I like to take advantage of quiet days of the Christmas holiday to devote myself to a big, long book. Two years ago, it was Benito Perez Galdos’ masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, which offers everything one could ask from what Henry James called a “loose, baggy monster” (“with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary”): a strong narrative, a personable narrator, and plenty of rewarding detours into the sidestreets and marginal characters of 19th century Madrid.
While there were certainly plenty of candidates to choose from, this year’s choice was easy: Ira Wolfert’s massive 1953 novel, Married Men. Ever since I saw an immaculate first edition copy on the shelves of the great Wonder Books store in Frederick, Maryland, I’ve been intrigued to learn just what Wolfert managed to pack into its 1,007 pages.
Ira Wolfert’s first novel, Tucker’s People (1943), often pops up on lists of neglected books. It was mentioned among the additional titles listed at the end of David Madden’s first Rediscoveries collection and Gerald Green provided an essay on it in Rediscoveries II. It’s been reprinted numerous times, most recently by Black Curtain Press and by Amazon itself for Kindle. An Act of Love, Wolfert’s second novel, about a Navy pilot stranded on a South Pacific island, was received with great hoopla, including a cover story in the Saturday Review, and ranked with The Naked and the Dead when it first appeared in 1949. Married Men, however, popped up, received a few reviews, then disappeared, aside from an Married Men paperback edition (with an utterly misleading cover) later that year, disappeared.
One of the obvious reasons for the neglect of Married Men is its daunting size. It’s a brick in hardcover, and even squeezed down to 863 pages through narrow margins and tiny print the paperback is a great block of newsprint. But all of Wolfert’s novels are behemoths. Tucker’s People runs around 400 pages, and An Act of Love nearly 600.
Even considering its size, however, Married Men might have attracted the kind of readership that
Peyton Place won a couple years later if its title had actually provided an accurate clue as to its contents. Based on the jacket blurb or the paperback cover, you’d think this was an exhaustive account of mid-century American males and their adventures in and outside the bounds of marriage.
But this is not at all what Married Men is about. What it really is is a wildly ambitious attempt to write the Great American Business Novel: an epic of manufacturing, money, mergers, politics, and labor. Centered around Wes Olmstead, who builds a mid-sized metal plant in the fictional town of Grand Island in an unnamed Midwest state into a national conglomerate, it spans the period from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, and features a cast ranging into every corner of the social spectrum.
In a way, it’s Wolfert’s version of Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood saga (The Financier and The Titan), but lacking Dreiser’s deft, subtlety or concision. And if you know anything about Dreiser, you’ll know that none of those were his forte.
In his review of An Act of Love, John Woodburn described Wolfert’s prose as “massive, encircling, slate-colored, and tirelessly industrial.” It’s an apt description, and the experience of reading Married Men is a bit like slogging through a swamp. There are plenty of passages in which the writing just goes on and on without advancing the story or idea a single inch. I was often reminded on William Gibbs McAdoo’s characterization of Warren G. Harding’s speeches: “An army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.” Wolfert’s approach betrays a tragic degree of artistic hubris. To steal from his own description of one character’s piano-playing, “It was as if each word were a bullet and (s)he was waiting for it to hit and sink in before sending out the next one.”
What Wolfert desparately needed was an editor with a drawerful of blue pencils. At half the length, Married Men might still come off a bit leaden, but it would at least have been able to maintain a livelier narrative pace.
A ruthless editor would certainly have eliminated many of Wolfert’s relentless ruminations on his characters’ thoughts, acts, and motives. Here, for example, is just the start of the Byzantine labyrinth he constructs around one minor character’s decision to quit Olmstead’s company:
Roy Warrener did not understand very clearly why or how, but the issue had become a drastic one for him. Krause had allowed his own name to be used on the letterhead of Oscar’s commission only to find out what Oscar was up to. Then, when Olmstead Metals started building its own hospital and the issue with Oscar was joined, he had withdrawn his name.
But Roy had had his name put on the letterhead for other reasons. He was forty-two at that time, of middling height, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, with a worn, lined face that was comfortable to look at because it seemed so honest. He was indeed an honest man and he had an honest heart.
As a medical student Roy had hoped eventually to specialize in obstetrics. But it was only a kind of inclination in him, and Alice Banniman was a passion. Alice was one of the poor relations of the Bannimans. Her father had been the older brother of Claude and Virginia. But he had broken with the family and had spent his life as a counter-jumper at Bushforth & Kopfers.
This goes meandering on through family history, city and company politics, and Roy Warrener’s reflections upon them until, four pages and roughly two thousand words later, we arrive at the point: Roy “had taken a lot of crap” from Claude” (Banniman, Roy’s wife Alice’s uncle, an Olmstead Metals executive and dirty old man). Then, just a few pages later, Wolfert quotes in entirety one of Roy’s early letters to Alice: a four-paragraph invitation to a party with an eight-paragraph P.S. that tells a long-winded anecdote about an aged patient of his who had just died. Alice somehow managed to look past Roy’s gaseous writing, much as a reader who expects to finish Married Men must look past many more pages of Wolfert’s.
Wolfert once wrote that, “I write novels that are objective, naturalistic, realistic works of reportage and social comment. They contain all the poetry, painting and music of which I am capable.” Then he added the telling remark, “It may seem that I am trying to ride off in all directions at once, but actually I ride in one direction: the direction of recording experiences objectively.” If there is one sense conspicuously missing from Married Men, it’s objectivity.
That’s not to suggest that the book is bereft of anything worthwhile. There are some very strong and visceral passages, such as the endless night of drinking and bar-hopping that Wes and a fellow young executive spend early on in the novel, which culminates in a meticulous account of a cockfight. It’s pretty unpleasant stuff but unquestionably powerful writing. And Wolfert does lay out a vast design for his story, taking in countless business and political deals and featuring characters ranging from a night watchman to a vaudeville dance act to a J. P. Morgan-like New York financier. But, in the end, there is just too much of “the arbitrary and the accidental” to allow Wolfert’s loose, baggy monster to wrestle itself into coherent shape.
It may say something about the artistic toll that Married Men took on Ira Wolfert that he never again attempted the novel form.