Kenneth Fearing is both the quintessential proletarian poet of the 1930’s and the author of suspense novels in the hard-boiled tradition. His novel The Big Clock enjoys the status of a genre classic. In both his poetry and fiction Fearing combines sardonic humor with his overpowering sense of the emptiness of twentieth century life. His appropriation of mass-cultural vocabulary foreshadows postmodern literary values.
Fearing was born in 1902 to middle-class parents. His father was a successful attorney in Chicago; his mother seems to have been a grim, humorless woman. Fearing became editor of the local high school newspaper–a position Ernest Hemingway had occupied in the same school. Fearing attended the University of Illinois for two years and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where soon after he won an award for an essay in literary criticism and where he briefly became editor-in-chief of the University’s Wisconsin Literary Magazine.
His poetry of the period, while ironic and sexually frank, shows a willingness to work within traditional forms. During this time he published a sonnet and a villanelle. Other poems echo the cadences and rhymes of Edward Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost.
In 1929 Fearing’s first collection of poems appeared. Unlike the earlier formal work, the poems in Angel Arms are the first expression of Fearing’s own poetic voice. “St. Agnes’ Eve” uses the language of a Hollywood-like film script to narrate the holdup of a cigar store by a small-time hood. (This poem first appeared in 1926, well before the gangster film had solidified into a genre, but Fearing placed “St. Agnes’ Eve” as the first poem in his subsequent collections as well, to emphasize the poem’s growing relevance as the century embraced film.) In “Green Light” Fearing uses the essential vocabulary of advertising to define the hunger of consumerism. In “Cultural Notes” the language of high-society dilettantes clangs against Marxist imbecilities and street bullyism. All three poems show Fearing’s characteristic method of appropriating mass-cultural styles and jargon, which are then used to undermine themselves. All three poems strike Fearing’s most pervasive theme: Modern life might almost be comic if it didn’t add up to such tragic emptiness.
Two more volumes of Fearing’s poetry appeared in the next decade: Poems in 1935 and Dead Reckoning: A Book of Poetry in 1938. Edward Dahlberg wrote an introduction to the former, in which he praised Fearing’s work as “evidence of the horrible mutilation of human dreams and nobleness under capitalism.” With that Fearing’s reputation as a proletarian, anticapitalist poet was established.
In 1939 Fearing’s first novel, The Hospital, appeared. Reviewers complained of the multiple narrators, but it is a characteristic of Fearing’s long fiction that a story is told cumulatively through the various viewpoints. The same complaint came in reviews of Dagger of the Mind and Clark Gifford’s Body, but critics had begun noticing that Fearing’s prose was lucid and that his variation on the suspense-novel genre was original and interesting. By this time, however, Fearing’s poetry was no longer faring as well with reviewers. Both Collected Poems and Afternoon of a Pawnbroker, and Other Poems received rather cool reviews, in which the poet’s talents were praised more than his poems.
In 1946 Fearing published what has become generally considered to be his most important novel, The Big Clock. In this work Fearing limits his narrative perspectives to seven and creates a taut, highly original suspense novel. The story concerns a big-time publisher, Earl Janoth, who has murdered his girlfriend. He seems safe from retribution, with the exception of one possible witness. Using the resources of his publishing empire, he sets the police and one of his editors, George Stroud, on the scent of that witness, who is believed by everyone but Janoth to be the actual murderer.
The originality of plotting in The Big Clock has given it the status of a classic. Fearing’s hard-boiled prose and his clever observations of New York’s Third Avenue shops of the 1940’s give the book added ironies and charm. Two films of The Big Clock (one in 1948, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, the other in 1987, No Way Out, which has a substantial change in setting and stars Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman) have helped increase Fearing’s reputation.
Fearing’s fiction peaked with The Big Clock, but there were other novels. He wrote John Barry in collaboration with Henry Bedford-Jones and Donald Friede, which was followed by Loneliest Girl in the World, The Generous Heart, and The Crozart Story, none of which received much attention, though the last warrants some recognition. It is a kind of postmodern compendium; it proceeds not merely with multiple narrators but also with telegrams, advertisements, news reports, and crime-magazine serial fictionalizing. The final books of poems to appear in Fearing’s lifetime, Stranger at Coney Island, and Other Poems and New and Selected Poems, were received coolly as well. Fearing died in 1961 of cancer.