TIME WAS when the popular writer could take a couple of amusing characters with a yearning for treasure, lead them halfway round the world, through danger and hardship, through all sorts of slapstick mishap, and have them turn up finally no more than a bird's nest. Read Liberty and Collier's of the 1920's. Some very strange fiction will be found. In those days a writer thought nothing of twisting his hero's arm for three pages and breaking it off on the fourth. Tales abounded with the double and triple cross. Virtue could go unrewarded, could actually be punished. Then when the atom still had some integrity, there was a regular place for the tale with the sardonic "snapper." But those were different times from these. Today the contemporary slick writer must see to it that both the good and the likable people of his stories are taken care of. And the taboo on "cruel fate" cannot be accounted for merely by an arbitrary shift of values or by a needed change of pace. The cause seems to lie in the deep moral insecurity of the times. Americans have, even if to a lesser extent than the rest of the world's population, recently seen too much evil go unchastised and too much virtue unrewarded to get any charge from fictional moral chaos.
It is likely that World War II effected this change. Through the war years, right was denied while might conquered, the world over. Patriots sometimes died and slackers often survived; ideals went down before technique; sheer power prevailed everywhere.
To be left without this sequence of good things coming invariably from good intentions is demoralizing to men and women who have been reared and nurtured on the belief that work and talent will gain wordly preferment for the individual or the group. Such men and women find the moral vacuum created by the last war deeply unsettling. The standard American approach to life, that goodness on this earth will be rewarded by the good things of this world, has been all but invalidated. One of the primary functions of current slick stories, then, is to recharge this dying notion with new vitality.
That the good man cannot fail of earthly satisfaction is and has been the mainspring of popular American culture. It has accounted in a large part for the world superiority of American industrial achievement, since cynicism, its opposite, fosters indolence and discontent. Every American who has a material or spiritual investment in the status quo of this country has a like investment in the goods-tothe- good interpretation of life.
With all this in mind, consider a story of two buddies living hand-to-mouth in the Southwest. At a carnival, where the two men happen to be holding down jobs, they meet a fellow who claims to have a treasur map and who is willing to cut them in on the treasure if they will share the cost of the search. The two buddies accept the proposition and are about to start off when the holder of the map receives a wire saying that a relative is dying. He agrees to turn over the map and entire rights to the treasure in exchange for the little money that the other two have saved. The map leads the pair to a cave onthe land of a poor, inarticulate, Mexican farmer. They, naturally, take great pains to hide from the farmer the reason for their visit. When they finally begin digging, instead of treasure, they open up an underground spring. Water gushes forth onto the farmer's land. In their short conversation with the farmer, they had learned that lack of water made his land and him poor. Now, they rush off to tell him that they have inadvertently discovered a spring on his land. The farmer is overjoyed, blesses them, and gives them a holy picture. The two treasure-hunters are deeply gratified that they have been of such value to a deserving fellow human. Actually, this pair has been tricked, as much by the author as by the swindler who sold them the map. For some reason, the appeal of this type of story, the story in which the have-nothing seeks wealth and fails to get it, seems to have a lasting, universal pull. But, whereas once the writer could give snap to his story by having his hero uncover some absurd or comic object in place of the treasure, today the hero, if he is to be tricked at all, must be compensated. And what better way to reward him than to have him reallZ e the truth of the sentiment "It is better to give than to receive" ?
Even so sophisticated a magazine as The New Yorker currently has little use for cruel, gratuitous irony which once so delighted New Yorker readers. Just about the only periodical left which still gives its subscribers a regular diet of heartlessness is Esquire.
All these tangible-to-spiritual stories are fashioned around the hero's realization of new and superior values. Take the very ordinary piece about a wife who longs for the better things in life for herself and her family, and, in particular, for a business promotion for her husband. The husband is the easygoing sort, who thinks he is getting along quite well. The wife despises this attitude in him, and blames his apparent lack of progress on it. She rags and nags him, eats her heart out with worry and discontent. Then one afternoon, when she is cleaning out the attic, she comes across a box of K-rations her husband had saved from the time he was a soldier. She opens it and sees the flat, unappetizing food her husband was once forced to exist on for months. She recalls the terribly trying times they both endured throughout the war and realizes that they have made progress, if only in that they can now be with each other. The husband comes home that evening with the promotion, but by then she is not concerned. She realizes there are more important things in life than material advancement.