Reading of "A Word to Young Writers"
DATE: 24 April 1958
OCCASION: Undergraduate Writing Class
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Two years ago President Eisenhower conceived a plan based
on an idea which is basically a sound one. This was that world conditions,
the universal dilemma of mankind at this moment, are what they are simply
because individual men and women of different races and tongues and
conditions cannot discuss with one another these problems and dilemmas,
which are primarily theirs, but must attempt to do so only through the
formal organizations of their antagonistic and seemingly irreconcilable
governments. That is, that individual people in all walks of life should be
given opportunity to speak to their individual opposite numbers all over the
earth—laborer to laborer, scientist to scientist, doctors and
lawyers and merchants and bankers and artists to their opposite numbers
everywhere. There was nothing wrong with this idea. Certainly no
artist—painter, musician, sculptor, architect, or
writer—would dispute it because this, trying to communicate man
to man regardless of race or color or condition, is exactly what every
artist has already spent all his life trying to do, and as long as he
breathes, will continue to do.
What doomed it, in my opinion, was symptomized by the phraseology of the President's own concept—laborer to laborer, artist to artist, banker to banker, tycoon to tycoon. What doomed it, in my opinion, was an evil inherent in our culture itself. An evil quality inherent in and perhaps necessary, though I do—though I, for one, do not believe this last, in the culture of any country capable of enduring and surviving through this period of history. This is the mystical belief, almost a religion, that individual man cannot speak to individual man because individual man can no longer exist. A belief that there is no place anymore where individual man can speak quietly to individual man of such simple things as honesty to oneself and responsibility toward others and protection for the weak and compassion and pity for all, because such individual things as honesty and pity and responsibility and compassion no longer exist, and man himself can hope to continue only by relinquishing and denying his individuality into a regimented group of his arbitrary, factional kind, arrayed against an opposite opposed arbitrary, factional, regimented group, both filling the same air at the same time with the same double-barreled abstractions of "peoples' democracy" and "minority rights" and "equal justice" and "social welfare"—all the synonyms which take all the shame out of irresponsibility by not merely inviting but even compelling everyone to participate in it.
So, in this case—I mean the President's People-to-People Committee—the artist, too, who has already spent his life trying to communicate simply people-to-people the problems and passions of the human heart and how to survive them or, anyway, endure them, has in effect been asked by the president of his country to affirm that mythology which has—which he has already devoted his life to denying: the mythology that one single individual man is nothing, and can—can have weight and substance only when organized into the anonymity of a group where he will have surrendered his individual soul for a number. It would be sad enough if only at such moments as this—I mean, formal recognition by his country of the validity of his life's dedication—did the artist have to run full-tilt into what might be called almost a universal will to regimentation, a universal will to obliterate the humanity from even—from man even to the extent of relieving him not only of moral responsibility, but even of physical pain and mortality, by effacing his individuality into any—it does not matter which as long as he has vanished into one of them—nationally-recognized economic group by profession or trade or occupation or income-tax bracket or, if nothing else offers, finance-company list. His tragedy is that today he must even combat this pressure, waste some part of his puny but, if he is an artist, precious individual strength against this universal will to efface his individual humanity, in order to be an artist. Which comes at last to the idea I want to suggest, which is what seems to me to be the one dilemma in which all young writers today participate.
I think that perhaps all writers, while they are hot, working at top speed to try to get said all they feel the terrific urgency to say, don't read the writers younger, after themselves. Perhaps for the same reason which the sprinter or the distance-runner has—he does not have time to be interested in who is behind him or even up with him, but only in who is in front. That was true in my own case, anyway, so there was a gap of about twenty-five years during which I had almost no acquaintance whatever with contemporary literature.
So, when a short time ago I did begin to read the writing being done now, I brought to it not only ignorance but a kind of innocence, freshness, what you might call a point of view and an interest virgin of preconceptions. Anyway, I got from the first story an impression which has repeated itself so consistently since that I shall offer it as a generalization. This is, that the young writer of today is compelled by the present state of our culture, which I tried to describe, to function in a kind of vacuum of the human race. His characters do not function, live, breathe, struggle, in that moil and seethe of simple humanity as did those of our predecessors who were the masters from whom we learned our craft—Dickens, Fielding, Thackeray, Conrad, Twain, Smollett, Hawthorne, Melville, James. Their names are legion whose created characters were not just weaned but even spawned into a moil and seethe of simple human beings whose very existence was an affirmation of an incurable and indomitable optimism—men and women like our—themselves, understandable and comprehensible even when antipathetical, even in the very moment while they were murdering or robbing or betraying you, since theirs too were the same simple human lusts and hopes and fears uncomplicated by regimentation or group compulsion. A moil and seethe of humanity into which they could venture, not only unappalled and welcome, but with pleasure too, since with no threat of harm—and with no threat of harm since the worst that could happen to them would be a head butt by what was only another human head. An elbow or a knee skinned, but that too was only another human knee or elbow which did the skinning. A moil and seethe of mankind which accepted and believed in and functioned according, not to angles, but to moral principles. Where truth was not where you were standing when you looked at it, but was an unalterable quality or thing which could and would knock your brains out if you did not accept it or at least respect it. While today the young writer's characters must function not in individuality but in isolation, not to pursue in myriad company the anguishes and hopes of all human hearts in a world of a few simple, comprehensible truths and moral principles, but to exist alone inside a vacuum of facts which he did not choose and cannot cope with and cannot escape from like a fly inside an inverted tumbler.
Let me repeat. I have not read all the work of this present generation of writing. I have not had time yet. So I must speak only of the ones I do know. I am thinking now of what I rate the best one, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, perhaps because this one expresses so completely what I have tried to say. A youth, father to what will—must—someday be a man, more intelligent than some and more sensitive than most, who—he would not even have called it by instinct because he did not know he possessed it because God perhaps had put it there, loved man and wished to be a part of mankind, humanity, who tried to join the human race and failed. To me, his tragedy was not that he was, as he perhaps thought, not tough enough or brave enough or deserving enough to be accepted into humanity. His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there. There was nothing for him to do save buzz, frantic and inviolate, inside the glass wall of his tumbler, until he either gave up or was himself, by himself, by his own frantic buzzing, destroyed.
One thinks of course immediately of Huck Finn, another youth already father to what will some day soon now be a man. But in Huck's case all he had to combat was his small size, which time would cure for him. In time he would be as big as any man he had to cope with. And even as it was, all the adult world could do to harm him was to skin his nose a little. Humanity, the human race, would and was accepting him already. All he needed to do was just to grow up into it. That is the young writer's dilemma as I see it. Not just his, but all our problems is to save mankind from being de-souled as the stallion or boar or bull is gelded, to save the individual from anonymity before it is too late, and humanity has vanished from the animal called man. And who better to save man's humanity than the writer, the poet, the artist, since who should fear the loss of it more, since the humanity of man is the artist's life's blood? [applause]
[end of recording]