In 1940, after immersing himself in the works of Marx and other 19th century thinkers to write his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson turned his attention to lighter, more contemporary writers with a long piece for the New Republic, titled, “The Boys in the Back Room.” Of the mostly-California-based writers he discussed, all are still in print–James M. Cain, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck.
All that is, save one: Hans Otto Storm. Wilson had the following to say of Storm’s work:
With Hans Otto Storm and John Steinbeck, we get into more ambitious writing.
Both stories had a concentration of form and a kind of conscientiousness in their approach to their material that were rare enough to excite interest in the author.
An engineer who thus goes in for literature is such a novelty that Hans Otto Storm is able to carry us with him because we have never listened to precisely his story before.
Add to this equipment–to this first-hand knowledge of aspects of American life which few American writers know at all–a mentality which is culturally closer to Europe than that of most American writers (there is a suggestion of Conrad about him); and you get something quite unique in our fiction.
Hans Otto Storm writes with a refreshing subtlety and with a distinctiveness that draws his novels quite out of the familiar orbit. His qualities are so individual that a review and convey only an inadequate impression of them.
Born in California in 1895, Storm studied engineering at Stanford and went into the nascent field of radio engineering. His first novel, Full Measure (unnoticed by Wilson, who calls Pity the Tyrant his first book) was published in 1929. It’s something of a romance of radio engineering with a strong autobiographical flavor. Like Storm, the young hero starts out at a powerful shore station providing telegraphy service to ships at sea, then goes on to install the first major station in a fictitious Central American country. And as is often the case with novels about technology written by technologists, the engineering aspects of Full Measure are far more interesting and well-developed than any of the characters.
Full Measure received mildly positive reviews but sold little over a thousand copies. Whether chastened by the lukewarm reception or caught up in the concerns of his day jobs, which included posts with the Federal Telegraph and with Globe Wireless Company, Storm did not publish again until eight years later. Then, in just four years, he published three major works: Pity the Tyrant (1937), a political allegory about a South American dictator; Made in U. S. A. (1939); and Count Ten (1940), a long bildungsroman about flying, radio, business, love, and independence. None of them have been in print in over 50 years.
These are three quite different books. Wilson considered Pity the Tyrant, set in Lima, Peru, Storm’s best work. Storm’s protagonist is, once again, a radio engineer. The Tyrant of the title is certainly based on Augusto Leguía, President of Peru from 1919 to 1930, whose rule was marked by rebellion, suppression of his opponents, and widespread corruption. In the book, the Tyrant mostly hovers in the background. Much of the story involves a series of set pieces that combine incident and philosophical meditations and debates, rather along the lines of one of Voltaire’s novels. But unlike Candide, Storm’s engineer does not retain his naivete in the face of violence, cruelty, and injustice. As the book closes, the engineer, having been ordered out of the country, sails off on steamship:
“Where do you think we are now, anyway?”
“Just off Trujillo,” he replied.
“Oh, why don’t we put in at Trujillo?”
“No,” he said, “the port’s closed.”
He didn’t tell her that at Trujillo there were a thousand dead, real dead, actual dead, people one knew by their first names or owed little bills to; tortured, mangled, decapitated, left to rot.
What was the use?
Storm is precise and telling in his choice of details, so there is a strongly realistic thread throughout the book. In more than a few ways, it’s a precursor of the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers of the 1960s.
Made in U. S. A. is somewhat more obviously allegorical. A tramp freighter with a small contingent of paying passengers runs into an uncharted sand bar somewhere in the South Pacific. The initial attempts to free it fail, and what was thought to be a brief delay turns into a protracted ordeal. As days wear on and the situation grows more serious, tempers grow raw, and suddenly the ship is divided into two camps. A short, clumsy battle of fists and clubs breaks out, after which the sides retire behind barricades of hay. The captain manages regain his senses and stare down the mutineers. Storm’s description of the morning after gives some sense of his style:
Such feelings and a good many other like them ran, expressed and unexpressed, through the minds of those two thirds of the passengers who found themselves abaft of the hay. They were not the only things that ran there through. They were the what you might call public feelings, and they by no means filled the foreground–most of the passengers had private things to think about that were more vivid. They got up late, many of them nursing cuts and bruises and sore joints, things which got worse rather than better with the night. Last evening they had marveled at themselves that they could fight–now they were even more surprised to find how frightfully one can get himself bunged up at it. Limbs ached just from the sheer exertion where they couldn’t even show a black and blue spot. More than one man of forty-two spent the time wondering with private apprehension how he had happened to get in that fight.
This is not a breakdown of civilization. It’s more like a violin string wound too tight and vibrating off-key.
Storm’s work in radio, along with years of dealing with the maritime business, shows in many telling details that anchor his story in a credible reality. But there is also a sense of Storm as puppeteer, manipulating his players, pushing them into extremis just to see the violence of their recoil. I found myself thinking of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard and Isa Glenn’s Transport–two other neglected books set on ships somewhere out in the vast Pacific. All three novels play on the artificiality of shipboard life utterly isolated–save by radio–from the rest of the world.
Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A. are relatively short books–around 200 pages each. Storm’s fourth novel, Count Ten weighed in at over six hundred pages. Rather than a short period of time, Count Ten covers over thirty years, following the life of Eric Marsden from boyhood, when his father teaches him to fly as well as bail out (he tells the boy to “Count ten” as he jumps from a crashing plane) through time as a conscientious objector in World War One, an ordinary seaman, a campaign worker, and finally an executive in business. The New York Times’ reviewer, William Jay Gold, proclaimed, “It is not only safe, it is necessary now to say that Hons Otto Storm has become one of our first-rank writers. His new novel, Count Ten, is one of the finest books of fiction produced in America for more than a decade.” Gold grouped it with other novels about the meaning of life: The Last Puritan, Of Human Bondage, and Jean-Christophe–not all of which remain quite their same standing.
Count Ten was widely advertised and sold by far the best of Storm’s books. In Wilson’s estimation, it was “very much inferior on the whole to the ones that had gone before.” He also thought that it showed “what seemed internal evidence of having been written earlier than they,” giving off the air of “one of those autobiographical novels that young men begin in college and carry around for years in old trunks.” Having read Full Measure, I would have to agree with Wilson. The book bears stronger resemblance to that early work than to the much more artfully conceived and concisely written Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A..
Storm died in December 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor. He was electrocuted while working on an Army Signal Corps transmitter station in San Francisco. He was 46. David Greenhood collected Pity the Tyrant and other fictional and nonfictional pieces Storm had written about life in Central and South America into Of Good Family, which was published by the small Swallow Press in 1948. And that was about the last the reading public heard of his work.