“Long ago there was something in me but now that thing is gone…That thing will come back no


– F. Scott Fitzgerald


Douglas Unger: Leaving the Land; Harper & Row; New York.


William McPherson: Testing the Current; Simon & Schuster; New York.


It would be off the mark to regard Douglas Unger’s Leaving the Land and William McPherson’s Testing the Current as no more than the latest contributions to the cult of nostalgia which, still it seems, has a firm grasp on American culture. But if the two novels rise above   the phenomenon, they nonetheless bear some relationship to it. Reading them had the effect on me of rekindling an old curiosity. Why is it that so many Americans in recent years have found solace in looking back longingly on a past they imagine to be superior to the present? Is it, I wonder, one of those grass-roots movements which are actually inspired and sustained by the mass media?

First of all, it has to be acknowledged that all peoples everywhere tend to gild the past and to lend it a luster it probably never had. Memory has a way of being kind. But all this is something which is not only inevitable, but necessary and even healthy, for a people that does not keep track of the past soon finds that it has lost its identity and sense of purpose. However, this kind of healthy awareness and innocent doctoring of the past is not what we find in media-cultivated nos­ talgia. A healthy regard for the past is essentially realistic. It has the salutary effect of grounding a people more firmly in the present. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is escapist. The dedicated devotee of nostalgia wants to recreate a past which is carefully selected and scrupulously edited. By devoting himself to the idol he has created, he can excuse himself from the irksome de­ mands of the present. He does good neither for himself nor for his society. The current wave of nostalgia reveals something about ourselves which, if widely recognized and positively acted upon, could ultimately redound to our benefit. What is being revealed, for those with eyes to see, is the pervasive anxiety of spirit now besetting the country. The attention being paid to the decade of the 30’s and the Great Depression is a telling point. The films and books devoted to the Depression show Americans man­ aging to maintain through those dark days a sense of dogged determination and even a wry optimism. The creators of these exercises in nostalgia often seem confused and amazed by this spiritual heroism. On the face of it, the mood of the American people in the 30’s and the mood of the American people today should be the reverse of what they appear to be. Today, in terms of material well-being, we have it pretty good; yet our morale is lagging. Conversely, the people of the 30’s were often weighed down by the most serious kinds of material difficulties, yet they had not lost their gumption. We are a people, today, who are considerably short on gumption, and the reason for this has little to do with the physical conditions of the society in which we live. Although they may not be fully conscious of the fact, I think that many of those who nurture a nostalgic affection for the 30’s are indirectly acknowledging the spiritual poverty of the age in which they live. What they are recognizing, albeit dimly, is that 50 years ago the spiritual atmosphere in the country was denser and richer. It is not simply a question of the people of the 30.’s being tougher and more durable than people today; rather, the case is just that there were in those times appreciably more people in the country who lived according to the supernatural virtue of hope.

Leaving the Landlooks back at rural life in western South Dakota during the 30’s and 40’s with an indigestible mixture of hurt, respect, and pious devotion to the ideal of the American yeoman farmer. The novel is caught between two traditions. On the one hand, it is in that tradition of American literature, dating from the post­ Civil War decades of the 19th century, which took rural life as its theme and whose tone was mainly disparaging. More specifically, this literature irrev­ erently called into question the classic Jeffersonian notion that life on the land is the wholes! of lives and that those who stay close to the soil stay close to their humanity. Writers like E. W. Howe, Hamlin Garland, and Ole Rolvaag showed through their fiction that life on the land, especially if the land happened to be in the Middle West, was not always what it was cracked up to be by Eastern idealists. It had a decidedly grim side to it; it could deflate as well as ennoble the human spirit. Under the worst conditions, it could crush. This tradition in Ameri­ can literature was kept alive in the 20th century by novelists like Sher­ wood Anderson and Erskine Caldwell, and by poets like Edgar Lee Masters.

But Unger seems to want to cast his lot-if only half-heartedly-with the Jeffersonian tradition as well as with those who buck it. The result is a novel which falls between two stools. And the ambivalence which results from this is debilitating. That ambivalence is found in sharpest focus in the character of the novel’s chief protagonist, Marge Hogan, who is herself the quintessence of ambivalence. She is meant to be regarded, for all her foibles and failings, as a noble sort, whose tenacious loyalty to the land deserves our respect. But, looked at squarely, Marge Hogan proves to be a remarkably undistinguished human being, and we should not be deceived into interpreting her intemperate and often indiscriminate bursts of energy as the signs of an edifying inner strength. She is weak She is in fact quite ambivalent in her attitude toward the land. But she is also ambivalent in her attitude toward her husband, toward her boyfriend, toward her son, toward herself. In sum, she is a house divided. The novel presents us with her “message to the world”; expectantly we accept it, we open it, and we find to our disappointment that we are staring at a blank piece of paper. The Marge Hogans of the world are legion, and they have nothing to teach us.

Testing the Current, like Leaving the Land, is set in the 30’s; but that is just about the only point on which they can be profitably compared. McPherson’s story is much more con­ trolled and more deliberately shaped than Unger’s. The story takes place ‘within the bounds of a 12-month period in 1938-39 and concerns a young boy, Andrew Thomas MacAllister, whose fortunes we follow as he makes a passage from his eighth to ninth year. Tommy MacAllister belongs to a wealthy, Midwestern family, and in the persons of his mother and father, his two older brothers, his various friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, he is surrounded by an array of remarkably unprosaic human beings. So far, we might say, charming, but nothing really extraordinary here. But the story is being told to us by young Tommy MacAllister himself, and that, in the manner in which McPherson brings it off, is truly extraordinary, a tour de force. The boyish voice we hear throughout the work is authentic and convincing; we feel as if we are seeing the world through the eyes of an eight-year-old. McPherson has accomplished an impressive feat of the imagination.

The novel begins with a quotation from Stendhal, to the effect that originality and truth are to be found only in details-obviously the principle which guided McPherson in his writing. Testing the Current fairly floats on details. Every nook and cranny of the young protagonist’s consciousness is examined, sometimes from more than one perspective. Frankly, as I read on through the novel I kept waiting for the whole thing to collapse, for details to begin to cloy and dullness to set in. But it never happened. McPherson maintains masterful control over his material, and everything that went into the story had a purpose and contributed to the intrinsic logic of the narrative – well, almost everything.

The one real flaw in the novel is a scene toward the end of the work in which a young Black provides Tommy with a lurid and detailed description of an act of sexual intercourse he had witnessed. What is wrong with this scene is not simply the crude language employed in it-so joltingly incongruous to the language of the novel as a whole. No, what makes the scene so wrong is its almost totally gratuitous quality. Not only does the scene not serve the main purposes of the novel, but it actually militates against those purposes. What prompted, I wonder, this loss of nerve, this unfortunate concession to vulgarity?

All too many writers – Unger, for example – fall back on the expedients of sex and violence as an escape from the hard work of character development. A similar, if less noticeable, tactic is the depiction of eccentricity, which reveals an incapacity to come to grips with real people, or even believe in them. The writer avoids the task of striking the mean in developing characters. In saying this I do not intend to imply that he should be striving for a kind of noncommittal blandness, but rather that he should try to discover the complex truth between the extremes of sanctity and satanism to be found in the overwhelming majority of human beings. In choosing eccentricity, he chooses distortion. Characters are writ large but crooked. The focused depiction of eccentricity, raising eccentricity almost to the level of a norm, amounts to a kind of caricature of human nature. Too much of it has just the opposite effect upon readers from what the writer intended. A surfeit of eccentricity in fiction contributes towards the creation of a world whose main claim to fame is that it is simply bizarre, and bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. That, after a while, gets boring.

Unger’s novel is marred by the presence of too many characters whose primary value rests in their eccentricity. Also, there is too much violence in the book which seems; calculated to meet no other purpose but to titillate the reader-a little excitement thrown in to stir up the lads dozing in the back row. These may be only faults which a young writer will inevitably outgrow. As for McPherson, he is already a polished craftsman, and for him, one’s hope would be that he not allow himself to be enchanted by the siren song of easy notoriety, that he trust the best instincts of his considerable talent. cc