The Hero's Vital Hope or Faith Wanes and Is Revived
CONSIDERING HOW honey-sweet slick characters and sentiments tend to be, you would be amazed to know how little slick fiction deals with ideals and idealism. Strange, too, is the fact that what the great majority of slick stories do deal with is pleasure and self-indulgence. There is a nice philosophical distinction made in certain quarters between "pleasure" and "happiness, " but the two blend rather simple-mindedly in the slicks, so that what is not the cause of happiness is not truly pleasurable. At any rate, if there is one philosophic tone which predominates in the slicks, it is Epicurean. Certainly, all sorts of considerations, stated and implied, of moral right and wrong abound in the slicks, but the assumed end of all behavior is generally selfish. Virtuous conduct is justified by Rousseau' s social contract; its final motivation is almost always selfsatisfaction. The utmost sacrifice, giving up one's life for a cause or for another human being, does occur occasionally in the slicks, but the characters capable of such self-immolation are usually treated in a distant and unreal manner that leads the reader unconsciously to look upon them as nobly neurotic. Almost never are such characters handled so that the reader would identify with them. These observations are made because there is a type of story which deals with seemingly altruistic behavior without at all becoming an exception to the generalizations stated above. It is a story about idealism, about a man or woman who is driven to the edge of despair by the troubles of others.
A middle-aged teacher at a high school with a good proportion of its student body coming from a tough Italian neighborhood finds herself becoming cranky, caustic, and cynical. More and more she is withdrawing from her pupils, especially the ones who most need her guidance, affection, and sympathy. One young lad offers her a present. She refuses it, but in such an ungracious manner and with such gratuitous cruelty that she begins to examine the cause of her disaffection.
The boy who offered her the present is the cousin of two brothers who at different times passed through her class. The first was a promising boy with considerable native intelligence, but the obvious victim of an environment charged with crime and violence. She remembers having taken special pains with him, trying to interest him in activities which would have enabled him to realize his talents. Somehow, though, he drifted away from her, joined a gang, and was shot in a gang war. When the younger brother of the dead boy comes into her class, she sees in him the same potential but also the same danger. With much labor, she guides him into college, but he soon quits in order to avenge his brother's death and is himself shot.
Now the cousin is in her class. The family resemblance is strong. She sees in the boy proffering her the present, the same threat to her security and peace of mind. She has been considering retirement lately, but now, in bringing to her own conscious mind the real causes of her frustration, she is able to conquer her sense of inadequacy. She accepts the present and discovers that the boy is returning a gift she had given to one of the dead youths. Her faith in her own power to influence her students is revitalized. Teaching resumes its old fascination for her.
This is about the limit of selflessness "real" slick characters ever achieve. Nobler deeds are done and finer lives are led in the slicks, but by characters who are fashioned in such a way that they seem to be oddities whom the reader will watch with interest but whom the reader will not "become."
These stories of near-despair are strictly occupational pieces. The cause of the hero's crisis arises from a sense of failure in his work; and the final regeneration of his faith is always directly connected with the specific cause of the original problem. Consider this story about a minister. He has served a certain parish for many years now, and to the objective observer seems to have been very successful at it. He is admired, valued, well liked, and respected. But a succession of petty frustrations is capped by his failure to console one of his parishioners who a short time before had lost his wife and now has also lost his only child. The minister visits the man, talks to him about the seem ingly strange way God sometimes has of running the world, but finds that he is unable to touch the man. His inability to comfort the farmer works on him to such an extent that he prepares to hand in his resignation at his next meeting with the officers of the church. The officers cannot at all understand his sense of failure, and at first they attribute it to their lack of cooperation in the minister's various projects. Anxious to keep their pastor, they pledge themselves to work harder for the church's good. This does not console the minister. Then suddenly the farmer appears at the meeting to donate his time and effort to the project then underway. Now, the minister realizes that he actually has been successful with the farmer, despite the man's overwhelming grief, and is strengthened to resume his work.
These altruistic doings always revolve around the personal success or failure of the protagonist. Anything more unselfish than this in the way of everyday nobility most slick readers would find incomprehensible. The social virtue represented in these stories derives from a life-dedication (which slick readers sympathize with) rather than from the spontaneous impulse to do good. This may seem like an unnecessarily fine distinction, but the point to be made is this: stories of good deeds are welcome in the slicks, but there is a limit to the extent of the common virtue in which slick audiences will be interested. What seems to be most attractive is the character who can serve his neighbor and still successfully serve himself. The individual's pursuit of happiness started in this country as an assured prerogative. It has since become a duty. Religion and teaching are generally looked upon as activities altruistic by their very nature. There is no necessity for the writer who is tackling these crisis-stories to limit himself to such professions. Police work, writing, the sciences-almost any activity which has a certain " tone" to it can be made into a praiseworthy activity if the social aspects of the job are emphasized.
Coaching the basketball team at a college may not seem to the disinterested spectator a particularly selfless business, but wonders can be done by the agile writer. Take this piece:
A basketball coach has given over the major part of his life to teaching young men to play basketball and, in the process, also to inculcating in them the principles of good sportsmanship. Suddenly, a "fix" scandal breaks on the campus. Most of his stars are implicated. The obvious questions- how long has this been going on, how many students in the past have been similarly corrupted?-comes up again and again in the coach's mind. Could he have been mistaken all these years about what he has really done for these young men? Instead of teaching students a certain sense of manliness and fair play, has basketball been the occasion of their corruption and ruin?
In despair, the coach plans to hand in his resignation at the end of the school year. His entire life seems wasted. The stars, the very core of his team, on whom he has expended so much energy and attention, have been disqualified from play. He is forced to work with the second team-all good boys, to be sure-but good perhaps because they haven't yet had the opportunity to be bad. He proceeds to train the scrubs. He is struck by their sincerity and their willingness to work hard. He watches them, boys of less talent than the disqualified stars, killing themselves to make something of the school team, and he is re-inspired by their industry and good faith to stay on the job and use his knowledge of the game to guard future stars from seduction by gamblers.