who had gone before, and out of it would come exactly nothing. That was the problem with Allen Southby.

There is something revealing about amateur fiction which is particularly ghastly, for in this type of effort you see all the machinery behind the scene. I could tell exactly what Allen had been reading before he had set to work. He had made a study of Hardy — it must have been a dreary task — and then he had touched on Sherwood Anderson and Glenway Westcott and O’Neill. He had been reading a lot of those earth-earthy books, where the smell of dung and the scent of the virgin sod turned by the plow runs through long paragraphs of primitive through slightly perverted human passion; but those others could write, and Allen Southby never would if he lived as long as Moses. Nevertheless I was finding the thing stimulating again. I was thinking of ways in which I might have changed it.

Allen was back at his desk, fiddling with his folio volume. He saw me right away when I paused and reached for the whisky glass.

“There’s nothing the matter with it, is there, Jim?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s very provocative, Allen.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Allen. “Thank you, Jim, but we mustn’t disturb Joe.”

The delicate feeling of liking that I was experiencing for him, born possibly from a sense of remorse, vanished with this remark. He was an intellectual snob and an intellectual climber. He had intimated without much tact that any admiration of mine was inconsequential now that Joe was there. He would never know that my remark had been completely truthful. Southby had been provocative because he was writing about something which I could understand far better than he could ever understand it. It was not the plot, which was horrible, that arrested my attention so much as his manner of writing. His pages resembled the efforts of visiting writers, who had spent their summers in Maine and on Cape Cod, to depict the New England scene. The effort was the same as when some Northern writer attempted an epic of the South, and could see nothing but nigger mammies and old plantations and colonels drinking juleps. These others,when they faced New England, saw only white houses, church spires, lilacs and picket hedges, gingham hypocrisy and psychoses and intolerance. Not even Kipling, the keenest observer who had touched our coast, could do it. There was something which they did not see, an inexorable sort of gentleness, a vanity of effort, a sadness of predestined failure.

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