Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Peter Conn's "The American 1930s"

Peter Conn is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include The Divided Mind: Ideology and Imagination in America, 1898-1917, and Literature in America, which was a main selection of Associated Book Clubs (UK). Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, was chosen as a "New York Times Notable Book," was included among the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award in biography, and received the Athenaeum Award.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The American 1930s: A Literary History, and reported the following:
The Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression confronted Americans with the most profound crisis they had known since the Civil War. How did the men and women of that period respond to a decade of economic and political shock? In The American 1930s, I've tried to provide a broad cross-section of the writing of the period, suggesting connections between novels and non-fiction and the turmoil of those years. Specifically, I've explored the various ways in which the decade's writers turned to history as a way of debating the fundamental questions that divided the country. What lessons might be learned from the past?

Page 99 comes in the middle of my discussion of Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse (1933). Now almost completely forgotten, Allen's huge, twelve-hundred-page novel was the best-selling book of both 1933 and 1934. Some critics rhapsodized that this three-volume blockbuster just might be the long-sought Great American Novel. (When Jack Warner bought the movie rights, he confessed that he hadn't read the novel, and added: "I can't even lift it").

Spanning five decades of nineteenth-century European and American history, Anthony Adverse follows the life of its title hero from childhood as an orphan in Italy through a kaleidoscopic career as a wealthy merchant, a slave trader in Cuba and Africa, an international financier, and finally a penitent spiritual seeker. The novel combines history, melodrama, exotic settings, romance, intrigue, scenes of unusually explicit sex, warfare and duels, mysticism, and indefatigable narrative ingenuity.
I've included the whole of page 99, which describes the latter portion of Anthony's life. At the bottom of the page, I begin to speculate on the reasons for the novel's out-sized success. Aside from its sheer entertainment, the book dramatized the daring deeds of a rugged individual, a man who masters great odds in climbing up from obscurity and poverty. For Depression-era readers, the hair-raising adventures of such a person could provide both pleasure and the reassurance that self-reliance could still bring success. In addition, Anthony's ultimate renunciation of material goals provides a morally satisfying conclusion.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Anthony’s sojourn in Cuba takes up the first half of Volume Two. Growing in skill and confidence, he masters the intricacies of international finance, soon becoming the most able businessman on the island. At the same time, his scruples gradually decay, a transformation that is sealed by his decision to become a slave trader, the most lucrative career available in the late eighteenth century. In the subsequent chapters of this second volume, the most chillingly sensational in the novel, Anthony takes up residence in Africa, personally managing the capture, imprisonment and sale of thousands of black men, women and children over the next several years. These pages lay out in harrowing detail the steps through which new slaves are stolen, brought to barracoons, stripped, examined, appraised, and chained. Anthony feeds them well, but only to improve their chances of survival on the slave ships, which in turn increases his profits. And the profits, as laid out in a historically accurate two-page ledger statement, are tremendous.

Anthony’s moral adversary throughout this portion of the book is a saintly Catholic missionary, Brother Francois, who loathes slavery, risks his life continuously to aid the slaves, and warns Anthony that the trade will cost him his soul. The opposition between the two men is the allegorical fulcrum on which the contest over values is tested. Francois also threatens the authority of the local witch doctor, who ultimately retaliates by having the missionary crucified on a jungle hilltop.

Francois’s death marks a turning point for Anthony, who gives up the trade (though not the money it has brought) and returns to Europe. The third volume of the novel traces his moral reclamation, which takes place in tiny increments over the book’s last five hundred pages. Initially, Anthony agrees to immerse himself in the financing of the Napoleonic wars; his business partners include the rising banker, Nathan Rothschild. When these various schemes grow into the “largest commercial operation of modern times,” Anthony moves to New Orleans to supervise the shipment of silver from Mexico to bankers in Paris and Amsterdam. Motivated as much by the risks and adventure as by greed, Anthony piles up an immense fortune, builds a plantation – staffed by several hundred slaves – and retires to a kind of peace. When a fire consumes his house, killing his wife and child, he sees an act of divine retribution, and from that point on embraces asceticism and self-sacrifice.

The unprecedented success Anthony Adverse enjoyed had several sources. To begin with, Allen incorporates just about every cliché of the ripping yarn: impossible coincidences, hairbreadth escapes, exotic settings, passages of overheated romance.
Read an excerpt from The American 1930s: A Literary History, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue