Reviews and Criticism

“Man against the World” 

 by Carlos Bulosan 

Carlos Bulosan reviews The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), Native Son (Richard Wright, and The Underground Stream (Albert Maltz). The article appeared in the August 1940 issue of the Commonwealth Times (published in Santa Maria, CA), which was edited by M.G. Alviar. Both Carlos and Aurelio Bulosan were staff editors and writers of the newspaper.

          When man's integrity is undermined by those who rose to perverse power, he is challenged by a ruthless enemy that tries to crush his spirit to survive complete annihilation. 

          This struggle between two diametrically opposed forces is well presented in the recent American novels: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Native Son by Richard Wright; The Underground Stream by Albert Maltz. 

           America is a country shaped into being by a series of bloody revolutions. It is founded upon the universal principles of democracy. The constitution is one of the most flexible documents in human history; it is something that can be interpreted to mean that the people have no right to freedom, or something that can be used by the people against them [to achieve] power. But those in power took possession of the constitution and used it as a weapon to destroy the democracy from which it had derived its absolute reality. When the people are deprived of their lands and homes by corporate wealth, the country is again [on] the verge of another series of revolutions. 

          This is what happened to the people in middle America. They are dispossessed by the banks, driven out of their lands, lands where their fathers before them shed their very blood. And they turned to the government in their own individual ways, but the government that was instituted to arbitrate their differences has risen above its original foundations, detached from the very principles that nourished it, and is used by the ruling class to crush them. 

          We see in the Grapes of Wrath thousands of Americans, descendants of the founders of democracy, driven from the very life-blood of their existence, their [fate]: to be herded and crowded together, to be bludgeoned, in California 

          Thousands of these families move westward believing that California is the last frontier, where they can again make a new beginning, where they can again plant the seed of American democracy—but are shocked to discover that they are strangers in their own country. The banks rule California, the banks hire vigilantes in California, the vigilantes [murder] workers in California. 

          The Joad family finds this out: that America is again on the crossroads of democracy. Tom Joad murders a hireling of the land monarchs, driven by the very forces that go with the concentration of wealth. Into the hands of a few men, the very forces that will ultimately dig, deep into the heart of the enemy world of profiteers and murderers. And Tom Joad who is a fugitive, and the million others who are like him in the world, hiding, waiting for the historic event, affirms with all the cry of the disinherited in the world: “I’ll be around…in the dark, I’ll be everywhere, wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there, and I’ll be there when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why I’ll be there.” 

          When society builds a wall to divide its members, when it sets its members against each other because of race, color, creed or religion, it paves the way towards its own destruction. 

          The American Negro is driven to a corner of life, fed on hunger and hate, brutally hounded and persecuted because he is black. He is hanged, lynched and murdered because he is black. He is the scapegoat of lies – lies perpetrated by the ruling class to confuse the people. It is only by [illegible] that they rule, remain in power. 

          But [while the] Negro becomes aware of his fate, he begins to be afraid [illegible] life; finally he escapes from it and runs into a world where everything is an enemy to him. That world is a stranger to him. He did not make that world. As a bat fleeing in broad day light, blinded by the chains of race theories, he runs amuck in that world—batting his very life against the wall that separates him from the white portion of that world. 

          This heart rending flight of the Negro is dramatically portrayed by Richard Wright, a Negro himself, in his first novel: Native Son. 

          Bigger Thomas, the Negro who unwillfully murders a white woman, realizes the terrible, innumerable odds that face him in a white man’s world. When he is condemned by a court controlled by white men, he asks his lawyer, Mr. Max, A Jew: “What they hate me for?” 

          This is like the cry of Jesus when he was put on the cross, at that hour when he was the loneliest and saddest of men. What they hate me for? But Mr. Max, descendant of a persecuted race, carrying with him the torch of brotherhood that is given meaning by his race, answers Bigger Thomas in a language that I think will remain forever. He says: “You know what keeps those buildings from tumbling down? It’s the belief of men. Those buildings sprang out of the hearts of men. Men like you. Men kept hungry, kept needing, and those buildings kept growing and unfolding. What you felt; what you wanted, is what keeps those buildings [standing] together. When millions of men are desiring and longing, those buildings grow and unfold. But those buildings are not growing any more. A few men are squeezing those buildings tightly in their hands. The buildings can’t unfold, can’t feed the dreams men have, men like you….” 

          Yes, the only salvation of the Negro and for every one who is driven to that corner of life, is to catch that vision of universal feeling described by Mr. Max. But when Bigger realizes this fact, and catches a glimpse of that vision, society is again shaken from its very foundations. He cries out when he is about to die: “I didn’t want to kill! When man kills, it’s for something. I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for them.”         

          The Underground Stream affirms the vision of Mr. Max. 

          An organizer, Princey, finds what it means to be decent and [honest] in a world gone mad before he succumbs to the fate that is prepared for him by the men in power. 

          He is a communist, an organizer in an automobile factory. When he is captured by Grebb, Chief of Police at the plant, he is faced by the most versatile and glib enemy of the working class. Grebb has two alternatives for him. (1) to work with him under the pay of the automobile magnates, against his people; or (2) to die. He chooses to die. 

          Yes, they cannot destroy the working class. They can not bribe the working class. Princey is the well of all the wills of men of good will, the mainspring of all the sufferings of the oppressed people in the world. He chooses death. And he dies. 

          But before he dies, Grebb discovers the underground stream running under society—the stream that will soon burst forth into the earth. 

Here is the conversation between them: 

          Grebb: What else is there in life? 

          Princey: There’s dignity. There’s self-respect 

          Grebb: What is this abstract dignity? Can you weigh it for me? 

                        This self respect—can you draw a picture of it? 

          Princey: I’m nothing—but I’m tied to something big. I want to hold onto it. The important thing is I believe something

          Grebb: Why does it mean so much to you? What can you have that I won’t have? 

          Princey: The love of those who die in your hands. 

          We are fortunate to be reading these books. I think America will produce a great literature out of this chaos. These are only the beginnings of that underground stream that secretly waters the grapes of wrath of the native sons of America. 

          Yes, they can not crush the spirit of man. 

****** 

 

 

 

"The Poetry of Carlos Bulosan: a Study" (excerpt) 

by Nelly X. Burgos
 
Nelly X. Burgos was a professor of English at the University of the Philippines. The article appeared in the Commonwealth Times in 1940, but first appeared in the Philippines Herald Mid-week Magazine. While the review is quite critical of Bulosan’s poems, its length (which is only excerpted here) suggests that Philippine writers and critics were beginning to realize that Bulosan was becoming an important writer to Filipinos both in the U.S. and the Philippines, and worthy of a lengthy “study.”
 
…In Mr. Bulosan one notes the continuation of a literary tradition as established by Balagtas in Tagalog and Rizal in Spanish. He is sentimental but virile, indomitable, bold, deadly earnest and exceedingly sensitive without being misanthropic. His experiences are vital and representative not only of the Filipino expatriates but also of the masses of America. More than any other Filipino poet writing in English, he is keenly aware of the economic and social problems that beset the world today. He, thus, answers the everlasting clamor of some of our critics for a poet who will depict effectively the class struggle, as well as the contemporary scene. Almost journalistic is Mr. Bulosan’s follow-up of current events. He misses no event of economic or political importance. The war ravaging the world today, the fall of the Spanish Republics, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, unemployment, strikes, starvation, the inhuman treatment of the Jews,—these are the subjects of his poems through which run, sometimes concealed, a consistent challenge of the present social order.
         
          Confining himself almost entirely to free verse, Mr. Bulosan is disconcertingly uneven in his poetry, as if his ideas were so important that the manner in which he expressed them did not matter.

          He presents his ideas not with the logic of the imagination but with the logic of the intellect and in a diction swamped with phrases resorted to frequently and worn bare by socially conscious political leaders. 

          Possessed only of a rudimentary sense of rhythms, with but little architectonic power he has poems that neither cohere nor unify, like gelatin that refuses to mold. When he attempts dramatic verse, he is ineffectual because his voice has only one pitch. Introducing the main section of the Shadow of the Terror, are quotations from the films Blockade, Juarez, the Grapes of Wrath; scattered in some poems too there are lengthy references and numerous italicizations. These are, presumably devices to heighten emotional as well as imaginative suggestions, but, failing to function thus, their employment marks him a tyro. Distressing, too, is the situation where he climbs steadily the steps of poetry and then suddenly stumbles to prose. His treatment of his subject varies from the direct to the indirect, sometimes combining both. Some of his symbols to which he has often recourse are vivid; but in many of his poems dealing with war and with democracy especially, his style is diffuse, careless, prolix. While these topical poems might excite some sort of an interest in the Philippines today, not having been lit by the imagination, they are destined to an ephemeral popularity. Other writers in America who are absorbed with the social crisis have achieved infinitely superior results. 

          But Mr. Bulosan is a prolific writer and when he speaks of his experiences, he reveals not only an intensely realized personality, but also an original and a genuinely poetic mind. He raises his subject from the particular to the universal. It has been said that there is no art without restraint. How clearly Mr. Bulosan illustrates this observation in his more competently written poems. 

 

1 Carlos Bulosan, “Man Against the World,” The Commonwealth Times, (August 28, 1940)

2 Nelly X. Burgos. “The Poetry of Carlos Bulosan: a Study,” The Commonwealth Times, (Sept. 25, 1941).