Unmoral and The Autobiography of Jack WoodfordIf you are researching American sexual mores and family values, in addition to the “usual suspect” list of literature, you might consider reading Jack Woodford’s 1934 effort, Unmoral. The first chapter is a brilliantly conceived and written work of fiction, very suggestive . . . of a great work to follow. But what actually follows is a talky novel of ideas, where the theme is “the new world to come.” Many crisp passages deliver what must have been, in the 1930s, “daring thought,” but which will today strike most readers as merely the present reality or its discarded afterbirth. Here is a typical passage, from the mouth of the heroine, Nausicaa Bradford:

Americans pass a law against liquor and go right on drinking; they frown, publicly and openly upon the relationship of mistress and lover, and go right on having such relationships under cover. They draw up huge categories of business ethics, and American business is rotten to the core. It’s America’s fetich: this, “Save the Surface and You Save All,” theory.

Not exactly deep, but perceptive of the time and of the direction of trends. And like all of Woodford’s writings, it is something of a hoot. Like Mencken, Woodford’s attitude carried him a long way.

This “novel of ideas” mostly takes the form of pre-coital and post-coital negotiations and manifestos, in which the heroine makes quite clear to her various lovers that she doesn’t love them, but still wishes to engage in the physical pleasures of life. There is a quaintness about this, as one often encounters with a philosophy graduate on a first date.

Indeed, before the end, the author finally marshals his personal philosophy, not as one of “selfishness,” but of “selfness.” This is not so much a pre-echo of Ayn Rand, but an echo of Max Stirner and his followers, one of which coined the delightfully ungainly term “selfyness” to capture the same set of notions Woodford here pushes.

Woodford, master of brevity, cleverly dropped the “y.”

To modern readers, the elision of any description of the love-making, or even the mention of certain concepts by name (“fellatio” being the first to strike one by its pointed absence), seems itself dated. Woodford could not get away with, commercially or perhaps even legally, at that time, such frankness as practiced by Henry Miller, whose first work of explicit sex talk and sexual activity, Tropic of Cancer, came out in the same year as Woodford’s Unmoral. And was banned.

Woodford, ever the consummate hack, saw little point in writing books only to have them banned. He wanted to be paid. This book, published by his own publishing company (the better to reap as many rents as possible), was intended to sell, and sell steadily. And it does appear that Woodford was something of a success in his day.

While Woodford referred to his craft as that of the art of the “sex novel,” Unmoral, aside from being a novel of ideas (if mostly sexual), is also, in a sense, an example of a very American form of novel: the novel of success. Yes, a “success novel.” Horatio Alger and all that. His heroine, Nausicaa, is a business triumph, and some of the ideas in the book express her developing philosophy of how to get ahead — and not just in bed.

The key to understanding the book is one that C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb might appreciate: Woodford dedicated the book to his daughter, Louella. The book was surely designed to serve as a life manual, specifically for her. And she apparently took to the message. Three years later she produced a novel with the gotcha-dad title Maid Unafraid.

Prose style aside — Woodford purveyed a clean, crisp prose that nevertheless delightfully fails to be pedestrian or serve as an example of today’s dreadful “no style” style — the quality of the book is uneven. The first chapter, I repeat, is a perfect specimen, and shows that the author was fully capable of writing excellent short fiction competently. But the bulk of the book is talkier than Crome Yellow or Point/Counterpoint, and, today, sparks more intellectual or historical interest than literary value. But by the end, and with the last sex scene (this time not marred by elision, but cleverly if tastefully told), the genius of the first pages returns.

I am sure were I to wade through, again, his many volumes of writing advice (Trial and Error; How to Plot a Brainstorm; etc.) , I would receive pearls of wisdom regarding the importance of a good opening and a good closing. Well, here, in Unmoral, Woodford lives up to precisely that standard: Great start; fine finish. Unfortunately . . . what a middle!

But that’s to be expected, right? Wasn’t it Iris Murdoch who said that the novel must be very Aristotelian,  having, as she put it, a beginning, a muddle, and an end?

Unmoral is, by this standard, perfectly Aristotelian, even if more Stirnerite and Nietzschean in substantive philosophy.

Astute followers of that long-gone age’s culture will note a few of the more interesting citations, such as to James Branch Cabell. Woodford ably squeezed in mention of his favorite contemporaries. As, I suppose, should we all.

Unmoral and The Autobiography of Jack Woodford

This pitch being delivered, don’t forget the home run: Woodford’s Autobiography remains his best book.