Smithsonian American Art Museum
Original artworks, from left: Jerome Myers, ‘Old House on 29th St. East of 3rd Ave. N.Y.,’ undated; Adelaide Morris, ‘3:00 a.m.,’ undated; John R. Grabach, ‘The Lone House (The Empty House),’ circa 1929; Richard Sargent, ‘Red House,’ undatedSmithsonian American Art Museum
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The Sunny Side of American Life

Why our greatest writers found their inspiration in misery and failure

David Mikics
June 08, 2022
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Original artworks, from left: Jerome Myers, ‘Old House on 29th St. East of 3rd Ave. N.Y.,’ undated; Adelaide Morris, ‘3:00 a.m.,’ undated; John R. Grabach, ‘The Lone House (The Empty House),’ circa 1929; Richard Sargent, ‘Red House,’ undatedSmithsonian American Art Museum

Americans love to look on the bright side. We process our traumas and congratulate ourselves on our resilience. We like to crown ourselves winners, avoiding the stigma of the L-word deployed by a certain ex-president. The triumph of the therapeutic, as Philip Rieff called it, even applies to our anti-free-speech college students, who gain vituperative strength from the harm supposedly inflicted on them by other people’s disagreeable opinions.

But there’s a dark flipside to the story. Americans can’t turn their eyes away from failure. No one is so interesting to us as the person, preferably a celebrity, who has sunk to the most degraded, soul-crushing Marianas Trench of existence, capsized, busted, shellacked, KO’d, and wiped out. Some truer sense of things seems to come with loss. The person wholly crushed by life is the one who knows the score. In failure, reality does not evade us.

American authors of the early 20th century speculated in failure the way the tycoons of their day bet on stocks. Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Frost—these writers find illumination within pessimism, and so they are permanent members of the American canon.

Twentieth-century American literature got off the starting block with the naturalist trio of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, who aimed a primitive sledgehammer at the notions of the progressive era. Progressives insisted that all human problems could be alleviated via social tinkering. Solidarity and peace would blossom, if reformers could only come up with the right formula for a just society.

But Dreiser and his contemporaries had a disillusioned sobriety that looked straight at the hard contours of reality: poverty, death, disease, sexual frustration, loss of love.

When Dreiser first came to New York in 1894, in the midst of an economic crash, he was struck by the “hugeness and force and heartlessness of the great city.” New York was “gross and cruel,” he noted. Dreiser slept in flophouses, a wretched loser like Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, the scandalous first novel he published a few years later. Like Crane and Norris, Dreiser never lost the sense that life is ruthless.

Dreiser was a Midwestern oaf, big and awkward, a man of blunt sexual cravings. His crowning work was the mammoth An American Tragedy, published in 1925, which remains the most riveting 900-page book I’ve ever read. An American Tragedy is about Clyde Griffiths, a colorless young man who kills his girlfriend and eventually goes to the electric chair. Clyde wants to be part of the glittering society of Lycurgus, a town in upstate New York—would-be flappers and their beaus having what they describe as fun. Clyde’s pregnant, working-class girlfriend, Roberta, gets in the way—Clyde has his eye on a glamorous young socialite named Sondra—and so, with perfect plausibility, the thought of murdering her steals on him. This section of Dreiser’s narrative crawls forward as suspensefully as Crime and Punishment, as Clyde becomes more and more used to the prospect of Roberta’s death. While they are boating in a desolate upstate lake, Clyde strikes her, half by accident; she falls out of the boat, and he lets her drown. The scene is an agonizing tour de force. David Denby writes that “Clyde’s consciousness, never very full to begin with, and now divided between murder and guilt, is deranged further by the dark beauty of the lake, the cry of unfamiliar birds, the empty woods.”

Clyde Griffiths is like all of us, Dreiser is saying. What sums him up is not the clumsy act of murder but his long slide toward moral numbness, which is a sin, yes, but also a recognition of the facts of existence.

When Dreiser pictures the death house, the final station of Clyde’s tormented existence, he is one with Clyde every harrowing step of the way:

The glooms—the strains—the indefinable terrors and despairs that blew like winds or breaths about this place and depressed or terrorized all by turns! They were manifest at the most unexpected moments, by curses, sighs, tears even, calls for a song—for God’s sake!—or the most unintended and unexpected yells or groans.

For Dreiser prison is simply a more intense version of anywhere else. Dreiser, Alfred Kazin remarked, always had “the sense that injustice makes society possible. It was another form of the carnage that sustains nature.” Every love affair requires that someone has been jilted. A wealthy, well-dressed man has just one function, to remind a hapless, starving bum like Hurstwood of the bitterness of his social humiliation.

Dreiser’s style sometimes feels flat-footed, even cloddish, but this is not the reason that he became a target for critics like Lionel Trilling, who wanted novelists to enact the free play of the mind. For Dreiser society was as definitive as a jail cell—there is nothing free about it.

Willa Cather was Dreiser’s opposite number in terms of style. The inevitability of Dreiser’s prose lies in his agitated power to see inside his faulty, stumbling protagonists, and to mirror their flaws. Cather’s style is utterly distinct—everything she wrote seems perfectly done. She too sounds inevitable. No American writer has a better sense of the land itself, forbidding and enormous as it is. Cather never forgot her first sight of Nebraska when she first arrived at 9 years old, “jerked away,” as she put it, from the hills of her native Virginia and “thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron.”

This inhuman land, with its empty bleakness, was made to thwart the poor immigrants who tried to farm it. Sometimes they succeed, like Alexandra in O Pioneers, but often they are defeated.

Cather was a “strong, bossy woman,” Joan Acocella noted, and she wrote, not “fables of prairie virtue,” but “some sort of strange poetry, about the terror of life.” The terror shows up in the tragic fates of Cather’s characters: the father who blows his brains out with a shotgun, or the drifter who throws himself into a threshing machine.

A quieter brand of failure exists too in Cather. Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor’s House sits alone and recalls his shining protégé Tom Outland, killed in World War I, an adventurer and inventor who before his death told Godfrey about the exhilarating summer he spent in the ruins of a Native American cliff city in the Southwest. Tom’s epiphany brims with light:

I can scarcely hope that life will give me another summer like that one. It was my high tide. Every morning, when the sun’s rays first hit the mesa top, while the rest of the world was in shadow, I wakened with the feeling that I had found everything, instead of having lost everything. Nothing tired me. Up there alone, a close neighbor to the sun, I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way. And at night, when I watched it drop down below the edge of the plain below me, I used to feel that I couldn’t have borne another hour of that consuming light, that I was full to the brim, and needed dark and sleep.

Cather poses Tom’s light-filled vision against his mentor’s gloom. Godfrey’s meditation in his old house, now that his wife, daughters, and sons-in-law have gone to Europe for the summer, strikes a shadowy key:

He was not nearly so cultivated as Tom’s old cliff-dwellers must have been—and yet he was terribly wise. He seemed to be at the root of the matter; Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine trees turned red in the declining sun, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely: “That is right.”

Like Cather, Wallace Stevens was a high priest of clarity, despite the cryptic involution of his poetry. Those who met the poet for the first time expected to see a dandy, an ornate connoisseur. The physical Stevens stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 240 pounds. The disparity between his hulking body and his slender acrobatic imagination was noticed by all.

Stevens could easily eat a pound of sausage at a sitting. When he asked for a martini, the waitress knew he meant a pitcher of martinis. Yet this gourmand was the subtlest poet America ever knew.

Uniquely among poets, Stevens unites the sumptuous and the straight-arrow direct. He favors words like “poor” and “bare,” for these adjectives are emblems of necessity. Yet Stevens also has a fire-fangled vocabulary, ingenious and glistening. He tells us that Crispin, his “nincompated pedagogue” in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “hung [his eye] ... on silentious porpoises, whose snouts / Dibbled in waves that were mustachios.”

Stevens’ coruscating lines are not mere showmanship. Stevens’ arsenal, his word hoard, must be large and precise. He needs his stock of marvels to fend off the deprivations of reality.

“It is often said of a man that his work is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise,” Stevens remarked. The disappointment of his loveless marriage haunts his poetry, and late in his life, so does the anticipation of death. In “Madame la Fleurie,” Stevens sings a somber dirge for himself:

Weight him down, O side-stars, with the great weightings of the end.
Seal him there. He looked in a glass of the earth and thought he lived in it.
Now, he brings all that he saw into the earth, to the waiting parent. 
His crisp knowledge is devoured by her, beneath a dew. 
His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself and what he saw,
In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.

The “glass” where Stevens “thought he lived” is an image for his poetry, here consumed by the savage fact of mortality. Madame la Fleurie, the flowering earth, is the “bearded queen” wickedly chomping the poet (the beard is evidently grass, a morbid riffing on Whitman’s favorite image).

Robert Frost, who survived the deaths of two children as well as his first wife, measured his poet’s imagination against harsh realities. He found resilience in practical actions like mowing, mending a wall, or picking apples. Frost’s speakers follow Emerson’s advice to “hold hard to this poverty, however scandalous.” In a barren field, they prosper.

But Frost also felt a more drastic destitution pressing against him. In “Once by the Pacific” Frost depicts an obliterating storm, coming to spite any sense we might have that the world is built to human scale:

Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.

Frost’s words are made for efficiency, common, and simple. The more basic they are, the more cunning they seem, and the more they frighten us.

Frost ends “Once by the Pacific” with pitch-black humor. Frost’s destroyer God resembles Othello telling Desdemona to “put out the light” before he murders her:

It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

“Someone had better be prepared for rage,” but preparation is useless against the dark design of a God bent on annulling “let there be light.”

The plainspoken Frost marks a contrast with T.S. Eliot. Frost, like Hart Crane and Stevens (who called Eliot his “dead opposite”), disliked Eliot’s Waste Land, since Eliot implied that one should be gloomy about the supposed twilight of high culture, the falling off from Cleopatra on her barge to the young man carbuncular. The tawdriness of the modern age had been a theme of European literature since Flaubert, who both abhorred and battened on the bourgeois cesspool. Yet Eliot amply survives his own snobbery, since his poetry sounds so perfect:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets ...

The invitation you receive from Eliot’s voice is undeniable, as Louise Glück (who is, along with Jay Wright, our greatest living poet) argued in her Nobel lecture several years ago. He speaks to and for you, amid scenes of loss and dereliction. Even his lacerating neuroses are magical.

Ernest Hemingway, who was perhaps the best-known American writer of the 20th century, was also notably obsessed with failure. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” the dying writer Harry confesses, “He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.” Harry, cruel to himself and everyone else, voices Hemingway’s own damning self-assessment.

Hemingway had a life of ceaseless activity, testing himself like the characters in his stories. He was relentlessly competitive—someone remarked that few men could stand the strain of relaxing with him for very long. The wear and tear on the self is Hemingway’s key theme. “He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out,” Hemingway writes of Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Like Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby and his story “The Rich Boy,” Hemingway is obsessed with what happens to you when you have made a botch of your life.

Faulkner’s interest in failure is just as ardent as Hemingway’s, but he is torrential rather than clipped. His prose is unstoppable as a hurricane, agonized and strident. It takes patience to fall in love with Faulkner’s fearsome gargoyles, and strength to bear the dreadful misery of The Wild Palms, Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom!, his most unsparing works. There is no playful side to him. Faulkner has no appetite for anything except darkness. His down-at-heel indulgence in doom tapped into a signal fact of the American character, the despair within that gives the lie to our optimism. At the end of The Wild Palms, the jailed abortionist Wilbourne, who has inadvertently killed the woman he loved, refuses suicide and says, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief”—Faulkner’s truest statement of his faith.

America’s culture, like its authors, knows that failure is a condition, not a momentary event. The taint of loss soaks the blues and country music, genres to which all Americans pledge allegiance at least some of the time. “I tried and I failed, and I feel like going home,” sang Charlie Rich. Rock ‘n’ roll loves to rebel, but in blues and country, which speak the downhearted truth, rebellion is useless.

Despite their reputation, the American modernist writers are not rebels. They are reconcilers. When we fall short, and find both ourselves and the universe wanting, there is nothing left but to examine what remains, and make terms with it.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.