Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 10, No. 9. June 25, 1947
The Hollow Men
The Hollow Men
In "The Hollow Men" Michael Gold succeeds in bringing into clear perspective the development and trends of American literature in the interwar period. His work stands out from the flood of confused vapourings of bourgeois critics, as one of the few that succeed in relating the literary trends of his time to their true determinant—the social and political factors of the period.
In his first chapter, in prose as magnificent in its abuse, as biting in its shrewd caustic evaluation, he analyses the literature of the boom period up to the 1929 Wall Street crisis: that period of the commercial exploitation of art and literature as of everything else. The art for art sakers, the æsthetes of the social vacuum and the esoteric bums and stiffs of the petty bourgeouis intelligentsia receive short shrift at his hands; clinched by apt quotation from Flaubert, whom they had long regarded as their source of theory. To Cold no work of art is the result of in immaculate conception. "Milton's poetry is inconceivable without his politics; he was the intellectual leader of the republican revolution of his time."
The tawdry defeatism of T. S. Eliot as evidenced in his "Wasteland" of the early twenties, with its despicable self-pity and its snobbish disgust with mass democracy and industrialism, Gold next contrasts to the great tradition of Emerson, Whittier, Thoreau and Walt Whitman, which had been closer to the people and hence courageously optimistic; and shows how foreign was the mood of the hollow men to the feelings and lives of the American people.
In the second chapter of his study Gold shows the change that took place in literature as a result of a decade of depression and the rise of proletarian and communist ideas in America.
The appearance of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and Richard Wright's "Native Son" marked the peak of realist literature at the end of a great decade of American writing when the battle for a people's culture was almost won, when proletarian literature had grown from a small movement into one of the major trends of American art.
The effect of a strong and culturally developed Communism in giving direction to the confused, groping American intellectuals cannot be over estimated. Other philosophies could not explain or show a way out of the great crash, but Marxism did.
Although no major poet arose out of this renaissance of proletarian literature, no new major poet came out of the bourgeois world during the decade. Not only did dozens of memorable proletarian poems come out of this period, but what is more important, a mass audience for poetry. Here Gold has skilfully sketched the rise of proletarian literature in its broad outlines and how it has been emasculated by bourgeois commercialism.
In the next chapter he shows the essential difference between the petty bourgeois intellectual and the worker. The former is so often completely unreliable and opportunist because his every fibre has absorbed the tradition of his class individual enterprise cut-throat competition and devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy which results, among other things, in a lack of human feeling, the absence of love for people. Hence the shoddiness of Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot. James Joyce. Ezra Pound, Dos Passos and their ilk. Gold's judgment of Hemingway will serve as a good illustration of this historical interpretation of the rule of the bourgeois renegades in literature.
Among these lackeys of Capitalism are many. Fascist apologists spreading the doctrine of Fascism under the cloak of "Democracy" and "Idealism" as contrasted with Materialism which they of course abhor. In them we find an echo of Mussolini's "Fascism denies the materialistic conception of history outlined by Marx. Fascism repudiates the concept of economic happiness whereby the sufferings and sorrows of the humblest can be alleviated. Fascism believes in heroism and holiness." Here, under the same idealist mask, is the very philosophy which the Mumfords, Cowleys and Mac-Leish's openly profess under the name Democracy. We saw what such a philosophy led to in France. After exposing the core of rottenness in bourgeois literature Gold in his epilogue strikes a more hopeful note and points out that renegadism, although so blatant, is yet not typical of this class. "It is out of this same bourgeois class that the whole idea of Democracy was born. It was their Miltons. Voltaires, Diderots. Lincolns, who struggled for eight long centuries to achieve the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man." Out of this same class were the great ideas of Socialism born. Marx, Engels, and Lenin were some of the many thinkers who crossed from the bourgeoisie to the side of the working class, bringing with them vast treasures of human culture.
Thus, far from being typical of their class, the renegades are actually renegades to the greatest and proudest traditions of their own class.
"It is capitalism that I have been indicting, not the petty bourgeouisie, a class that is exploited and degraded by capitalism as much as are the workers."
Thus Gold ends on an optimistic note, founded on a belief in the people—with historical justification—and the toughness of the democratic idea which is part of the flesh and bones of modern man.