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70 THEMISSOURIREVIEW OTHER PEOPLE: SOCIAL TEXTURE IN THE POST-WAR NOVEL / Philip Stevick A handful of lines in modern literature hang in the mind with an awesome power that has something to do with their brevity and concentration, something to do with their resonance and their capacity to engage us at the level of what Lovejoy called "metaphysical pathos." "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" is one such sentence. No one who has heard it forgets it. "Things fall apart,/The center cannot hold" is another. I suggest that one sentence which invites the persistent attention given to Joyce's great sentence on history is Sartre's line near the end of No Exit: "Hell is—other people!" It is an extraordinary sentence because of the art of its compression, the power of its irony, and the chill of its insight. But it is an extraordinary sentence for American readers because it reminds us of the special pathos which we are entitled to read into Sartre's universal principle. Radical individualism has always been our fate, and our curse, and our characteristic sense of the world is often located somewhere between mere loneliness and full-blown paranoia. There is scarcely a novelist of consequence from Hawthorne and Melville to the present time who does not, sooner or later, in some of his characteristic moods, join with Sartre's Garçin in deciding that other people are, indeed, hell. Perhaps the American sentence that most strikingly links Sartre's line to the vision of our own post-war fiction is the sentence in Seymour Glass's diary in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters: "I have scars on my hands from touching certain people." That self-enclosed and defensive posture, so characteristically American, finds its own rhythms and conventions in the fiction after the war. Those conventions of the fifties and early sixties are, it goes without saying, never so limiting as they seem when one sets them down and describes them. Novelists of that period press against their limits, escape them altogether. And to be sure, some novelists even go on as if those conventions, by means of which other people are customarily apprehended and set down in a novel, simply do not apply to their kind of fiction. Still, the conventions are there. Other people are hell; and American novelists of the post-war period find their own ways, to some extent shared and self-imitative, of saying so. "Doctor Posmanture's hands were shaking so much the thermometer kept rattling against Mrs. Tupperman's lower teeth. Finally he got the silver tip under her tongue and went to the window." I quote from A Fine Madness by Elliott Baker. It is a skilful and engaging novel but not an enduring one and it reads now rather like a period piece, which makes it all the more useful as a repository of the conventional. Published in 1964, it extends and stylizes certain patterns characteristic of the sensibility of the fifties. One notices first the presence in the passage of a trembling doctor. Doctors in fiction are always emblematic, never more so than in post-war fiction. We wish doctors both to cure us and to love Philip Stevick 71 us. And in post-war fiction, doctors are prepared to do neither. Later, Baker writes: "The web of her mind unraveled and lay waiting to be restrung. Before she could do it, the bedroom door opened, and Doctor Posmanture came in like a pall bearer." There is more to Dr. Posmanture but not much more: he advises his patients without convincing them, he reflects on embarrassments and missed diagnoses past and present, he retreats when advanced upon, he trembles, and he looks like a pall bearer. It is fair to say that Doctor Posmanture is more than another quack doctor in a long comic tradition, more than a pusillanimous fool with a fool's name in a fool's body. He is an object of contempt, represented by the narrator of Baker's novel with such back-of-the-hand scorn that those few sentences I quote are sufficient to signal us that our antipathy is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 70-78
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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