Impromptus 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 mothers 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 fraternitys 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
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 bandannad, 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
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 Irwins final year at school he meets, at Condits 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 didnt seem to mind. She didnt even say
"You mustnt." 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.
Dorothys fringed eyelashes opened wide, in a queer appealing way.
"Id 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 skys 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
couldnt bring himself to get fresh with her. She seemed too young, like robbing the
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 Celias fancy-man. At twelve, Dorothy survives typhoid. Celias 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
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. Dutchs 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 cant hold down. When his ship rams a freighter,
"[b]lind, unreasoning fear possesses him." Unable to find his life-preserver, he
takes Dutchs. 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
freighters 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
For the first time in his life, Irwin felt himself an outsider. Always he had
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....
Wasnt 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 lifes 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
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 Irwins 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
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 Cranes 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 Irwins 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 Mans
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 Hemingways 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 Irwins further coarsening, and
before that is accomplished, there have been feeble glimmerings of sensitivity. (Only just
over a third of Impromptu concerns Irwins 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 Pauls 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 ("youre 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. Celias
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 Macs for a
month, Dorothy and Irwin return to Condits 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 novels 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 Irwins 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: Pauls "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.