Art or Argument
by Arthur Miller.
New York, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945. 217 pp. $2.50.
The reviewer inevitably feels some strain when a novel presents, as does Focus, a timely and important issue—in this case the growth of organized anti-Semitism in America—and attempts with good intentions and some ingenuity to solve it. To intrude critical standards into this real-life struggle is to risk being considered picayunish or above the battle. Not to exercise critical judgment may be to condone a literary atrocity—contrived plot, wooden characterization, stiffness of texture, scenario dialogue.
But this dilemma is hardly as desperate as that which confronts the hero of Mr. Miller’s first novel. A cruel metamorphosis overtakes one Lawrence Newman, meek, inoffensive, quietly anti-Semitic, of good Anglo-Saxon ancestry: forced to put on glasses, he assumes what is considered a typically Jewish facial expression. At the same time he meets and marries a woman who fulfils the ideal image he has carried with him for twenty-five years, and who, with her enigmatic past and tragic features, might almost—as he fears and secretly hopes—be Jewish. As the owner of a “Jewish face,” he loses his job with a public utilities corporation and is overwhelmed within a few months by a lifetime’s accumulation of slights and insults. As the husband of a “Jewish-looking” wife, he finds himself ostracized and under attack by the Christian Front organization in his neighborhood. Both startling and ingenious, the story in outline suggests Kafka and Pirandello, who have also investigated, if more profoundly, the great puzzle of man’s identity in the modern world.
Mr. Miller has exploited the most advanced findings in social psychology to construct his average anti-Semitic American with scientific precision. All the typical character-traits are present in Newman: the over-fastidiousness, the abhorrence of violence or dirt, the deference to authority, the attachment to the mother, the sexual repression, the divided feelings toward Jews, who represent the dark secrets of the protagonist’s nature. “He was sitting there in the guilt of the fact that the evil nature of the Jews and their numberless deceits, especially their sensuous lust for women—of which fact he had daily proof in the dark folds of their eyes and their swarthy skin—all were the reflections of his own desires with which he had invested them. . . .He found himself wanting her to believe it [his Jewishness] of him just for this moment. . . .”
But all this is accompanied by assumptions that jar the sense of probability. One automatically asks whether there exists, even as a cultural type, so definitely a Jewish face as that which the author inflicts on his character—the “Hindenburg Jew type” with “very fair skin, and . . . suggestions of bags under his eyes . . .” and what relation this stereotype has to the earlier mentioned “swarthy skins.” A physiognomic interpretation of anti-Semitism is of course an absurdity. But is the author merely asking us to accompany him in good faith as he illustrates a fable or a parable?
At no point is it made clear whether the story is to be considered as symbolic, like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, or accepted as a simple narrative using realistic details to point a warning, like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. This initial lack of focus distorts the vision of the reader all through the book, causing a series of blurs, dancing spots, clouded lights, and forcing the attention to falter as characters grow monstrously large and then recede to skeletal proportions in the course of a few pages. It also results in puppet-like figures, so thin that the manipulative fingers of their creator can be seen moving within. (The characterization of the wife, being merely accessory to the plot, never fully emerges, and when it is disclosed that her mysterious past has included connections with anti-Semitic organizations, this seems to have been dragged in only to enforce an arbitrary unity upon the narrative.)
At one climax in the story the wife is made to say, “There’s a time coming . . . and it’s not far away. Once all these organizations get together and join up into one outfit they’re going to have enough people to swing this country. . . . One year after there is one big organization in this country there won’t be a Jew standing up in America.” It is this message which is the core of the book, and to which the other devices are contributory. Mr. Miller-aims at non-Jewish readers, hoping that those not irretrievably anti-Semitic will recognize in the thought processes of the main character a reflection of their own irrational attitudes, and be jolted out of them by the awful question, “What if I too were mistaken for a Jew?”
Resolving the conflict, the Focus finds peace and strength by finally identifying his problem with that of the real Jews, and by taking a militant stand against his enemies. The socially therapeutic value of such a conclusion, voicing a call to an individual, responsible morality, is undeniable. But by limiting himself entirely to the didactic role, the author has not only forfeited a claim to be writing serious literature but has deprived himself of a number of wonderfully ironic and informing effects. If the hero is so easily mistaken for a Jew that he is turned away from restricted hotels and insulted by stray drunks in the streets, should his Jewishness not also be assumed by other Jews, who might extend to him gestures of warmth and solidarity? As it is, the only Jewish character in the novel is a man who, like the hero, is an object of attack, and Jewishness is at the end equated only with a new, more hardened attitude toward persecution.
The real interest of Focus lies, I believe, in the way it anticipates the paths we may expect the novel of social protest to follow in the future. The conflicts of the stock novel of social significance of the thirties, reflecting the economic tensions of the Depression, closely paralleled the Marxist ideology of the class struggle; climaxes were represented by the strike or the lockout. It preached, in general, a radical revision of society, and was addressed to the discontented and dispossessed who stood outside the social mainstream.
The stock social-protest literature of the forties and thereafter, it seems safe to predict, will stand considerably to the right of this school. Far from trying to upset the status quo along class lines, its adherents will preach a more general ethnic democracy, addressing their message to respectable citizenry. The struggle it reflects will lie in minority relations, as the conflicts there deepen steadily and ominously (see Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit and Hodding Carter’s The Winds of Fear). Its negative climaxes will be represented by the race riot or pogrom, and its positive climaxes by gestures of brotherhood or the recognition of a common humanity. And this literature will be ably served—as Mr. Miller has recognized with perspicacity—by those latest scientific investigations into the dynamics of individual and group relations that are beginning to reach out tentative feelers toward a new conception of man and his world. But science is, after all, no substitute for art.