The Vanishing Hero is a promising-looking book. Subtitled "Studies in the Novelists of the Twenties," it is a series of short, incisive chapters on eight English and American writers who generally make fine grist for critical mills. Sean O'Faolain, the author, is a man who has demonstrated a conspicuous and sensitive intelligence in a wide variety of fields.
However, his book of criticism is distinctly unsatisfying, and O'Faolain himself has inadvertantly supplied the reason. In writing about Joyce, he asserts that "all criticism is a form of autobiography." This is a dubious statement, but The Vanishing Hero bears it out. O'Faolain is an Irish man of letters who cares very much about Ireland; for all his intellect, he is something of a provincial. This provinciality, and the parallel concerns for country, are assets in his short stories, but they make him an extremely limited critic. The more remote his subject is from Ireland, the worse O'Faolain's criticism becomes. He is at his best in the few pages on Joyce; but his chapter on Huxley and Waugh is mediocre, and the chapter on Hemingway is simply bad.
O'Faolain's provinciality has given his book a central defect and a number of gaping holes. The central defect is over-simplification. After due deliberation, he concludes that Huxley's books are too full of intellectual fireworks to make coherent points, that Greene gives an unrealistic prominence to suffering, that Hemingway is not so hard-bitten as he seems at first. These conclusions are all very sound, but none of them come as revelations.
Furthermore, he has occasional and annoying lapses of complete blindness, especially about Hemingway. He complains that Hemingway's heroes have no pasts, no sense of tradition; quite so, but this rootlessness is their most characteristically American aspect, and helps account for their credibility. O'Faolain does not seem to understand that everyone does not have an Irish sense of ancestry and history.
The best elements of The Vanishing Hero are the fineness of the writing--a rare quality in criticism--and occasional casual but telling remarks. Again and again, O'Faolain pins his subject down with a sentence; but then he fails to realize the implications of his basic assertion. It is only in the last few pages, about Joyce, that O'Faolain is consistently impressive. For the first time he does not seem confused, and his words have the ring of sympathy. The source of his understanding and sympathy are made clear in his penultimate tirade against the horrors of Joyce's youth:
"...the stupidities of the Irish church, the puritanism of its priests, the total intellectual poverty of his teachers, the misery of his own poor home, the bitter loneliness of that inexperienced, conquered, timid and emotionally besotted island on the rim of the world."
This is more than an echo of Joyce, it is a statement of O'Faolain's own grievances; while this plaint may induce sympathy for both of them, it is also an indication why O'Faolain is a sorry critic of alien literature.