Authors: Frederic Prokosch

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and poet


Though for some years his work has been mostly politely ignored, Frederic Prokosch (proh-KAWSH) was one of the most widely read and highly praised writers of the 1930’s. Considered equally adept in prose and verse, he was lauded by established masters such as William Butler Yeats, André Gide, and Thomas Mann; he seemed on his way to becoming that rarest of twentieth century phenomena: a household poet. His production did not cease with the outbreak of World War II, but his success did. Changes in literary fashions transformed him into one of the best unknown writers of the mid-twentieth century.{$I[AN]9810000906}{$I[A]Prokosch, Frederic}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Prokosch, Frederic}{$I[tim]1908;Prokosch, Frederic}

Prokosch was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on May 17, 1908, the son of a professor at the University of Wisconsin and his wife, a concert pianist. When Prokosch was young, his father relocated to Austin, Texas, a year later sending the boy to be educated in private schools in Germany and Austria. The outbreak of World War I forced his return to Texas in 1915, at which time he spoke German more fluently than English. He then attended local schools wherever his father taught–Austin, Chicago, and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania–before being sent abroad again for two years of study and travel in Europe and western Asia. In 1922 he returned to attend Haverford College, graduating four years later at the age of eighteen. Two further years at the college earned for him a master’s degree. At that point, he embarked on a career as a literary scholar, doing research at the University of Pennsylvania and King’s College, Cambridge, before obtaining his doctorate at Yale University in 1932 with a dissertation on Geoffrey Chaucer. While completing his dissertation and for two years afterward, he taught and did research at Yale University and then served as instructor of English at New York University. In 1937 he returned to King’s College, ostensibly to do postdoctoral work, but by then, he had already abandoned academic life to try his fortune as a writer.

The catalyst of this change was the publication of Prokosch’s first novel, The Asiatics, in 1935. The book was a blockbuster, both for general readers and for major critics. The Asiatics defies comparison; though it shares an Oriental setting with several other popular novels of the time, thus tapping a then-topical fascination with Eastern themes, it has little else in common with any of them, including use of setting. The novel details the adventures of a young American as he drifts from Beirut to Hong Kong, engaging in opium traffic, stealing an airplane and crashing it, learning how to love and make love, and encountering Eastern modes of thinking. Exotic landscapes, picturesque vagabonds, an atmosphere of pervasive mystery, and a peculiar mixture of inevitable doom and bemused acceptance combined to fascinate readers hungry for escape. The book was an international success as well; translations were almost immediately available in the major languages, and eventually seventeen would appear. One major reason for this success may have been Prokosch’s point of view: While stressing the diversity of cultures and the irreconcilability of opposed value systems, he presents them all as somehow coexisting, influencing one another, and moving toward a state of future fusion.

Prokosch achieved almost parallel success with the publication of his first volume of poems, The Assassins, in 1936. These disclose a fascination with the work of Yeats; the homage was successful enough to elicit a positive response from the older poet, a spate of favorable reviews, and a barrage of publicity. As well, the collection demonstrates the influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Archibald MacLeish, and Friedrich Hölderlin. Prokosch combines these voices in a unique fusion of his own. His turns of phrase and melodious lines ring in the memory long after reading, lingering, in fact, much longer than any details of image or resonance of feeling. This collection had a significant influence on the poetry of Dylan Thomas, one of the major poets of the mid-twentieth century.

Prokosch confirmed his reputation with his second novel, The Seven Who Fled, in 1937. This work earned for him the Harper Novel Prize, and it went on to become a best-seller, even more popular and celebrated than The Asiatics. He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that year. The second book extends the achievement of the first by exploiting its successes in mood and setting and surpassing it in strength of structure. Like The Asiatics, the novel centers on Prokosch’s conviction that humankind’s final destination lies in Asia, the continent toward which human evolution is directed. It begins by precipitating seven Europeans of various backgrounds into central Asia and then traces their separate encounters with the Asian soul. These encounters grow out of a complex interweaving of binary and polar opposites among the seven characters. These antagonisms escape easy, black-and-white categorization into “good” and “evil” characters and principles; all finally become neither good nor evil but simply define themselves by their opposition. In this way, Prokosch creates an allegory for civilization in the 1930’s. On the simplest level, he depicts the end of seven European “souls” when tested in the crucible of the Asian spirit. The novel more than confirmed his reputation as an analyst of the spiritual malaise of the world during the pressures of the Depression.

He would never again reach that level of success, though he continued publishing for some fifty years. His decline in popularity began with the reception of his poetry, the second volume of which marked a shift toward flat understatement and empty technique. The critics panned it. Although he did not stop issuing new volumes until 1945, he did not write much after 1940 until returning to the form in his late Voices. To make things worse, although his third novel, Night of the Poor, sold well, it also failed with the critics. In it, he switched focus from cosmopolitan characters to common people and from Asia to America, attempting to show down-and-outers struggling with basic problems of survival in a stricken economy. Unfortunately, he proved unable to identify successfully with experiences that he knew only by report, and he lost his Asian focus. His next two novels did well enough to keep him in the popular eye; one of them, The Conspirators, a successful espionage story, suffered from being transformed into a bad motion picture.

In 1942, when the United States joined World War II, Prokosch returned to his native country to begin government service with the Office of War Information, ending up posted to the American legation in Stockholm. The two further novels he brought into print during the war failed disastrously, to the extent that by 1946, he had become almost unknown. Thereafter, he labored mostly in obscurity, though he did achieve at least modest successes with Nine Days to Mukalla and The Seven Sisters, the latter considered by some to be among his best books. Then, in 1968 he confuted the critics who had been ignoring him for more than twenty years when he published The Missolonghi Manuscript. This novel, a fictional reconstruction of the last days of Lord Byron by way of fictitious memoir, captures the life of the early nineteenth century with rare effectiveness. The Byron he portrays is a brilliant and dynamic figure, though some found that the character did not shed much light on the historical Byron or, more significantly, on his work. Subsequent novels again attracted little attention, though Voices, a memoir in verse, is both innovative and insightful.

BibliographyAusten, Roger. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977. Contains a useful discussion of Prokosch, situating him in the context of twentieth century literature.Carpenter, Richard C. “The Novels of Frederic Prokosch.” College English 18 (1957): 261-267. Provides much insight into the development of Prokosch’s novelistic style. An appreciative essay by a sympathetic critic of Prokosch.Squires, Radcliffe. Frederic Prokosch. New York: Twayne, 1964. Presents Prokosch’s works in a chronological format and is useful as a critical introduction. Squires focuses on the timeless qualities of “interplay of emotion and intellect” in Prokosch’s work but acknowledges that his writing was a “casualty” of World War II, which changed the values of the reading public. A selected bibliography is provided.
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