Facts are deceptive. Fiction is truth. . . . Impious though it may
sound, the novelist can play God. Nothing is hidden from him,
nothing is concealed. He can approach as close to the truth as his
genius permits."" - Hamilton Basso Novelist, literary critic, an
articulate voice within The New Republic and The New Yorker,
Hamilton Basso (1904-1964) gained his writerly bearings in his
native New Orleans during the 1920s at the feet of Sherwood
Anderson. Over the course of his life, his friends and associates
also included William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe,
Maxwell Perkins, Van Wyck Brooks, Malcolm Cowley, Matthew
Josephson, and Edmund Wilson. Since his death, Basso's name and
writings have somehow slipped between the cracks of the American
canon, leaving him only a faint memory alongside his more famous
contemporaries. In The Road from Pompey's Head, the first major
biography of Basso, Inez Hollander Lake makes the appealing,
illuminating argument that present memory does a disservice to this
distinctive mind and talent. Between 1929 and 1964 Basso published
eleven novels, including in 1954 The View from Pompey's Head, which
spent forty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was
translated into seven languages. Lake suggests, however, that
Basso's less popular works of the 1930s, particularly Cinnamon Seed
and Courthouse Square, also deserve new examination. Like no other
writer of the Southern Renaissance, she says, Basso portrayed the
double alienation experienced by the southerner who leaves and then
returns home; he analysed the theme more often, more thoroughly,
and less sentimentally than Wolfe, who has received most if not all
credit for the motif. At the same time, he displayed a marked
southern ""otherness,"" taking the Agrarians to task for breeding
plantation anachronisms out of the dead land and criticizing
writers like Erskine Caldwell and Faulkner for cultivating the
other extreme of the southern grotesque and southern decay. Social
realism was Basso's prescribed approach to depicting the South in
fiction, and he would grind his axe against public vices such as
racism, intolerance, and social and intellectual pretense.
Independent, a loner who shunned literary society in New York City,
Basso finally broke with New Orleans completely and even took leave
of the South, settling in Connecticut. Inez Hollander Lake brings
this reluctant southerner vividly to mind in a skillfully
integrated discussion of his life and work, employing to the
fullest the letters, diaries, manuscripts, and family and friends
that remain behind.
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