The evidence of this May number of "The Harvard Advocate" substantiates the contention of many observers that the indifference toward social and economic issues which characterized the American undergraduate of the last fow decades is giving way to an active interest. In this issue of an ostensibly "literary" magazine five of the seven articles deal with some aspect of the social problem, one of the three stories is a savage reaction to the depression, and the other two have overtones of the class-struggle and unemployment, while a one-act play is laid in the tenement of a family on relief. Assuredly we may say, here is a sign of the times.
A sign indeed, but not one in which any of the various authors seems overconfident of conquering, and under which most of them suffer acute forebodings of defeat. To my mind, the most startling revelation of these productions is not to what extent the thoughtful undergraduate has become preoccupied with the fate of society, but the all-too-ominous mood which this concern has evoked. Twenty or thirty years ago the occasional student who did devote himself to the issues of public life assumed beyond the shadow of a doubt that democracy was the goal toward which creation tended and that progress was everywhere discoverable; consequently he could solemnly dedicate himself to putting the finishing touches to Utopia by extending civil service reform.
But pervading these writings there is a grim implication--all the more arresting because it often seems unconscious--that the young man who is the product of "bourgeois" civilization, the student at Harvard, capable of writing, of enjoying the benefits of leisure and culture, has himself very grave misgivings as to whether he is not possibly a superfluous luxury in the contempor- ary world. From this point of view, the almost feverish concentration upon social problems exhibited in these pages seems to present the undergraduate, throwing aside amatory poetry and exquisite prose as the playthings of the nursery, hastening to catch up with the social procession, not now with the intention of leading it or directing it, but driven by the necessity of finding out whether it is true, what he more than half fears: that the procession has turned off the spacious and comfortable highway of his fathers and is even now entering defiles into which he, by virtue of his very education and tradition, may be incapable of following.
There is a strange air about these discussions; they do not attack social problems in general; they are interested only in the predicament in which young men of a certain class suddenly and bewilderingly find themselves. The authors do not endeavour to theorize on a plane of universality; whatever else they may be, they are conspicuously honest, and understand that their problem is simply to ascertain where, if anywhere at all, they and men like them belong.
The most encouraging is Mr. Poor, who, with "In Defense of Democracy," makes a stirring though somewhat verbose appeal for liberalism against both Fascism and Communism. Mr. De Veaux Smith, with his playlet "Good-Luck," endeavours to meet the challenge of unemployment in a two-room flat on Third Avenue, where Mary Young and her son, Rob, eke out their days, Rob having had no work for thirteen months. To them, bearing a Thanksgiving day basket, comes a woman of wealth who turns out to have been a childhood playmate of Mary Young; Mr. Smith avoids the most obvious inducements to sentimentality in this situation, but he nevertheless asks us to believe at the end that Rob is exultant because the woman from Fifth Avenue has told him that her son must start at the bottom in his father's factory: "That's America. ...No favorites. ...You wait till I get my chance."
Somehow this does not seem very substantial when put beside the ferocity of Mr. Sweetser's "September," in which a Junior, unable to return to college for his Senior year because as he succinctly puts it, "The old man's broke," goes slightly berserk at a debutante party where champagne flows in buckets and orates impolitely to his hostess: "You sit here and smile and talk about mistakes and starving men and studying art at Columbia and what does it all amount to?" Mr. Bach finds, apparently, that it amounts to the inevitable disintegration of capitalistic society, and ironically points out, in "So You're a Parlor Pink," that the nice, humane, middle-class intellectuals who toy with communistic theories contribute materially to their own subversion; he concludes on a note of cynicism wherein he ventures to predict that "during the fundamental crisis" a few Parlorites may go with the revolution, but that the majority will complete the cycle of their moral collapse by following their bank deposits.
Mr. Clement Scott is even more convinced that the debacle of civilization is imminent; chronicling the various respects in which the appetite of the nation for blood, violence and horror has been assiduously whetted by the papers, the movies and "Esquire," he concludes in "America Tomorrow," that "the upper-class male" is about ready to attend revivals of gladitorial games, and suggests that "the decline of the American Republic" is thus evident.
An article on "Propaganda and Soviet Literature" by D. H. Kimball and N. W. Johnson, and a competent review of the proletarian theater in America by Mr. A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., complete this exposition of undergraduate social consciousness.
Gamut of Emotion
It is not my function as reviewer to say which or what of these attitudes is good or bad. What fascinates me about them taken together is the incredible gamut of emotions which they run; I have the feeling that here is as good an occasion as any to get a composite picture of the undergraduate--or at any rate the Harvard undergraduate--of today. But the significant fact is that these diverse frames of mind can not possibly by any stretch of the imagination be combined into a coherent personality. If Mr. Bach is correct in asserting that "a social class has status" and that "status consists in class-soliarity and class-feeling," what can you expect from the "class" for which these men in general speak? Where is the solidarity of a group which finds expression in phrases ranging from the impassioned idealism of Mr. Poor, through the mawkish benevolence of Mr. Smith, to the sullen bitterness of Mr. Sweetser, the disgust of Mr. Bach, and the hard-boiled cruelty of Mr. Scott? One might feel that this diversity was simply the fecundity of health if it were not that in every case the atmosphere is strained and the tension obvious; even Mr. Poor is noticeably on the defensive, and the others inspire the reflection that probably the best thing we can do is to take another drink of Mr. Sweetser's champagne--if somebody else will pay for it.
Belles-lettres are practically overwhelmed in this avalanche of social neuroses. Mr. Ames' "Two Beers" is a brief and vivid picture of an episode in contemporary life that chimes in with the bleak tone of the other writers. Mr. Strauss' "Third Class" is an able story in which, as the title indicates, the consciousness of social maladjustment figures, perhaps in this case too much dragged in by the horns. This story would, I think, be an altogether admirable job if Mr. Strauss had not at one point joined a long line of authors whose seriously intended effects have been rudely let down by their failure to imagine accurately all the physical circumstances which in a world of fact would form the background for their action. He chronicles the adventures of Miss Hope Davis, teacher of kindergarten in Low Plains, Kansas, returning from Europe on the "Ile-de-France," a ship which, from all accounts, is manned in an alert and seamanly fashion. Yet Miss Davis, falling in love with a young man who, since he is travelling with his family, does not have a private cabin, flees with him on a rough night to the bow of the ship, and there, on the deck, surrenders. The "Ile-de-France" must be a rather curiously constructed vessel if it does not provide a full view of figures on the forecastle head to the mates, the watch and the quartermasters on the bridge; if the night had been so dark that the visibility did not permit this, a look-out would certainly have been standing, polite but immovable, beside the oblivious couple. It is unfortunate that the picture of this interested audience cannot by any effort of the will be effaced from the reader's imagination once it has occurred to him, which mars the otherwise sustained effect of simple, bare tragedy which Mr. Strauss imparts to the story of the girl's ultimate betrayal