Edwin Clark, “Six Months in the Field of Fiction.” New York Times. June 26, 1927, pp.5, 18, 20

Six Months in the Field of Fiction
Among New American Novelists Brought Forward This Season Julia
Peterkin and Nathalie Colby Are Noteworthy


THE present article offers a report 
on the state of the novel
during the past six months as
shown in the work of American 
and English novelists. To
find a critical attitude that would
be all-embracing is manifestly possible, 
for one is confronted by a 
great variety of attitude and methods. 
There is today no generally
accepted theory of form as applied
to the novel. It is a period of experiment. 
Yet there may be observed 
a peculiar tendency—a trend
toward compression of time—a return 
to the classic unities with
modifying reservations. While the
theatre appears to be attempting to
break from classical traditions, the 
novel in some quarters is adapting 
them to its uses. Notable examples
of this tendency are to be noted in
“Green Forest,” the remarkable
first novel by Nathalie Sedgwick
Colby and in the work of Liam
O’Flaherty and Virginia Woolf.
This is a happy condition to offset
the serious blight of the heavy hand
of sociology—for the didactic naturalistic 
novel is little more than
a negative force—in pushing the expension 
of the novel to such an extent 
as to bring about a natural reaction 
from excess. Then, too, the
new consciousness of the post-war
period has loosed a flood of smart
fiction, an assumed sophistication
that has contributed some brightly
colored bubbles. In spite of all this,
the test of the novel still rests upon
the appearance of “life” and
“truth” and the creation of character 
or story.

The laurels for first place among
native novel appear to belong to 
Julia Peterkin for her first novel,
“Black April.” It is a finely conceived 
book and immediately suggests 
comparison with the perfectly
realized “Time of Man,” which 
stood so singularly alone last Fall.
Mrs. Peterkin does not command
the fresh, resourceful original style
of Miss Roberts, but both novels
are highly meritorious conceptions
of folk material. Mrs. Peterkin has
created a new field for herself.
“Black April” is an intensive study
of an isolated part of the coast
lands of South Carolina inhabited
by the “blue-gum negroes” of the
riceland plantations. This alien material 
she has perceived with a 
hearty comprehension, a warm humanity 
and excellent restraint. In
her technique Mrs. Peterkin has
reconciled the experimental with
the traditional novel. She has 
adapted the method of the picaresque 
novel, developing a series of 
incidents loosely connected by the 
thread of narrative and brought
them into a harmonious whole by
the creation of a dominant character, 
whose influence reacts upon
the others. In Black April, the 
foreman of the plantation, she
presents an almost heroic figure.
There is posited in the central character 
and his tragic defeat the
eternal conflict between worldly living 
and the concepts of religion. 
The story deals with the trials and
hard fates found among a people 
who live close to the earth and in 
direct contact with the elements
and elemental emotions. It is an
uncommon and notable novel in 
both craft and substance.

The season has been marked by
the reappearance of several well-
known writers; the sensation of
course being Sinclair Lewis’s “Elmer 
Gantry,” which received more
space in the newspapers than probably 
any other novel in the history
of letters. Booth Tarkington again
appeared after a considerable absence. 
Mrs. Wharton contributed a 
subtle satire of New York society.
Gertrude Atherton turned away
from the best seller and returned to
her former historical interests.

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Anne Sedgwick continued in the
genteel tradition. James Boyd contributed 
another historical novel of
interest—this time the story of a 
private in the Civil War. In the offerings 
of all these novelists there
is very little for which the past
hadn’t fully prepared the reader.
It remained for Mrs. Peterkin and 
Mrs. Colby to provide for the excitement 
of the unexpected. 

Religion became an inordinately
active subject of fiction this year.
Sinclair Lewis with his broad,
flouting satire naturally was the
headliner. “Elmer Gantry” was a 
gorgeous, blatant cartoon. Here
all the zeal of Mr. Lewis for reform
was given vent. He attempted to
be fair, to give all sides of the 

[image of Nathalie S. Colby, two columns wide]

question—but, once his creation 
was well launched on his career of
buffoonery and debauch, one became 
conscious of an interspersed 
monologue of the author giving
vent to his own skepticism. The
story had many capital bits of
sharp caricature and was effective 
in producing an uproar of controversy. 
Elmer Gantry was a straw
man set up for Mr. Lewis to ridicule. 
With the best of Mr. Lewis’s
character creations he has no
standing. For all the gusto and 
bounce of the novel it is inconceivable 
that anything so facile and obvious 
will endure. For after one
has caught the main idea the rest
of the novel is mere repetition.

Quite different was the second
novel of Sylvia Townsend Warner,
who with gentle irony, a puckish
humor, and a rare sense of jest,
took her clergyman to the South
Sea and there let him discover to
his surprise that he never did have
a real religious belief. “Mr. Fortune’s 
Maggot” is quite in the tradition 
of the eighteenth century
satirists. Donn Byrne and Irving
Bacheller, turning to ancient times,
write in the manner of the old-
fashioned romances. Mr. Byrne has
traced the career of Saul of Tarsus.
The story is full of carefully
worked up descriptions of the life

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of the times. His method of stressing 
the virtues of Paul—by running 
down Peter—is perhaps a trifle 
crude. Mr. Bacheller’s novel tells 
the tale of the wanderings of Doris
of Colossae. He skillfully avoided
a pious sentimentality.
Among the new writers there are
a number who have performed 
with more promise. After
Mrs. Peterkin, the honors go to
Mrs. Colby for her brilliantly written 
“Green Forest.” This is a 
modification of the experimental 
novel which rises above imitation 
and experiment. In actual passage
of time it is limited to the period
of an Atlantic crossing, but in its 
projection of memory it embraces
a lifetime. Several of the characterizations

[image of Nathalie S. Colby, two columns wide]

are superb. Behind a
limiting and restless point of view
it presents a facility for handling
comedy types and situations in a 
blending of wit and observation. 
With all its intellectual hardness it
has a fresh and rare perception of
ironic comedy.

Charlotte Haldane, the wife of
the well-known English chemist,
offered a satirical speculation upon
the hypodermic age of the future.
It is a wise and witty book that 
adroitly plays with ideas. The grotesque 
visualization has been ably
sustained to emerge in a reductio
ad absurdum of modern geneticists.
“Half-Gods” by Murray Sheehan
is another fantastic first novel. Mr.
Sheehan fashions a tale half real,
half fancy in which a centaur is 
born on the farm of a family of
Missouri hill-billies. Apparently,
for some reason, Mr. Sheehan was
self-conscious of his satire and
milieu, and his excellent idea was
not developed to its full possibilities. 
He has, however, the beginnings 
of a good style, shrewd observation 
and humor and has
achieved a Middle Western study
that wasn’t corrupted by the drabness 
of its matter. O. E. Rölvaag,
a professor in the northwest, calls
his “Giants in the Earth” a modern 
saga. It is a compelling chronicle

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of the pioneering days of the
last century—a blend of fiction and
history. The combination isn’t entirely 
satisfactory, for, more than a 
novel, it is a human document of 
the early days. It offers a vast
panorama of the settling of the
northwest, with the pioneers pitting
themselves against the natural elements. 
It visualizes with stimulating 
and imaginative force and a 
simplicity of manner heroic behavior 
in an age that has disappeared 
into a legend.

Distinctly a different type of
novel was “Springboard” by 
Robert Wolf. In his hands the college 
novel has reached maturity.
It is a dignified and sympathetic 
study of the difficulties of adolescence [sic]. 
Edna Bryner’s “Andy
Brandt’s Ark” is another novel of
protest. A satire on a dominant
mother, it is an uneven performance. 
The family portrayed is an 
interesting group, but the satire is
somewhat forced. Miss Bryner’s
next novel will be worth watching
for. In “The Woman on the Balcony,” 
which is a bad title that
masks a story of passionate intensity, 
Rose Caylor has set down
against the background of Chicago
a discerning account of the trials
of several souls in wedlock. On
such a trite and familiar subject
her book is surprisingly refreshing.
In “Bread and Fire” Charles
Walker has presented an autobiographical 
story of industrial unrest. 
This novel has a poignant,
disturbing quality in its treatment
of the curiosity of a modern young 
man to find out what it is all 
about. The clever, superficially sophisticated 
“The Red Pavilion,” by
John Gunther, showed a talent for
narrative in a novel that re-
echoes the recent smart fiction.

Many of the younger writers
showed growth in their latest work.
Anne Parrish, in “Tomorrow Morning,” 
concerned herself with a concept 
of failure due to the difficulty 
of adjustment to a new order. It is
a more discerning book than “The
Perennial Bachelor.” Isa Glenn’s
second novel is a document of social 
interest. Again her background
is the Orient, and her story that of
a child who is the victim of quarreling 
parents. The novel suffers
from her uncertain treatment of
the child. Struthers Burt has written 
a novel of contrasts. “The Delectable 
Mountains” offers an objection 
to popular illusions regarding 
the West. It is a well organized
novel that rounds to a happy end.
Somehow Mr. Burt just misses being 
first rate—perhaps it is his confident,

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sane outlook where a touch
of madness would put him on edge.
George Hummel, with several capable 
novels behind him, in his recent 
appearance was bogged in a 
sea of inhibitions in his story of a 
New England woman’s frustrated
heart. Mrs. Banning, in “Pressure,” 
showed growing power in 
her arraignment of middle class
American society.

Helen Hull, a novelist of growing
distinction, who frequently is mistaken 
for the authority on sheiks,
was represented in a fresh vigorous 
story of three generations.
“Islanders” restates the fortunes of
a family, the outstanding individual
being a woman of rare courage and
inquiring mind. Its picture of the
passing American scene of the last
seventy years is a protest against
pushing woman into the background 
of family life when it 
comes to a decision calling for action. 
It is a comprehensive novel 
of arresting interest and well-
rounded characters.

“Red Damask” is a worthy successor 
to “Talk.” With this book
Miss Sachs is in position to be compared 
to J. B. Stern. A German-
Jewish family has grown rich in
three short generations and is beginning 
to leave its isolated inter-
family life for one of wider scope.
Naturally, it is the younger members, 
breaking from the traditional
groups, who are to be confronted
with inter-racial jealousy and social 
barriers. The story of Abby 
Hahl and her difficult loves is remarkable. 
With wisdom and candor 
the novel surmounts partisanship, 
with tolerance it sets down
the ancient clash of young and old,
Jew and Gentile. A stimulating
novel if there ever was one.

Percy Marks in “Lord of Himself” 
has added a sequel to his 
earlier novel, “The Plastic Age.”
Mr. Marks is sympathetic, and his 
account of the efforts of his collegians 
to find themselves is racy
but sentimental. Harry Harvey’s
“Coñgai” shows improved technical 
management. It is a fascinating 
and colorful account of the 
mixed-bred women of French China
and their European lovers.

The writing of war novels has
entered a new stage. Apparently
the period of disillusionment has
gone by and humor enters in. 
Leonard Nason’s doughboys are
heroes bursting into wise-cracks
and slapstick. “Three Lights from
a Match,” for all its natural

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