Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

In the Book and Literary World

June 30, 1935
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Fortune and Men’s Eyes. By George Cronyn. 381 pp. New York: Covici, Friede, Inc. $2.50.

Few months ago, in William Faulkner’s latest novel, “Pylon,” I pointed out a case of a highly objectionable use of a Jewish character in contemporary fiction. Although since that time I have found other instances of the same type of thing, I am convinced that this curious habit of non-Jewish authors is rather the result of carelessness and a general condition of mind rather than of any specific animosity, conscious or subconscious. If novelists handled their other characters with the superficiality of their Jewish ones, if they permitted themselves always to draw caricatures of stock types, the novel would sink to a low ebb indeed.

Geroge Cronyn’s new novel is a case in point. I know Mr. Cronyn personally, and am certain that he would be shocked should the slightest degree of anti-Semitism be imputed to him. And yet the character of Raymond Hassburger in “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” is so drawn that it becomes just that much more confirmation for the attitude out of which anti-Semitism springs.

In point of fact, Mr. Cronyn defends the hero of his novel, Byron Peirce, in his friendship for Hassburger, a member of one of the few Jewish families in the small mid-western town of Culverton. There is an issue over this, because when Byron insists upon associating with Hassburger, he loses another very good friend. But despite Cronyn’s passionate argument for tolerance, there is much in the characterization of Hassburger that will lead the reader to recall all the familiar anti-Semitic charges.

Although Hassburger’s brilliant mind has a beneficial effect upon the troubled psyche of Byron Peirce, and although his abundance of money helps him over several tight spots, he emerges as pretty much of a worm. He always is scheming to get on the inside track. He is arrogant and flashy. He resembles his father, who, when the Masons turned him down for membership in the local lodge, gave the town a park site on the condition that it erect a tablet bearing these words: “Given by a Jew for the pleasure of all.” Later Hassburger, the least militaristic of individuals, becomes a Cadet Corps officer. Byron asks him why. Here is his answer:

“I’m a Jew, not good enough for their damn silly frats. So I went into the student corps and made myself a good officer, in spite or plenty of jealousy and dirty work. Same way, I’d go into the service. Pride, I suppose.”

Later Hassburger does indeed go into the service, when war is declared, and becomes one of the leading German-baiters in the university. Here is all the old action and reaction of anti-Semitism in stereotyped form. Pride is the normal and simple reaction insult. It is an old, dull song, unworthy of Mr. Cronyn’s iteration. The only service that a friendly non-Jewish novelist can do us is to show that there are many of us who are not driven to the vices of character which are the all too easy compensation for prejudice against us. Mr. Cronyn’s liberalism backfires, because it makes his readers see, not the causes of anti-Semitism, but certain unpleasant characteristics in Jews which sometimes result from it.

For the rest of the novel—and Hassburger does not play a leading role—I have nothing but praise. It tells the story of the havoc wrought within one family by the conflict of natural impulses with accepted conventions and a rigid social structure. With stirring drama, through the device of a psycho-analytic treatment of the hero after his brother has committed suicide and he himself has reached a desperate mental state, the account of the gallant conflict of the Rev. Charles Worden Peirce against sexual and intellectual taboos of a small town is unfolded. The elder Peirce married a wife high in the town’s social circles, and so this conflict was brought within the Peirce family life.

Each of the three boys, of whom Byron was one, in some fashion or other had his whole life distorted by this basic antagonism between husband and wife. Clyde becomes a restless wanderer over the face of the earth, a lost soul seeking to drown in the rythm of physical action the desolation of his spirit. Max becomes a worshipper of Mammon; when Mammon fails him, he kills himself. Byron is the passive element in the conflict; his sympathies are first on one side and then on the other. This makes a nightmare of his early life. He becomes an architect, marries, and finds himself plunged into a situation similar to his father’s. When he sees his father’s grim fate looming before him, his mind becomes temporarily unhinged. The moving series of events that ensues I will leave the reader to discover.

George Cronyn has a vast capacity for acquiring information, and great skill in imparting that information in narrative form. His great fault is that he lacks distinction of style, a quality upon which, unfortunately, Americans do not set great store. So it is not too rash to predict success for him in the future as a novelist.

Recommended from JTA