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The Two Worlds of William March, and: A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life, and: Selected Notebooks 1960-1967, and: Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian, and: Saul Bellow's Moral Vision. A Critical Study of the Jewish Experience (review)

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 31, Number 4, Winter 1985
pp. 740-745 | 10.1353/mfs.0.1298

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Each of these studies—a critical biography, a memoir, a notebook, a view of the artist as social historian, a study of Jewish roots—examines the complex relationship between biography and art.

In his Preface to The Two Worlds of William March, Roy S. Simmonds suggests that the book is "not exactly the work I would have wished to have written, its emphasis being on the literary career and rather less on the personal life." Given so rich a life experience—Campbell was a decorated World War One veteran, a successful businessman, an art collector, an early enthusiast of Freudian analysis, as well as the author of the widely acclaimed war novel Company K and the popular drama and film The Bad Seed —this emphasis is disappointing.

Simmonds dutifully provides exhaustive chronological plot summaries, each yoked to its attendant critical reception. We learn that Alastair Cooke thought William March "the most underrated of all contemporary writers of fiction" and that Catholic World found the cynicism and open treatment of sex in March's short stories objectionable. We don't, however, learn much about the private man.

He becomes all the more tantalizing as he drops broad clues to friends and critics tempting them to probe his difficult psyche. For example, he loves to exaggerate past experiences and, like Faulkner, with whom he was sometimes compared, mythicizes war experience, the severity of his wounds, or alters and rearranges childhood events to enhance the tale he is telling at the moment. March was a bachelor who developed a series of intense male friendships, and Simmonds repeatedly identifies the homoerotic strain in his fiction yet skirts sexual preferences in his life.

Freudian analysis intrigued March as did aberrant psychosexual behavior, and although March went into lengthy analysis twice and exhibited bouts of "hysterical" throat paralysis and blindness, Simmonds never ventures a theory of personality around which these symptoms cohere.

The "two worlds" featured in Simmonds' title reflect the familiar dilemma of the artist who wants to be both in the world and apart from it: the world of the successful businessman (which March hated but courted) and the world of the artist (which March loved but distrusted). Yet the more intriguing duality in this book is the comprehensive record of what March produced and the enigma of who he was.

Simmonds may have been hampered by censorship among the Campbell trustees who, as he suggests in his Preface, "were unfortunately not enthusiastic when I made known my intention to write a biography." To its credit, Simmonds' study provides a rich compilation of letters, reviews, publications, literary friendships, and influences that other scholars can employ in future studies of March. But for an author who portrayed the private hells of others unflinchingly, one wishes Simmonds had displayed the same courage in drawing a personal portrait of an artist he characterizes as "one of the most remarkable, talented, and shamefully neglected writers America has produced."

A Cloak of Light is the third in a series of memoirs by Wright Morris. Will's Boy traces Morris' childhood spent on the Midwestern plains; Solo chronicles the experience of the young writer who set out on his bicycle across France, Austria, and Italy; and A Cloak of Light provides a luminous record of Morris' mature years, including nomadic coast-to-coast teaching and writing stints and love affairs with Mexico and Venice. Circumstances surrounding the publication of novels such as Ceremony in Lone Tree and Love among the Cannibals vie with visits with relatives, details of travels, and conversations with friends such as Loren Eiseley, Maxwell Perkins, Saul Bellow, and Delmore Schwartz.

The text is punctuated with the striking black and white photos that established Morris' reputation as a seer of the American scene in "photo-texts." Equally visceral is the Morris style, which combines a Jamesian interest in the angle of perception with a Hemingwayesque economy and tensile strength. Take, for example, this vignette of Robert Frost breakfasting in the dining room of the Alumni Inn at Amherst where Morris was teaching one fall:

At the time of my stay, Robert Frost was making his yearly visit. The first morning, as I pondered my impressions, he sat...

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