Paul Horgan's monument to moral sensibility

Of America East & West: Selections from the writings of Paul Horgan, by Paul Horgan. Introduction by Henry Steele Commager. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 393 pp. (paper). $12.95. When this book came out in cloth over a year ago I remember thinking: It's a beautiful book (the volume was produced as a kind of birthday present from Horgan's publishers, and looked it), and it contains an oeuvre as remarkable for probity of purpose as variety of tone and kind. But the writing is distinguished by a quiet and easy formality, and so constitutes something of a threat to the hegemony of smart, fast, vulgar talkers that are a reviewer's daily fare.

And look! In the middle of the book there's a section called ``Approaches to Writing'' -- are we in college or what? Horgan writes:

``The true artist is never afraid of anything -- including the glories of the past.''

``He who fears to be out of the mode does not deserve to belong to himself.''

``In many joyfully admired recent novels, love appears as little more than sex-manual instruction. . . .''

``The absurdity of teaching contemporary literature to its contemporaries.''

``The most valuable writers are those in whom we find not themselves, or ourselves, or the fugitive era of their lifetimes, but the common vision of all times.''

Talk about unpopular sentiments! These maxims are not so much quotable as simply true. In most social circles, quoting them would spell disaster. Horgan is a problem, not an author.

Needless to say, I skipped the book. I was embarrassed by the excess of good. Horgan had written more than 20 books of various kinds -- novels, history, biography. ``Of America East & West'' had good selections from all these kinds; and there was this extraordinary honesty, this great artistic simplicity about it all; how is one to praise integrity? I felt like an archaic Greek poet, a Pindar struck dumb, who had no meter or words worthy of the man he would praise.

The appearance of the paperback brings it all back. I read again of the effect a young Lincoln (it was 1837) had on a contemporary: ``he had never seen so gloomy and melancholy a face. . . .'' And this in 1837, long before the deepening of the sadness.

And I reread the short story ``National Honeymoon'' as a fable for our time. In it, an ingenuous young couple, married just that day, lured by the promise of untold gifts, allow themselves to become part of a TV program in which host Gail Burke Himself asks increasingly intimate questions with a callousness all too familiar to the reader!

``Of America East & West,'' I now see, challenges the reviewer because it sets the standard against which so much of what comes across his desk must be regarded. Like the maxims, the stories have truthfulness and adequacy to our peculiar way of life in the United States.

In his introduction, Henry Steele Commager says that the unity of Horgan's literary world is philosophical: ``It is moral solicitude and moral anxiety that provide unity to Horgan's literary opus.'' Like Henry James, says Commager, Horgan is appalled by ``the public taste in the United States,'' as represented by ``Muzak, commercial architecture, comic strips, rock music, most television, radio, movies, pornography. . . .''

That's pretty sweeping, and we all have felt that way. But few of us have erected a monument to a sensibility free of the inanity those forms of public expression represent. Paul Horgan's writing is such a monument.

In revolt, then, Paul Horgan has doubted ``the stylistic trustworthiness of democracy.'' Mr. Commager draws his parallel of Henry James, but there is that ongoing discussion -- long may it rage! -- over the quality of James's style. But the ``stylistic trustworthiness'' of Paul Horgan's style is never in doubt. It is his style, I say, that we should look to; for his style is the direct expression of his vision.

There are those who will say that Horgan's vision is ``a product'' of time past. Observing a little group huddled against the harsh solitude of New Mexico early in this century, Horgan in one of his novels writes, ``This little group seems to stand as all humanity at timeless purpose and act, and they forge again a link in the human chain reaching from antiquity, so that their commonness becomes a marvel of discovery about man's enduring habitude.'' Then he quotes from Dryden's translation of Virgil's ``Georgics.''

Suffice it to say, Horgan's prose provides a fit setting for Dryden's poetry. The manliness of the prose compares well with that of the poetry, a poetry written almost three centuries ago. And 300 years from now will there be readers ready to discover something about ``man's enduring habitude'' in the pages of this book?

They will not search in vain. Firmly rooted in his own time (which is ours) and place (America East and West), Paul Horgan has himself stood ``as all humanity at timeless purpose and act.''

Tom D'Evelyn is the editor of the Monitor's book pages.

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