Robert Nathan’s debut novel Peter Kindred is not one of his fantasies, but it makes good reading for its quirky earnestness and lyric touches. A semi-autobiographical story of a Harvard student and his first steps in life after leaving the Ivy quad, the novel deflates its eponymous protagonist’s precious theories about society, nation, and economics. The book begs for Whit Stillman to film it as a period piece companion to Metropolitan.
Much of Peter Kindred is a campus novel, a darker, more literary cousin of Owen Johnson’s popular 1912 novel Stover at Yale. Like Stover’s Yale, Peter’s Harvard is a matter of figuring out what to do, what philosophy of life to propound, who to curry favor with—along with, of course, attending plenty of football games. Not a modernist novel but a document of encounters with modernity, we get Peter’s ambivalent first encounters with Russian writers, Baudelaire, the cinema. Peter grew up, we read, “accepting his father’s beliefs as he accepted his more gaudy ties.” But at Harvard he and his school chums “were in the process of discarding God,” and Peter “had accepted life…wishing that there were a God, but knowing there was not.”
Peter falls under the influence of Don, a schoolmate brimming with the then-popular economic and social theories of Harvard economist Thomas Nixon Carver, and that seem to offer Peter a total explanation for life and how to live it. Carver’s writings reflect the economic rationalism and racial-national (and at times eugenicist) focus characteristic of the progressive era, albeit in a more free-market direction, and shot through with ideas about life force and biological vitalism.
The effect on Peter and his fellow Carverians is not dissimilar to that of Ayn Rand and Objectivism on many young people in the 1960s, with a particular similarity in that Carver, like Rand, appeals to survival—of individuals and societies—as a prime moral metric. Production for the nation was a moral project. “Life, life,” we read in Nathan’s representation of Peter’s budding Carverism. “There is no greater good as far as we know, and what persists then in living must be right, and what dies, wrong. That which makes for life must be moral.”
On break from school, Peter scandalizes his parents by, for instance, arguing that the pregnant condition of a young wife they recently hosted ought to be acknowledged and congratulated rather than passed over in polite, bourgeois silence. He wants objectivity, iron logic, and, above all, purpose; not conventions or sentiment. His conversion is soon complete: “Later in the summer he read again Carver’s Religion Worth Having [a 1912 treatise] and became definitely a Carverian.” This sets up much of the remainder of the book as a story of the inadequacy of ideology to contend with reality.
At Harvard, Peter meets and falls in love with Joan, a Radcliffe girl and Carverian. Their love is described with a misty propriety that, even if wry, marks the book as pre-Lost Generation, despite the publication date. In love with Joan, Peter feels “a stirring, a growing, a rushing, a miracle that welled up from unfathomable depths.” They get married at a justice of the peace and move to the Bowery in New York City where Peter struggles and then finds work in an advertising firm. Carverism does not seem to help Peter understand the working class people he lives among in the city, nor does he find its economic-moral theories of much use in giving him a sense of purpose in his advertising job.
It is also less than adequate in helping him with issues of sex. Peter explains to his his bemused father that he and Joan will practice abstinence until they can afford to have children. Soon enough his sexual desire becomes stronger than he can bear, and Carverism is neither guide nor balm for Peter’s still-Victorian conscience. “It frightened him,” we read, “this unexpected declaration of his body. The thought of obtruding it upon Joan horrified him . . . . A man had no right to feel that way about his wife.” His first experience of sex involves a lot of poetic flooding and surging and drowning and tides. Don, meanwhile, argues for polygamy on Carverian grounds: “Monogamy is only a habit,” he says.
We read of New York’s tenements and slums, “the murmurous Ghetto” and “long blocks of pedlers’ carts,” and a “supper in a dingy Hebrew dining room.” Peter and Joan pass through Little Italy and observe Greenwich Village bohemia, talk about but do not themselves join in artists’ colonies and “the Masses group.” Their Radcliffe friend Helen moves to New York. Helen is a bleeding heart, who tries to help strikers. She also moons after Don, who does not at first return her affections. In an ironic touch, Don and Helen do become a couple after Helen discovers feminism; this gives her a totalizing ideology as contemptuous of men as Don’s Carverism is of women, and they find themselves united in their mutually arch radicalisms.
I have said that Peter Kindred is semi-autobiographical, but this does not mean that Peter is Nathan. Peter early befriends a Jewish student, David, “a short, dark fellow, with eager black eyes,” and they become “inseparable companions.” David is an aspiring musician. Unlike the Carverite Don, he “was not an ist or an ite, he was just David, with feelings, illogical, unreflective.”
At Harvard, Peter’s association with a Jew is a social liability. One well-meaning friend cautions their mutual friend Don: “Peter simply can’t take [David] around with him, Don, because the men who might like Peter, don’t like Jews. I don’t blame them . . . they’ve been brought up that way.” This ostracism takes its toll on David, who grows bitter and sometimes drinks to excess. “[T]his place is too much for me,” he tells Peter. “I’m kept down. My race is thrown in my face.”
Eventually, David drops out of Harvard—and the novel—leaving for Europe, feeling that he cannot develop as a musician in the United States. I wonder to what extent David, like Peter, reflects Nathan’s own experience as a Jew at Harvard and as a would-be writer in America. In any case, the withdrawal of the Jewish character from the novel was perhaps necessary for Nathan to conceive and write it. And however much Nathan thought about joining the ex patriate writers of the 1920s in Paris or other European destinations, he would make his literary stand in America.
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