ELLIOT PAUL'S
IMPROMPTU (1923)

by Arnold Goldman


Impromptu’s title belies the care with which Paul constructed the novel, and notwithstanding the sordid events which would draw public attention to it, it has a more carefully worked and more deliberately varied and woven canvas than Indelible. Two young lives are again followed - Irwin Atwood and Dorothy Bliss, both from Glendale (Linden) - but they cross and recross more intricately than Samuel and Lena. Irwin is not so much from a lower social class than Samuel Graydon as crasser, lacking his talent and sensitivity. He is one of the gang, with only occasional, though significant, flashes of insecurity or "finicky" responses. His mother’s fearfulness irritates and frustrates him and casts a shadow over his more robust and less ethical moments. (There is no mention of a father.) Believing toughness to be at the core of life, he regards her susceptibilities as an undermining feminization and weakness. When he looks to be found out for having spent his fraternity’s dance money, "the fear that... right would prevail made him shiver. After all, there might be something to this honesty stuff. Never again for him."1

Like his high school chums - "Surely Kappa D stood for democracy and the removal of social barriers, excepting, of course, Jews, Catholics, Chinese or Negroes" - Irwin is anti-Irish, anti-Italian and anti-Semitic, in ascending order, and however much the more genteel of the town recoil from youthful gang xenophobia, they have legitimised it:

A few years before nineteen seven, the Glendale Improvement Association had been organised.... Faulkner, a station but two from Glendale on the Saugus Branch, began to be overrun with Jews. Ugly three deckers of the cheapest construction had been erected within sight of the railroad tracks and the Glendale commuters could see each evening fat Jewish mothers resting their flopping breasts on the windowsills and could hear shrill children swarming the back streets. All the available houses in Faulkner were being purchased by Jews, and were rented to Jews, "heaven knows how many packed into a room."
  ...Here and there, a shack, thrown together with much tarboard and tin, was inhabited by Italians. Passengers on the street railway turned up their noses at the whiffs of garlic and waited with impatience while bandanna’d, vociferous Italian women lifted child after child into the cars, rolling contralto vowels like beans from a broken bag. Revere, southeast of Glendale, had already been "ruined by the Guineas."
  It was time something was done, so the Glendale Improvement Association was organised. All vacant lots and empty houses were purchased and it was understood that foreigners, especially Jews, were to be excluded in future from the town.2

In Irwin’s final year at school he meets, at Condit’s dance hall in Revere Beach, delicate, fourteen-year old Dorothy Bliss and for an instant, among his more lecherous thoughts, a shade of finer feeling touches him:

Dorothy did not turn out to be much of a talker, but while they strolled the veranda, Irwin put his arm around her waist. She didn’t seem to mind. She didn’t even say "You mustn’t." That made a hit with him. He had no use for a girl that stalled two weeks before he could kiss her....
  "Shall we go and sit down?" he asked.
  Dorothy’s fringed eyelashes opened wide, in a queer appealing way. "I’d like to look at the ocean," she said. Irwin said "Sure."
  He had been to the beach many times in his life, but had never before paid particular attention to the ocean. All over the sea, the moonlight was shaking crumbs of phosphorus from the sky’s great tablecloth. Little waves toppled - the hand of the singing sand smoothed them out - over and over again.... [sic]
  ...At her door, Dorothy thanked Irwin very gravely. Try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to get fresh with her. She seemed too young, like robbing the cradle.3

The story then takes up Dorothy, raised from childhood by a frumpy, ailing, unbalanced older sister, Celia, who is shunned by the town for adherence to Christian Science (which pastor Williams denounces from the pulpit) and for a sailor cousin, whom they believe to be Celia’s fancy-man. At twelve, Dorothy survives typhoid. Celia’s health progressively fails, and Dorothy looks after her, leaving school after the ninth - and last legally required - grade. Employed at the local factory, which has been converted from manufacturing shoe lasts to munitions, Dorothy supports her sister, and continues to see Irwin.4

After high school graduation Irwin and his friend Alfred ("Dutch") Gerry work in a Boston leather goods company, hating the routine. In May 1917, caught up in the fervor of patriotism, they enlist in the engineers. When he is not called up, Irwin becomes one of the "dangling men" Paul had described in his Battalion history. Doing any real office work "was out of the question.... What was the use: He might be called any moment." Irwin chafes under the local gossip that his call-up has been delayed through "pull," and at last, in October, he and Dutch receive their notice. At Camp Devens, asserting his high school drill experience Irwin is made a corporal. Dutch’s incompetence at following orders keeps him a private, and he is made "horseshoer," though there are no horses. (Paul notes that "the signal corps and the engineers... each... had to have one.") Irwin tries to be an easy taskmaster, but he assigns all the unpleasant duties to Klein, a Jewish recruit who has expressed "distaste for hand-to-hand fighting." Now waiting impatiently to go abroad, Irwin seeks Dorothy out, and though he has earlier held back from initiating a virgin, they have sex. He immediately regrets it, and thinks he will deny everything - "He would prove that he was in camp" - but she is only worried that he will be "mad with" her.5

The sea-passage to France comprises days of unrelieved sea-sickness punctuated by greasy and rancid meals Irwin can’t hold down. When his ship rams a freighter, "[b]lind, unreasoning fear possesses him." Unable to find his life-preserver, he takes Dutch’s. Afterwards he is ashamed: "He had lost his nerve, at the first suggestion of danger.... What would happen when he got to the front?" He makes an effort to understand the wider situation, to face up to it, then relapses into confusion; it will become the recurrent pattern of his life:

Somehow, on the bare deck, great events begin to bear a hazy relation, one to another. The huge cantonments of "Squads Right," the over-crowded, bad-smelling transports, the wet, black headlines. Drowning men in the sea behind him [the freighter’s crew]. Bleeding men in the trenches in front of him. Hungry, belching cannon, clouds of poison gas, jagged, rusty bayonets. He was being rushed nearer to them as fast as the America could travel, and he was yellow! Could he face them? How could he get away?...
  Irwin tries to visualize the front, jumbling Grand Army speeches, Private Peat, newspaper atrocities, and recruiting speeches on the Common. What part were the engineers to play?... How long would the war last?....

His effort ends in dream-images and inconsequence. In camp in Brest, he is scarified by coming upon a hospital of "shell-shocks," and the black invalids particularly frighten and revolt him - "Reeling, heaving into his pail, staggering, Irwin made for the door, rushing blindly for the outdoor air." He wonders if he was "the only coward":

For the first time in his life, Irwin felt himself an outsider. Always he had conformed....

  Then in one second, a collision in mid-ocean had stripped him of years of sportsmanship and rammed fear and cowardice deep into his being while he was yet half asleep. Now he felt an impulse to avoid his comrades. He was yellow and must keep them from knowing it....
  Wasn’t he patriotic? What in hell was patriotism, anyway? Loving his country? What did that mean? Glendale? Nobody could love that town. He had hoped a thousand times never to see it again. Boston?... Washington?... The government? What was the government?... Bull! Bull! Bull! Everything turned out to be bull if you tried to find out what the words really meant.

It is his life’s crisis. Events have precipitated his detachment from the mass. It is a question whether he can move forward or whether he will be so struck by what he now feels and sees that it will arrest him.6

Arrest it is. The slim possibility that he might take a grip on himself fades. He joins others in going to a brothel, but then "his imagination played havoc with him" over the possibility of having contracted venereal disease. Oscillations between herd behavior and uncontrolled subjectivity take him over. On the box-car journey cross-country,

The enormity, the relentlessness, the ironic impersonality of the Chaos in which he was shuttled from place to place overwhelmed Irwin, once again....
  It was not an element in which he could survive.... The others thought he was yellow. He knew he was yellow.

As time wears on, Irwin goes from Devil Sick to Devil Well and back again. He becomes optimistic, "convinced no damage had resulted from his escapade in Brest," pleased with himself. But this mood does not last, and one follows another with deeper troughs. Now it is all "Mud, Smells, Slops, Vermin, Insects." When he bursts out over officers getting the best cuts of beef, he is busted to Private. His glimmerings of awareness and sensibility are just enough to set him apart, without any advantaging comprehension or detachment. He hears the major troop offensive massing up:

What did it mean? The rhythm of feet beat inside Irwin’s eardrums. In the dugout, thirty yards away, his squad was smoking and talking, without a thought for this terrible metallic procession.... There was something thrilling in the hugeness of the preparations. The whole thing was impersonal, like the tide of the seasons. No doubt the other boys were right in paying no attention to it....
  What a misfortune to have powers of observation and a grasp of the probabilities....
  Irwin could not reach a firm conclusion. He grew weary of thinking, and started for the dugout. At least, he could be unconscious for a few hours.

Awake, as battle looms, he feels that all enemy guns and bayonets are converging on him. In battle, surrounded by meaningless activity, the engineers shovel sacks full of mud to make sandbags until he is "silly with fatigue." As in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, the place of the battle is unmentioned and unknown to the protagonist, but in Impromptu, Irwin gets no opportunity to prove he is no coward. Dutch, weakened by dysentery, collapses and leaves the line, for hospital. Irwin plods on, hopelessly. He is being reduced to non-entity, his senses "deadened... like a vessel with the engine dead." Paul ends Irwin’s war not with the Armistice but with the news arriving that Dutch is dead.7

By 1923 only John Dos Passos of First World War novelists - in One Man’s Initiation - 1917 (1919) and Three Soldiers (1920) - had so emphasized the unreadiness of the ordinary American soldier for the challenge which war presented, unable to meet it with resources from a stabilizing social or cultural background. Stanley Cooperman, noting that Impromptu has features anticipated only by Dos Passos and anticipating Hemingway’s early short stories, remarks that Irwin Atwood "is completely coarsened" by his military service into "broken indifference." For Cooperman, Irwin is "emasculated by the very forces to which he assents.... Unable to triumph in the [war] machine by becoming part of it, [he] is likewise unable to oppose the machine by an act of renunciation which would redeem his own manhood." Military service is, however, only the occasion for Irwin’s further coarsening, and before that is accomplished, there have been feeble glimmerings of sensitivity. (Only just over a third of Impromptu concerns Irwin’s military service and not all of the novel is about him). It is rather the society out of which he springs which is found wanting, and Paul’s irony is finally directed beyond the enmeshed, enfeebled, finally pathetic individuals in the foreground towards society - in its superficiality, crassness, patriotism and xenophobia.8

Irwin had made Dorothy pregnant. The factory superintendent, Norman Reed, "old enough to be your father," gets it out of the ingenuous girl that she is "in trouble." When the Boston abortionist he has arranged backs out, Reed altruistically (and illegally) approaches his friend the Glendale doctor who performs the operation. On Armistice Day, Reed finds himself alone, turned down even at a Boston brothel - "Sorry. Rushed to death.... Worse than Christmas Eve." He seeks out Dorothy, who hero-worships him, and he sleeps with her. To his surprise, her response is the one she made earlier to Irwin ("you’re not angry with me?"). He has her come to his apartment weekly, and when a neighbor complains of her visits, he arranges that she use a brothel for their meetings. It is not clear that she realises the nature of the house she visits, or the role of its common-sense presiding matron, Mrs Mac.9

In the post-War economic downturn, the factory is closed. Reed is forced to move away and Dorothy is sorrowful but understanding - "Damn fine little girl." A new job addressing envelopes proves too demanding - she writes too slowly - but she is taken on by a Jewish printer on the other side of Boston, and in April 1919 Celia finds run-down accommodation for them nearer her work. One day Dorothy is recognized by Mrs Mac, who befriends her and sets her up as one of her stable, giving her quite precise instructions on how to succeed as a "call girl." Though apparently unaware of the purpose of the house earlier, Dorothy accepts her new role without demur, and it promises well for her. Mrs Mac is a good businesswoman, and she looks out for her girls. Celia’s condition, however, worsens.10

Irwin returns from the War to the leather company, where he shows no ability to perform his job satisfactorily. Drinking constantly, he fears that the company will soon find him out. In sympathy for the difficulties ex-soldiers are having - "Service Men Breaking Down" says a newspaper headline - they give him time off with pay, but he squanders it. At a low ebb, he meets Dorothy, looking successful, and learning that she works most nights asks if he can have a room in her home and look after Celia. That he should feel sorry for their night in Revere, causes her to laugh "without sound, hideously, convulsively.... Seven men, three of them entirely repulsive, she had seen that day, and this boy, who fidgeted with his collar when waiters look at him, was sobbing about Revere Beach." When police pressure forces the closure of Mrs Mac’s for a month, Dorothy and Irwin return to Condit’s at Revere Beach where the dance instructor mistakes them for professional dancers and wonders if they are interested in a job. Irwin imagines a new life for them, but there is Celia, whom Dorothy will not leave. To forward his scheme, Irwin suffocates Celia, but he panics and runs. Fearing capture, he does the one thing he believes will keep him safe, he re-enlists.11

Impromptu begins with the Stars and Stripes being raised over Glendale Square on the Fourth of July, by "the town shoemaker, an Italian immigrant." While the United States is at war, he "took down the stars and stripes each evening." On the novel’s last page, with Irwin Atwood, once again "Private 1cl," stiffly at attention, "the flag, in a last red and white flush of ecstasy, crumples and slides down the pole into upstretched arms."12


1 Impromptu (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), 43.
2 Ibid., 38, 5-6.
3 Ibid., 20-1.
4 In Impromptu, the years between 1908 and 1914 do not exist. See next note.
5 Irwin Atwood graduates in the class of 1907 (Ibid., 70), but only works for a short time before he enlists in May 1917. Paul elided the years in which he was himself in the Far West, in order to keep Irwin a youthful soldier, but did not advance the years of Irwin’s high school experience into the ‘teens. Ibid., 72, 82, 80, 85.
6 Ibid., 94, 95, 97-8, 110, 113, 113-14.
7 Ibid., 124, 137, 141, 147; 172, 174; 187, 195.
8 Stanley Cooperman, World War I and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), 22, 69, 148, 149, 151. Compare Cooperman: Paul’s "prose itself becomes an extended sneer... a knowing but hopeless derision.... Paul never goes beyond irony."
9 Impromptu, 226, 231.
10 Ibid., 257.
11 Ibid., 312, 335.
12 Ibid., 3, 200, 356.


This analysis of Impromptu is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. Arnold Goldman 2001.

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