ways throughout their careers. Their protagonists often seek a truer
identity, love, or sense of meaning, partly due to the destructiveness of
greedy materialism and social expectations. Much of the best in American fiction has been concerned less with practical or social realism
than with self-definition and finding a true ethos. Theodore Dreiser’s
so-called Trilogy of Desire ends with The Stoic, in which Frank Cowperwood’s lover Berenice achieves what Cowperwood had always wanted
but failed to do, discovering a life of helping others. Somerset Maugham’s
mid-1940s novel The Razor’s Edge captures an even more certain loss of
interest in career and success. Its war-traumatized protagonist, Larry
Darrell, drifts from the easy life of Chicago’s nouveau riche to traveling
alone in France, reading philosophy, and finally entering a spiritual path
through Hinduism. Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man” by the end falls into
a period of soul-searching, breaking from even the most obvious practical need, the fight against racism. Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac
turned away from straight living in their quest for human ecstasy and
experience. One could go on—Richard Yates, Jonathan Franzen, Toni
Morrison—many of our novelists continue to seek liberation from conformity to find some kind of truer or more valid selfhood.
During the latter years of the Gilded Age, one of America’s important political and humor magazines, Puck, took up the charge against
greed and absurdity in America’s upper class, especially of New York.
This issue’s art feature, “Visual Burlesque,” offers seven Puck cover illustrations by the Jazz Age artist Ralph Barton. Barton started working as
a cartoonist and illustrator for his hometown Kansas City newspapers
the Post and the Star, then got his break in the early years of the new
century, moving to New York City. There he became a dandy, known as
much for his taste in clothes, wine, and food as for his acerbic cartoons,
caricatures, and illustrations.
The American disposition has long included an appreciation for hard
work and persistence. No one better illustrates this than Kim Henderson’s character Shar in her story “Soft.” Shar is a single mother, recently
widowed; she is a power-plant mechanic who has supported herself from
an early age, proud of her ability to do hard physical work and survive
adversity. She has “no idea what [makes] some people unable to function
properly.” When her teenage daughter, Jemma, starts having problems
with fatigue and motivation at school, Shar is angry about the girl’s apparent indolence. Yet what she discovers is that the daughter whom she
is trying to force to be strong already is.