Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Writers for Conservatives 57: The Scarlet Letter
When Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) published his first novel, The Scarlet Letter, in 1850, he was known only as a writer of odd, grim tales of obsessions, guilt, and witchcraft, most of them taking place against a somber Puritan background, a characterization which also fits the novel, although that's not the way it begins. The first chapter - "Introductory-The Customs House" - is a prosy account of his observations during the time he worked there in the 1840s. Salem, once a bustling port, was now an idle backwater, and Hawthorne's account of the aging idle employees is gently humorous. His purpose here is to establish the historical authenticity of the novel by his claim that in an attic he discovered a bundle of old documents as well as a remnant of the scarlet letter itself, a not uncommon literary device. That, however, is much less important than the effect produced when this chapter is succeeded in the second chapter by the story itself. Not only does the scene change to the Boston of 200 years before, but the prose itself, sportively ironic, gives way to straightforward grimness describing a stern reality. The transition is a shock (as it is meant to be) and from now until the end we shall be in this foreboding world.
The three significant characters are present in the first scene when Hester Prynne, the adulteress, with her babe in arms is led out from the jail to the scaffold where she is to be exhibited as a shameful warning. There she is exhorted to name her partner in sin by the saintly, reverent preacher, Dimmesdale, and it is covertly observed by her long lost (and presumed dead) husband, Roger Chillingworth. Although we are not told that Dimmesdale is her lover, alert readers will begin to suspect. Chillingworth's part in the story is soon revealed when he has an interview with her in the jail. He, a much older, scholarly man, married her in order to provide a comfortable home for his old age, and she had innocently acquiesced. Planning to emigrate to Boston from England, he had sent her on ahead, but when he followed he had been shipwrecked and held captive by Indians. In the jail interview he pledges her to silence about himself and swears to discover her lover.
The plot is easily outlined. Hester, shunned, lives in a cabin on the town's outskirts, becomes a nurse and purveyor of small charities to the poor (even as they scorn her), supporting herself by doing fine needlework for the town gentry. She fills the role of a martyr, but is a strong, stalwart character. Chillingworth, respected as a learned man and physician, becomes intimate with Dimmesdale and works to pry out his secret. Late in the book, Hester and Pearl (her child) and Dimmesdale meet by accident in the woods where Hester persuades him to flee with her to England on a ship that's leaving in a few days. Removing the scarlet letter, she lets down her luxuriant hair, an obvious clue to her strongly sensual nature. Pearl, an imp of perversity, clearly meant by the author to be not only the physical but also the symbolic fruit of their unlawful union, forces her mother to pin up her hair and replace the letter on her breast. Soon thereafter, Hester and Pearl are standing outside the meetinghouse where the minister is preaching his most eloquent sermon on the ceremonial day of the installation of the governor. She has already taken passage on the ship and learns now that Chillingworth has also done so. She sees him in the crowd looking triumphant as the dignitaries leave the meetinghouse in a procession and Dimmesdale pauses beside Hester and Pearl and, full of guilt and remorse, bids them stand with him on the scaffold where he publicly confesses his sin (to the chagrin of Chillingworth who tries to prevent the confession which will save the minister's soul) and dies.
Hawthorne's writings, even those dealing with his contemporary world, like The Blithedale Romance, are romances rather than realistic novels or stories. A romance does not try to chronicle the details of our quotidian lives, so, for instance, we never learn what Hester's cabin is like, nor do we ever see the ordinary street life of the town. The prose, therefore, dwells almost exclusively on the three main characters, on their thoughts and acts, so the book moves right along. My edition is nearly 400 pages long, bit it didn't seem so to me. Problems of circumstances, very important in novels, are managed perfunctorily in romances. So the marriage of Chillingworth and Hester, like the adulterous act between Dimmesdale and Hester, we accept as part of the conventional machinery of the story even if both seem highly unlikely. In a romance only character and atmosphere count, and while both may have melodramatic touches, they must be both powerful and believable. Hawthorne sometimes suggests that the scarlet letter glows with an unearthly light, and the minister, when he bares his breast at the end may seem to reveal the letter burnt into his breast, and Chillingworth may seem not unlike Bela Lugosi in "Dracula," but we never doubt for a moment Hester's corporeality, Dimmesdale's guilt and weakness, or Chillingworth's sadistic malevolence.
It is possible to write historically accurate fiction (as Kenneth Roberts did), but Hawthorne's past is conceived in terms of romance. The past 200 years that he sketchily outlines in dark hues enables him to surround the characters and events with the drama of the stern rigors of Puritan Calvinism, thus giving the situation of Hester and Dimmesdale a plausible and portentous background. And he can get away with such melodramatic touches as having the governor's sister suggest to Hester a witch's coven in the woods. The book is permeated by darkness: the dark woods, the black clothing of the dignitaries, the night scenes. One of the most striking scenes occurs when the minister, agitated by guilt and remorse, stands alone on the scaffold and gives one unheeded shriek into the darkness. Soon thereafter, returning from a vigil at a sick bed, Hester and Pearl appear and Dimmesdale invites them to stand beside him. Pearl asks him to repeat that in broad daylight, but he promises to so only on the Judgment Day. A brilliant light from a meteor illumines the scene, and what does the minister see?
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own mind and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter - the letter A - marked out in the lines of dull red light
He also sees:
Roger Chillingworth . . . standing there with a smile and scowl, to claim his own.
In the space of moments in time and half a page of prose, Hawthorne brings his characters again together in their destined roles, the whole scene obviously one of romance.
Hawthorne's meaning - that unexpiated sin cuts us off from our fellows and dooms us - is difficult for modern sensibilities to accept, and that the sin in this case is adultery offends the contemporary mind in which unbridled sexuality has joined life, liberty, and happiness as another one of our inalienable rights. So a movie of the book was made a few years ago with a "happy ending." I'll bet that most readers of the scene in the woods where Hester lets her hair down are ardently on her side when she persuades him to run off with her. But the moral of the story is not what the discerning reader (and all my readers are discerning) carries away with him when he reads the book. What he vividly remembers is the clash of brilliantly limned passionate characters portrayed against a darkly ominous background. That is Hawthorne's great achievement. We do not forget it, just as we do not forget other passionate American characters like Captain Ahab. This is a triumph, the first truly American work of fiction.
His stories are Twice-Told Tales and Mosses From an Old Manse, and The Show Image. A novel with the setting of the Brook Farm utopian experiment (in which Hawthorne played a small part) is The Blithedale Romance. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: My Days as a Hedge Vet
The word "hedge" before the name of an occupation, as hedge carpenter, hedge mechanic, means that the practitioner, while he may be able, is outside professional lines; he has no official status, and in these dreadfully officious times, the name is disparaging. Not so in the past, especially in the countryside. In the Cape Breton countryside, for instance, where there were no vets at all until well after the war, the doctoring of animals, such as it was, was done by amateurs, men who had some knowledge of and affinity with animals, men who were known over a wide area for their skills. They performed a useful service in a time of need.
My career as a hedge vet was not cast in the heroic mould of the recent past, because, for one thing, there was a regular vet who could be called upon. In the first dozen years, while there were still farms and animals in the area, my usual role was the follow-up to the vet when he gave instructions for further treatment which the local people were reluctant to do - because, as I explained in a piece on plowing in these pages, Cape Bretoners were reluctant farmers, uncomfortable with animals. Tell such a man that he has to stick a large needle in the rump of his 1300-pound horse everyday for a week, and you can be sure it will be Jigs Gardner who does it. I was also in demand for castrating calves and piglets. It was not that I was especially gifted or courageous, but I had naturally learned how, within limits, to take care of our animals. You can't be calling the vet every time there's a problem. I had a vet book, and I had medicines, I had implements. We called on the vet now and then, and he would drop in for a cup of tea when he was in the area, so over the years we had become friends. I don't think money ever changed hands; he would take his fee in bacon or smoked fish, especially mackerel. He had worked on the island since the 1950s, and he had some rare stories.
By the late '80s the countryside had finally emptied out, and there was only one farm left, besides ours, in the whole of the Backlands, and that place was a source of tribulations for the vet. Into the early '80s it had been a typical subsistence farm of the area where the family lived, sparely, off the land and the sea: salt cod and herring, potatoes and turnips and cabbage, milk and butter and curds from a herd of animals that looked as unlike cows as possible and could still be cows, rough, fierce, horned beasts. But when the grandfather died, the family fell apart, and only one son, Alex, was left with his mother, Mary. He had been crippled in a bad accident, and I think there was some brain damage, too. With great fortitude he had taught himself to walk again, and he was determined to keep the farm running, to milk the cows and mow the hay and keep up with the plowing.
Admirable, even courageous, and you may be sure we helped him when we could, but I warn you: do not sentimentalize Alex. His cattle, half wild at best, were always getting into desperate straits from which the vet would have to extract them, but since Mary begrudged money spent on the vet, Alex would put off calling him until the last extremity. Then Alex always failed to follow the vet's instructions about continuing care, so the animal would relapse, the vet would be called again, Mary would scream and yell, and the vet would wish he'd gone into dentistry.
All this was going on three miles away beyond my ken, but at last I was drawn in simply because Mary put her foot down and refused to pay for follow-up calls. Our first mutual case seemed unremarkable but it established a pattern. Browncow (Alex called all his animals by their color) had foot rot, easily treated: cut away rotted tissue on the bottom of the hoof, scrub with a wire brush dipped in disinfectant like hydrogen peroxide, smear on sulfa ointment, bandage. After a couple of days, remove bandage, put her out to pasture, and keep her away from muck or manure. The vet had done his job; all Alex had to do was keep Browncow in the stable. Now the cow had had a relapse - would I come and give her a treatment?
As he drove me to his farm, I questioned him closely, and it was as I had feared: he had turned Browncow out in the barnyard for water. Picture the barnyard scene: junked cars, old tires, manure heaps, stagnant pools, broken glass. So I treated the cow - not easy, because the animals weren't handled much, which makes for wildness - and told Alex to pick me up in the morning so I could check on Browncow. I did that for two days, thus making sure Alex didn't turn her into the barnyard. Then we turned her out into a dry pasture. I retired, patting myself on the back.
That was in June. One morning in August Alex came barreling up the drive. Quick! An emergency! Whitecow this time. According to him, a few days ago Whitecow had turned up at the barn with a dead branch sticking through her brisket. But, as the vet later told me, it wasn't that straightforward. Quite evidently the stick had been in there for a few days before Alex had noticed it, and the wound was badly infected. How it had happened, the Lord only knows, but the vet had extracted the sharp stub, cleaned the wound, and told Alex how to care for it: he was to run a thin rod, wrapped 'round with gauze soaked in iodine, through the hole twice a day until the wound stopped discharging and began to dry up. He administered a large shot of antibiotics. Of course, Alex was too frightened to do as he was told, and now the wound was a suppurating mess. I did the job all right and gave Whitecow my last shot of antibiotics. I went back for three days until the wound healed.
The vet came by a week later for some bacon, and I asked for antibiotics and iodine. He raised his eyebrows. "What are you doing with the stuff? You use more medicine than farmers with barnsful of cows!" "Ah, but they don't have Alex to take care of," and I told him what I had been doing.
"Look: I'm doing your work, saving you the trouble and annoyance of dealing with his troubles. If you don't want to put me on the payroll, the least you could do is give me some medicine."
Next May, Alex came rushing up the lane with another emergency: his two-year-old bull, not quite as big as a cow, could no longer be contained in his stall and was rampaging around in the cow stable - would I come and deal with it? He had neither a collar nor a halter on it, and he didn't know what to do. He was quite frantic, and I didn't blame him - a bull running around loose in a cow stable! Thinking carefully about what might be required, I brought along a number of tools.
Let me set the scene: the stable is dirty and dark with a low ceiling and no windows, only shutters. The first thing I did was hit my head on a roof beam on my way to open the shutters, which disclosed the bull closely wedged between Browncow and Whitecow. I asked Alex for the halter. Nothing. I turned around to see him huddled in a corner with his arms wrapped around his head. I went out to the truck, got my halter, and by reaching around a cow, managed to get the halter on the bull and by a steady pull, with much cajolery, backed out the bull and got him into his narrow stall at the end of the stable. Standing there in the corner with the bull, I had to talk Alex up on his feet and out the door, around to the feed hatch in front of the bull. When he opened the hatch, I gave him the halter rope: "Don't let it go!"
Fitting a light chain around the bull's neck, I closed it with one of those chain repair links that screws together. With a brace and bit I drilled a hole though the corner post, shoved through a ringbolt, and screwed the nut tight. Securing snaps to another, larger piece of light chain, I snapped it to the bull's collar and then to the ringbolt. Before I removed the halter rope I showed Alex the chain collar and told him that as the bull grew, the chain would tighten and bite into his neck - I had seen that happen with one of our steers - so I had left enough extra length on the chain so he could move the repair link, thus expanding the collar. I emphasized this point several times. And I gave him the halter, which had a long lead rope; I had seen his with its foot-long lead. You can imagine the leverage he had with that.
Knowing Alex by how, you know what happened: he forgot to lengthen the chain and by September it was thoroughly embedded in the poor bull's neck. Of course, that's when he came to me. We managed to get it off, but it took much care with iodine and a wide soft bandage and lots of antibiotics before we could get a leather halter on him.
My last job for Alex wasn't exactly in the vet line. I had a Jersey bull, and he wanted to breed it to Redcow (by then he had sold his bull). He was afraid to take her in his pickup, fearing (probably correctly) that she'd manage to jump out, so he devised this scheme: his mother would walk Redcow the first mile, Alex would walk it the second mile, and I would take over for the home stretch. Sure, I said, anytime. You think I was out of my mind, but you must understand that Alex was always coming up with cockamamie schemes that never amounted to anything. He kept muttering about it all summer, but I paid no attention.
One September day a friend, Willie, drove in with a cattle box on his pickup, bringing with him a heifer for my bull to breed. We went to the barn, did the job, and were about to load the heifer back on the truck when Alex drove in, excited: the day had arrived! Mary was all ready to start walking Redcow as soon as I gave the word. I looked at Willie. It was Providential. We put the heifer in the stable, loaded the bull in the truck, and set off.
We parked about ten yards from Alex's stable and unloaded the bull. Meanwhile, Alex went in the stable. Long silence. Then banging and crashing. More silence. Then I made a big mistake: I asked Willie if he'd go in and give Alex a hand. Knowing Alex's ways, I should have gone; I never would have let him pass off that short halter on me. Willie disappeared in the stable. More noises. Suddenly the door flew open and Redcow shot out with Willie beside her holding, not my halter with the long lead rope, but that wretched thing of Alex's. Redcow charged around the lovely barnyard, dragging Willie through muck heaps and around junked cars before he had to let go. Redcow crashed through a fence, flew across a field and headed for the woods, tail in the air. Alex was in dogged pursuit.
It was the last time I saw him. The snows were heavy that year, and our lane was blocked until May tenth, when we moved back to the States, where, incidentally, I'm still a hedge vet. *
Writers for Conservatives 56: Reveille in Washington, D.C.
Margaret Leech wrote two notable histories, this one and an excellent biography of William McKinley. Reveille is an account of Washington from 1800 to 1865 and, so far as I know, it has never been equaled. A study of the bibliography shows that nearly all her sources were written at the time or shortly after the war by participants in the life she describes. Insofar as possible, she has described the city as it appeared to a wide range of the city's permanent and temporary inhabitants at the time.
The first chapter opens with a description of the aged Winfield Scott, general of the army, and goes on to place him in the context of the city: "It was a Southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder, and the want of sanitation" at the end of a recital of the primitive conditions she says, "It was a mere ambitious beginner, a baby among capitals. Its defects were those of youth and energy and inexperience." The second chapter deals with the secession crisis as it appeared in Washington during the waning days of the Buchanan administration, followed by Lincoln's arrival in late February and the ensuing inauguration. True to her method of reporting the mundane, she quotes only two sentences of the speech, framing it in a reminiscence by Thurlow Weed, the New York politician, of his encounter with Generals Scott and Weed, ancient veterans of the 1812 War in which Weed had been a drummer boy.
Effulgent with that sentimentality to which the corrupt are prone, he gazed with veneration on the heroes of his boyhood, and failed to see in the antique tableau . . . a presentation of the Union's unpreparedness for long and bloody war.
Much attention is given to the street life of the city, describing in detail the flagrant disorders brought on by harlotry, drinking, and gambling uncontrolled by the inadequate police force. In northern cities, madams closed their brothels, moving to Washington to take advantage of a burgeoning city full of men absent from home. In 1862 there were 450 registered houses there, and next year 5,000 prostitutes were claimed to be in the city. We hear of
. . . summary roundups of criminals and vagrants who showed their faces in the capital. Handcuffed and labeled with large red placards bearing words, "pickpocket and thief," they were paraded on the avenue . . . followed by a fife and drum corps playing "The Rogues" March.
A whole chapter is devoted to the care of the wounded, and the tribulations of the female nurses, received at first with hostility, are sympathetically told. There is also a perceptive chapter on the complex, unhappy character of Mrs. Lincoln. Part of the illusion of contemporaneousness, the information we receive about battles is just what the people of Washington received at the time, fragmentary and distorted, only straightened out after several days. The battles themselves, momentous as they seem to us now, are "noises off" from Washington.
We know that the war shaped those lives in ways that the actors could not perceive, so there is an underlying irony in the book. I do not mean the blatant irony of Thurlow Weed admiring the old generals, nor do I mean the obvious irony that shows between our conscious goals and the results. I mean something more subtle: the Civil War, the most stupendous and defining event in our history, has called all these actors onto the stage, something only vaguely known to most of the actors and fully understood by no one. They go on eating (naturally a lot of attention is paid to food), drinking, fornicating, fighting, scheming, being brave and craven, and the war, with its 700,000 dead, grinds on to the end - off stage.
Not simply a chronicle of the streets, the book deals with the higher echelons of the war effort, with the generals and politicians, with McClellan and Burnside and Hooker, with Lincoln and Stanton. Her treatment of the latter two is not only shallow but reflects the received opinions of the time (the book was written in the 1930s), so Lincoln is a saint, at war with the vengeful Radical Republicans, and Stanton is a power-mad despot. This was the history taught in the schools in the '40s. It must be remembered that once the war was over, Northerners, secure in their righteous victory, turned to the settling of the West and the business of business, finally shedding any lingering responsibility for the freedmen with the election of Hayes in 1876. Southerners lost not only the war, but also their land was devastated and their economy ruined, and their former slaves were, for a time, prominent in Reconstruction governments. Their situation was psychologically disastrous, so they created the myth of the romantic Lost Cause of state sovereignty dressed in the poses of cavaliers and highborn ladies and happy slaves. Slavery as an issue, as the issue that caused the war, simply vanished. Southerners, therefore, as the only people interested in the subject, were the ones who wrote the histories, right up until the '50s and '60s when much less biased histories were written. I remember asking one of my colleagues in the history department in the 1960s what he thought of one of the new books on Reconstruction, and he was exasperated. "Next thing you know, they'll deny the whole era!"
The Southern myths still exist, but they no longer dominate the field, and there have been so many excellent studies of the war, as well as of the antebellum South and Reconstruction, that we now have a much deeper, more comprehensive knowledge of the era than we had jut 25 years ago. It is apparent, for instance, that although many Radical Republicans mistrusted Lincoln and thought him too moderate, he used them for his own purposes. Far from being a saint, he was a master politician. It is also clear now that he was being cautious in his first tentative steps toward Reconstruction, and he would never have tolerated Southern attempts to reestablish the old regime, as with the Black Codes.
Those aspects of the book can easily be discounted. We know better now and can ignore the historical prejudices while we enjoy the ever-moving panorama of the city. Upon reflection, this brings up some more thoughts about history. When we read the best books about the Civil War today we get a synoptic view, by which I mean that though it contains many details, they only fill out the picture, give it life - the main lines are already drawn, as we know even before Yorktown that McClellan is already afraid to face what he imagines to be overwhelming numbers, that he will never fully commit his troops to battle, neither before Richmond nor at Antietam; we know that the Emancipation Proclamation will change the nature of the war. We read about the events again and again because we get fresh ideas, detect nuances we had not seen, we learn more. We can never learn enough about any historical event to understand it thoroughly, but with the reliable synoptic histories we get the illusions that we know it all. What this book about Washington does is to make us see that immediate knowledge, for instance, the news about the battles that trickles back to the city in distorted fragments, is what the actors know at the time. No one at the time has synoptic knowledge, although Lincoln had a tentative vision of it when he entrusted everything to Grant. As he told him, he didn't want to know his plans; he trusted him to pursue the war to its end.
What I am trying to say is that modern synoptic histories (like Bruce Catton's) may be true to us now, but they would not be true to those living at the time; for them, the immediate details (as in Miss Leech's book) are in the front of their minds, and if we want to understand history we must have not only as well-informed a synoptic view as possible, but we must try to take account of what is in the minds of the actors at the time.
I wrote an essay in this series called "Historians, the South, and the Civil War," and I should like now in the light of subsequent knowledge (like Miss Leech's book), to modify my judgment of Grady McWhiney for failing to see how stupid Jefferson Davis was because he didn't see the obvious futility of secession. We must remember that since the 1830s, when Britain outlawed slavery in Jamaica and began the suppression of the slave trade, and abolitionism began growing in the North, that Southern guilt and consequent denial of the evils of slavery became ever more vehement (only the guilty would feel the need to ban abolitionist papers from the mails). Under those conditions, the prospect of secession would not seem so insane. Viewed from the contemporary perspective, it has some logic. Southerners were suffering from longstanding delusionary thinking, and eventually they would pay dearly for it. That Davis never understood that is a mark of his mediocrity.
It is also delusionary to think, as historians sometimes do, that there were times of discouragement when, with a little more pressure, the North might have given up the struggle. The North, looking west, had become a national culture unlike the regional, provincial South, and the Union was an almost mystical concept; it would never be given up. The actions of Grant and Sherman in the last year of the war show that.
I can recommend an excellent short (121 pages) book by a Southern historian, Bell Irvin Wiley, on the reasons for the South's defeat: The Road to Appomattox (1956). Look it up in your library. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Memorabilia
I am looking at a small shallow box, three inches by four inches by three quarters of an inch made, so a note inside says, out of a shingle from the house of my father's grandmother, taken when the house was razed in 1927 to make way for a road. Beside the box on my desk are two copper plates used for printing photos in a newspaper, one showing four shadowy images of my father and comrades on an Italian airfield where he served as a pilot in World War I. The other is a large image of my parents and their four children posed in front of our fireplace, a publicity photo for his 1936 campaign for state senator. I am sitting on my mother's lap, a very cute three-year old. Holding down a chaotic heap of papers at the back of my desk is a cedar box containing two silver-backed hairbrushes, military brushes I think they're called, that belonged to my father. Heaven knows when they were last used; judging from the publicity photo, he didn't have much hair to brush in 1936.
As people die, their treasured possessions are passed on to other family members, and since I am now the last surviving member of my generation in the family, all manner of things have been coming my way from my nephews and nieces - papers, photos, documents, and objects like the ones I have just described. Feeling an obligation as the last surviving, etc., I have conscientiously sorted through everything, consigning to the flames most of the papers, obviously of no significance, such as the tabulation of votes for mayor in the 1946 election in my hometown, or a very bad 1937 newspaper photo of Mother on the telephone, illustrating the story of how she had been threatened with the kidnapping of her children if my father didn't stop pushing a drugs law he was sponsoring in the state senate.
I have saved documents: Father's diploma from Fordham Law School in 1922, his diploma from the same high school where I graduated 38 years later, his honorable discharge from the Army Signal Corps (to which airmen then belonged) in 1918, an account of the first Gardner on these shores in 1630, who owned Gardiner's Island in Long Island Sound (our motto: praesto pro patria, "I stand for my country"). And plenty of photographs, but too few I can identify. They have family names - Ingraham, Durlin, Folger, Copland - but beyond that I can say nothing. There are two snapshots of Mother's father, Grampa Wynne, with his father-in-law, a well-known minister in Wisconsin, still remembered there today. He was friendly with the local Indians, the Menominees, who used to visit him in the rectory where they would speak in the Indian tongue. As a result of that connection, the Indians allowed Grampa to fish on their reservation up north, and he would drive up in his '31 Chevy coupe (which I later owned) and catch so many trout that he would pack them in a barrel of ice and send them by train to his friends in Madison.
All this delving and saving and throwing away has reminded me that I am well up in years, and that soon enough my children will be faced by my artifacts, so I determined to do the winnowing myself right now. I was ruthless, stuffing pages clipped from magazines, pieces I had read and enjoyed 30 and 40 years ago, into the stove, watching the yellowed pages shrink and blacken and burn. I saved copies of my published writings, but burned the unpublished things, the essays that I could never get right, the stories that started well but died. At last I came upon a folder that presented me with a question that lay in wait for me as soon as I took up my pen to write "Memorabilia": Why do we save what we do? That folder contains page after page of the Greek text of Homer's Iliad, neatly copied into two notebooks with my notes about grammatical points written above the words, testimony to the years when I studied Greek. It also contains all the papers I wrote in graduate school.
Today all the Greek I remember are the first dozen lines of the Iliad, and if I thought the Review's printer had a Greek typeface, I would, as a bit of swank, recite those lines. Of what possible use are these pages, which I cannot bear to destroy, to my children? How about my paper on Chaucer? Or on Walt Whitman? Will they want to read my ideas about the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels? Why can't I throw them away? They remind me of a past long buried under my farming life, a past I cannot forget and that still bends my words to its will. Without those desires, without that learning and training I could not think nor write as I do - and I would not be who I am. At the heart of our memorabilia, the things we cannot bear to part with are ourselves as we remember ourselves. I am still the young man who wanted to learn Greek, still the young man who was fascinated by the study of literature, and I am also the old man who recalls all that as well as the 40 years of farming performed by that same man . . . Memorabilia. *
Anthony Trollope was a successful Victorian writer, publishing 47 novels from the early 1850s until his death, but after the posthumous publication of his autobiography, which gave a prosaic description of his working routine - assiduously writing so many words per day every day, seeming to treat writing as a mundane business - cheapened him in the eyes of his readers, violating their romantic conceptions, after that his reputation fell sharply, not to revive until the 1940s when Britons, spending long hours in air raid shelters, immersed themselves in his long, leisurely novels, and today, his work is more highly regarded than at any time since his heyday in the 1860s.
Beginning in the 1970s, considerable critical attention has been paid to Trollope, and the interesting thing about it is that it's all over the place; there's very little agreement about what he was doing and how he did it. Just as interesting is the fact that, judging from contemporary reviews, it's clear that his work was not deeply understood at the time. Readers enjoyed his books, but they weren't sure why. Of course, the inability of readers to explain why they like or dislike an author is not uncommon, but usually literary critics, people whose business it is to be sensitive to such things, are able to enlighten us. So Trollope was elusive from the start, and he remains so. Let us see what we can make of him.
Trollope is best known for the Barsetshire novels (listed at the end of this essay), which begin as a series about clerical life in a cathedral town but go beyond that to encompass the lives of the squirearchy and nobs living in the area. There is much comedy in these novels, both of character - Mrs. Proudie, the archbishop's wife, is one of the great comic figures in English fiction - and of outlook; Trollope regards his characters with an unobtrusive irony reminiscent of Chaucer's. The plots of these novels tend to be stereotypical, centering around star-crossed lovers who finally overcome all obstacles to marry at last, but Trollope was quite conscious of what he was doing; that sort of plot was a requirement of the three-volume novel. beloved of the circulating libraries, which were so important in the trade, but he hoped readers would see beyond that:
Nay, take the last chapter if you please - learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
There is another notable series, the Palliser novels, ostensibly about political life, but as with his other novels, they are really about the characters and their interactions.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter to his publisher, had this to say about Trollope's novels:
They precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going
about their daily business, not suspecting that they are made a show of.
That final clause is especially perceptive. Think for a moment about the characters of Dickens and Thackeray: they are vivid, dramatic, known by us almost in an instant. By the time the few pages of the first chapter of Vanity Fair are done, we know a great deal about Becky Sharp - her scornful attitude toward the headmistress, the way she flings Johnson's dictionary out of the coach window - just as the first pages of Great Expectations - Pips's encounter with Magwitch in the churchyard - impress us with Pip's ingenuous nature. Thackeray and Dickens see heir characters dramatically and so present them. As the books open I always think of a curtain rising in a darkened theater, revealing a brightly lit stage full of moving and declaiming people. That is not Trollope's way. He can and does write dramatic scenes that reveal character, but they are embedded in a narrative that describes the lives of the characters in cumulative detail, painting them, stroke by stroke, in solitary moments, in soliloquies, in letters, in conversations, turning them this way and that, showing them in different lights until we know them as thoroughly as their creator does.
This is the key to Trollope, the reason he is and was read with pleasure: he creates characters of a breadth and depth unusual in fiction, and we are pleased to follow them through the novel to learn more and more about them. The novel, after all, is preeminently about characters. There is solemn talk about the "novel of ideas," but we care far more about Pierre and Natasha than we do about Tolstoy's theory of history, just as Melville's Manichean ideas about God and evil interest us much less than the characters aboard the Pequod.
To show how this works, I shall discuss an excellent later novel, Ralph The Heir. The movements of the characters, which at first seem stereotypical, turn out quite otherwise, and the irony, always present in Trollope, is here very strong.
We first meet Ralph, the heir, the unheroic hero of the novel, when he drops in at the Underwood's house where he does a little flirting with Clarissa Underwood, harmless in his eyes but not in hers.
She knew that he was idle, extravagant, fond of pleasure, and - unsteady, as she in her vocabulary would be disposed to describe the character which she believed to be his. But in her heart of hearts she liked unsteadiness, in men, if it were not carried too far.
Having been her father's ward, he is understandably familiar with her, so when, just as he is leaving:
"Dear, dear Clary - you know I love you." Then he put his right arm around her waist . . . and kissed her.
Of course, as a well brought up Victorian lady, she resents the kiss even as she cherishes the man, and she will carry away from this scene a wholly unwarranted devotion to Ralph for far too long.
Meanwhile Ralph, who has wasted his fortune and is in debt, is tantalized by a scheme initiated by a breeches-maker (for men who ride to hounds), Mr. Neefit: if Ralph will marry Neefit's daughter Polly, he will give him 20,000 pounds. Polly is a fine girl far superior to Ralph (as it turns out), but her father wants to make her a lady. When the idea is first hinted to Ralph this is his reaction:
. . . the girl herself is so pretty, that upon my honour I don't know which is prettier - she or Clary. But fancy old Neefit for one's father-in-law! Everybody is doing it now; but I don't think I'd do it for ten times the money. . . . One has to get used to these things, and I am not used to it yet. I soon shall be - or to something worse.
But then Trollope shows him in a different light:
Ralph Newton passed hardly a day of his life without a certain amount of remorse in that he had not managed himself better than he had done, and was now doing.
. . . as for changing altogether the mode of his life - that was more than he had vitality left to perform. Such was the measure which he took of himself, and in taking it he despised himself thoroughly.
He tries to go through with the Polly bargain, much against his inclination, but she rejects him, pointing out that by marrying him she would be cut off from her family - she has her pride and it is stronger than Ralph's. Neefit, however, keeps pursuing his cause, persecuting and embarrassing Ralph. This is both comic and grotesque and we feel some sympathy with Ralph. Then he inherits Newton Priory, a considerable estate, and decides to propose to Mary Bonner, Clarissa's cousin. As he begins his attack, Trollope remarks:
There was an ease and grace always present in his intercourse with women, and a power of saying that which he desired to say - which perhaps arose from the slightness of his purposes and the want of reality in his character.
This is a sharp insight that makes us look back to recognize Ralph's smoothness throughout the book - he was certainly graceful in his dealings with Polly - to see the shallowness from which it arises.
By the this time, Clarissa has finally seen enough of Ralph and his facile proposals (she has turned him down after her cousin did):
This young man to whom she had devoted herself possessed no power of love for an individual - no capacity of so joining himself to another human being so as to feel . . . that one should be esteemed by him superior to all others - because of his love.
Finally, Ralph is maneuvered into proposing to another woman:
. . . previous to his offer he had been aware that Lady Eardham had been angling for him as a fish, that he had been as a prey to her and her daughter, and that it behooved him to amuse himself without taking the hook. . . . He had taken the hook, and now had totally forgotten all those former notions of his in regard to a prey, and a fish, and a mercenary old harridan of a mother . . . he thought he had exercised a sound judgment, and had with true wisdom arranged to ally himself with just the woman most fit to be his wife and the future mistress of Newton Priory.
My point is to show you how Trollope interests the reader in character, and we are interested in Ralph's course even as he arouses our contempt, but that only grows slowly. Remember: I have selected key revelatory passages scattered over more than 400 pages. And we have been interested in other characters and their development. We have been following other plots, too. So it is only upon reflection that we realize we have been absorbing, almost without thinking about it, a complete picture of his character. And that is true, too of all the major characters, even poor frustrated Mr. Neefit. This is Trollope's great skill, to create characters we gradually get to know so subtly that it is only at the end, when we look back at the whole novel that we see how we have grown to know them, just as we learn about people in our daily lives. With Thackeray and Dickens we learn everything (or nearly so) at once - the interest lies in seeing how the characters will carry out their lives. Trollope seems very plain and open; as he himself said, "Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other." But in fact his method is very subtle, which is why readers can enjoy his novels without exactly knowing why.
The Barsetshire novels:
The Small House at Allington
The Last Chronicle of Barset
The Palliser Novels:
Can You Forgive Her?
The Prime Minister
The Duke's Children *
Although he wrote novels, plays, travel books, and underwent in his forties a conversion from radicalism to conservatism, so that his latter years were taken up with writings that reflected that change, Dos Passos is best known for his USA trilogy: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money (1937, although the first two were published a few years earlier). I read it for the first time when I was twenty and thought it was the cat's pajamas, speaking as it did to my growing radicalism. When a Canadian friend in the 1980s asked me to recommend a book on America in the 20th century, I suggested USA and then, to check my recollections, reread it. Having recently shed my radicalism, that aspect of the book no longer held me in thrall, and now what I noticed was the inadequacy of the characters as fictive creations. At that time, however I was not a practicing literary critic so I put USA back on the shelf and thought no more about it.
Recently, writing about the novel . . . And Ladies of the Club, I got to thinking about Dos Passos and all the hoopla in the 1920s and 30s about the "American Renaissance," so I decided to read USA again, this time with close critical attention.
Henceforth I will treat the trilogy as one book. First I must describe the book's organization and its innovations that so impressed readers at the time. The book opens with a two or three page section called "Newsreel," consisting of headlines, news excerpts, snatches of popular songs.
BRITISH BEATEN AT MAFEKING
Mr. McKinley is hard at work when the new year begins
For there's been many a man been murdered in Luzon and Mindanao
"In responding to the toast, 'the 20th century,' Sen. Albert J. Beveridge said in part: 'The 20th century will be American' . . ."
This feature, opening each chapter, is intended to do three things: establish the time (in the above 1900) as well as the public tone, and, by the blatant stupidity of the press, to mock it and what it reports. As the book moves along, the reader is increasingly bored by its superficiality, and the satiric intent is so obvious that the effect is finally weakened. If you are writing a trilogy that is meant to be a serious indictment of the social and economic system of America, working it by quoting the vacuities of newspapers is shallow and frivolous.
"Newsreel" is followed by a page or two called "The Camera Eye," an impressionistic glimpse of the author's consciousness at the time:
I couldn't learn to skate and kept falling down look out for the muckers everybody said Bohunk and Polak kids put stones in your snowballs write dirty words on walls do dirty things up alleys their folks work in the mills
Unfortunately they become more and more opaque as the years pass (Where is he? What is he doing?), and it must be said that this is the least effective device of the book, even less interesting than "Newsreel."
Another innovation is the insertion of condensed biographies of prominent figures of the time: Theodore Debs, Luther Burbank, Edison Ford, Thorsten Veblen, Isadora Duncan, the Wright brothers, William Randolph Hearst, et al. The author's partisanship is particularly unfortunate in these portraits, but still these sections are the most interesting parts of the book because they are written in a sharp, brisk style about consequential people.
While these three devices are not the exciting avant garde gestures they were considered at the time, they do leaven the narrative lump of the book, which needs considerable leavening. It proceeds like this: a character, introduced in his or her childhood, is followed for a few pages before being interrupted by the "Newsreel" and "Camera Eye." Then it is resumed as the character grows up, is interrupted again, and so on. In this way the illusion of rapid growth and development is created, which is very important for the overall movement of the book. We are meant to feel that these characters (as one succeeds another) are rushing in a generally forward direction. In this way five characters are introduced in The 42nd Parallel, three become involved with each other, and other characters who will appear in the other volumes are mentioned or encountered briefly. All these characters reappear in the next two books, with the exception of the most attractive figure in the whole trilogy, Mac, a footloose printer with an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) card who finally settles in Mexico. New characters are introduced in 1919 and The Big Money, mingling with the others we have already met.
When he begins with each character, we trustingly go along in a "Once Upon a Time" moment, but as they grow up we become restive, expecting more of them, but they seem largely buffeted about by chance and do not really develop but only become more fatuous, more corrupt, more dissolute, or in the case of extreme radicals, more futile. Relations between characters are only chance combinations with no lasting bonds. They do not develop with or against each other, and are too unreal to bear the burden of presenting America. Because Captain Ahab is a fully realized character we believe in the voyage of the Pequod, but USA never becomes the USA in our minds because the characters never embody more than their own futility.
Dos Passos may have felt that his innovative devices freed him from some basic literary conventions: to make all of his middleclass characters despicable is foolish, but to make all of them weakly despicable is disastrous. Nearly everyone is a drunk (the endless drinking and whoring scenes featuring the working class characters soon become a deadly bore). It is no less a mistake to make all the working class characters radical.
A word about Dos Passos' radicalism: he was an old-fashioned radical, never more than a Communist sympathizer, and in USA he was critical of the Party's regimentation, its inflexible Party line, and Party discipline. During the Spanish Civil war, one of his radical Spanish friends was secretly murdered by order of the Communists (Hemingway condoned it), and Dos Passos began his sojourn to the Right (an interesting novel he wrote about this period is Adventures of a Young Man). Although he was to go on to write conservative novels as well as books about Thomas Jefferson, the novels are lifeless (except his charming memoir of his early life, The Best Times, 1966). Radicalism was what animated him, and when that died so did his creative energy. I think USA is a failure, but I would never say it lacks energy. His radicalism in USA reaches its apogee when the real-life Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed for murder.
The streets belong to the beaten nation all the way to the cemetery where the bodies of immigrants are to be buried we line the curbs in the drizzling rain we crowd the wet sidewalks elbow to elbow silent pale looking with seared eyes at the coffins we stand defeated America
That was the great radical cause then, and it still lies in radical legend, although Sacco was certainly guilty (ballistics showed that one of the fatal bullets came from his pistol) and Vanzetti probably was, too.
USA was one of the main exhibits in the ongoing story of the "American Renaissance" ballyhooed by the literary crowd that flourished in the 1920s and early '30s, led by H. L. Mencken in the Smart Set and Edmund Wilson in The New Republic, a myth that was still extant when I was in college in the early '50s. But myth it was. What did the flood of books and all the excited journalism amount to? Who now reads Dos Passos or Sinclair Lewis or Carl Van Vechten? Six writers - Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, and Edmund Wilson - remained when all the shouting died and only the last three named were associated with the myth. The artistic freedom that emerged from the breakdown of the genteel tradition gave license to a horde of mediocre talents to flourish for a time in a hothouse aura of excitement. The Depression and the Popular Front policy of the Communist Party, which recruited so many gullible liberals and radicals, did it in. Radicalism was its (and Dos Passos's) inspiration, USA is its literary embodiment, and it just wasn't good enough. Its picture of American life from 1900 to 1930 suffers not only from its relentless bias, but much more important, it lacks literary strength because the characters are not brought to life. They represent nothing, not even themselves. The illustrations by Reginald Marsh for the 1946 edition (also in the Sentry 1963 reprint) are much better than the text. *
When we read the first sentence of Moby Dick - "Call me Ishmael" - we are, whether we know it right away or not, caught up in a story that will not end until the Pequod is sunk and Ishmael, "alone escaped to tell thee," is afloat, clinging to Pip's empty coffin. So when we read the first sentence of Walden,
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.
We are compelled to go on to the last sentences:
Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
Such is the power of great art. And it is so easy to write about. There is so much to admire, so much to evaluate and explain that it's a pleasure just to think about. But what shall I say about a novel, 1176 pages long, that does not contain a single striking or original idea, whose characters are neither romantic nor heroic nor dramatic, written in prose that is undistinguished and sometimes banal? Why do I write about it? Why do I recommend it to my readers?
But first, some information, gleaned from the 1986 obituary of the author, Helen Santmyer:
. . . And Ladies of the Club portrays activities of a woman's club in a small Ohio town from 1868 to 1932, using activities of the organization as a means of relating the town's political, cultural, and social changes . . . First published in 1982 by Ohio State University Press, the book sold only a few copies . . .
But the Ohio mother of a Hollywood writer recommended it to her son, who bought the rights - Putnam's published it in 1984, and it became a best seller. The writer was then 88. She had been working on the book, at intervals, for 50 years. She said she began it as a response to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street: "I wanted people to see the way people really were - and what was good about living in a smaller town."
The first reason to read the book is that it is amazingly absorbing, a "good read" in the old phrase. Over the last 25 years I have read it thrice, and when I took it up the other day with this essay in mind, I thought, well, I can skim it. No such luck. My interest was so keen that I had to read every word. Now let me describe the book. It begins at the commencement exercises of a local female college in June 1868. Two 18-year-old girls in the graduation class, Anne and Sally, the principal figures in the book, meet the men, John Gordon and Ludwig Rausch, Civil War veterans, whom they shall marry. Afterwards, at the request of the school's headmistress, they agree to join the Waynesboro Women's Club, a literary society the headmistress wishes to start. The meetings of the Club are the organizing structure of the book: each chapter (until the 1920s when some years are lumped together) is another year, opening with a list of current members, no more than a dozen until much later, with a list of those who have died. The chapter may not begin with a Club meeting, but eventually it will occur. Each member is assigned a subject from the year's general topic, e.g., if it's 19th century English Poetry, each member will speak on a particular poet, and so on, every fortnight through the fall, winter, and spring. Although we are told in general about some of the talks, we never learn much about them, we never learn much about the discussions, and they are not really social affairs. After the business of the meeting, the ladies leave. There is some socializing, of course, but the real purpose is to advance the plot, and that's accomplished by brief exchanges among the members, often Anne and Sally.
The plot is the interaction among the characters, chiefly but not solely, the women of the Club. I should add that Anne's thoughts and her relations with her husband and children, are always prominent. Generally, the plot is a picture of the relations among a group of middleclass men and women in an Ohio town from 1868 to 1932, covering the period of Republican hegemony, not only in Ohio but in America. The characters are all conservative Republicans, with a couple of Socialist mavericks always shown up as visionary fools in the face of conservative arguments. Although Miss Santmyer was probably a conservative Republican this is not simply a partisanship, because the book reflects the political reality of the time and place. Practically, the political and economic policies and arguments of the time are exemplified in the affairs of the Rausch Cordage Company, the main manufacturer in the town, founded and managed by Sally's husband. Its fortunes reflect developments on the national scene - arguments about tariffs and sound money, for instance. Ludwig is a power in the county GOP, a friend of Mark Hannah, William McKinley, and Senator John Sherman, the general's brother. The affairs of the Cordage Company, extensively reported, are interesting in themselves and because they have ramifications in the town and State.
John Gordon as a doctor does not have a role commensurate with that of Ludwig Rausch, but the author uses his profession to show developments in medicine over the years, and their impact on society. As a chronicle of 64 years, pursuing the lives of the charter members of the club, there are many deaths in the book, some of children doomed by diseases then incurable. Marcus Aurelius and Job are much quoted.
Religion is important in these lives, and we see it as a source of sectarianism that creates tensions among the women. Some Protestant sects were then very restrictive in their views, forbidding the celebration of Christmas and stage acting, even of skits put on by the Club ladies at Christmas. And some of the men are, in the classic 19th century sense, "free thinkers." Another subject that looms behind the characters, only slowly diminishing as they years pass, is the Civil War, the most significant phenomenon in the lives of all Americans of the time (think of this: the last veteran died when I was a boy). Several characters are veterans, and one, Captain Bodien, superintendent of the mill, fascinates generations of children with his war stories. General Sherman, stopping by to attend a GAR reunion, speaks to Ludwig and John and General Gibbon relives a tense time at the Battle of Antietam with Captain Bodien. While the Civil War had great effect on the characters' lives, it is treated in the book as simply part of the flow of life, the real subject of the book.
Perhaps I can make the book's significance clearer if I compare it to Raintree County, discussed in a previous column, a dramatic, romantic, mythic saga about antebellum life in Indiana (although it is a look backward from 1896, it is really about the earlier time). It focuses, as a dramatic novel must on a limited cast of characters, and while it gives some sense of the life around them it cannot render the continuity of the flow of life as Ladies does. That is not its purpose nor its method. Raintree is an excellent specimen of the Great American Saga; Ladies is an anomaly; I know of no book like it. To the characters involved their lives are dramatic, and we feel that at the time, but eventually their dramas subside into part of the inexorable flow.
I think most of us see our lives as a story, or a series of stories, at times dramatic, at times humdrum. The characters in this book certainly see their lives in this way, and when their lives are dramatic we see them that way, too. But in the fullness of time, which the long narrative finally creates, we see everything absorbed in the relentless flow of time. I know of no other book that will give you such an overwhelming perception of that.
Miss Santyer introduces a writer, Theresa Stevens, obviously herself, near the end of the book, who is disgusted by Sinclair Lewis' work, and I have quoted the author's remark that her book was, at least partly written to refute Lewis. Obviously the characters and situations in Ladies are much truer to life than those in Main Street, which prompts me to ruminate on that entire literary-critical generation, writers and readers alike, formed initially by Mencken, radical politics, and Edmund Wilson: what, after all, were they all about? Did they really amount to so much? I hope to try to answer these questions in a forthcoming essay on John Dos Passos. Meanwhile, I recommend Miss Santmyer's book to curious readers, readers who will appreciate the spectacle of the flow of time and life. *
West with the Night by Beryl Markham, published in 1942; The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, published in 1959; Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, published in 1938. The first two were Englishwomen, Dinesen was a Danish woman, they all lived on farms in the Kenya highlands, and each was seized, in different degrees, by the mystique of Africa. To quote Miss Markham:
Africa is of an ancient age and the blood of many of her peoples is as venerable and chaste as truth. What upstart race, sprung from some recent callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Masai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not from Eden?
Racial purity, true aristocracy, evolve not from edict, nor from rote, but from the preservation of kinship with the elemental forces and purposes of life whose understanding is not farther beyond the mind of a Native shepherd than beyond the cultured fumblings of a mortar-board intelligence. - West with the Night
Certain times, certain tropes, are common to the three books, so at first we note the similarities: at the age of five, in 1907, Mrs. Huxley is brought to the site of what will be the family's coffee plantation; in 1902, at the age of four, Miss Markham goes with her father to live on a large farm; Isak Dinesen is installed, at the age of twenty-nine with her husband on a coffee plantation in 1914. Each has a special friend or friends among the natives; animals, wild and domesticated, play a large part in their lives, and so on.
The easiest book to grasp, to understand fully, is West with the Night. It opens with an incident in her flying career in 1935 when she is called upon for a night flight to deliver an oxygen tank to a mining camp, and on her way back next day she spots the downed plane of an aviator who has been missing for days, and she lands to rescue him. Just as she is about to take off, an Indian, a Sikh who worked on her father's farm when she was a child, appears with a small caravan. After a brief conversation they part, shaking hands, and she notices that his arm is crippled. He explains it as a mishap with a lion and goes on:
. . . it makes us like brothers, you and me. Each has been torn by a lion. You remember that time at Kabete when you were a little child?
Markham and Woody fly on to Nairobi where they have a final conversation about why they fly. Woody says if he gave up flying,
"I couldn't bear it. It would all be so dull."
"It can be dull anyway."
"Even with lions tearing you to bits at Kabete?"
"Oh, that was back in my childhood. Some day I'll write a book and you can read about it."
So the next chapter smoothly slips back twenty-five years to the time when she was living on her father's large farm, to the day when she was attacked by a supposedly tame lion, and the Sikh, raising the alarm, helped to save her. This is a dramatic, and clever, way to begin her story, because we already know that the intrepid little girl who once experienced a lion's roar and teeth and claws will grow up to be a dauntless pilot, so her story becomes an unrolling scroll that will confirm and validate the opening account of the night flight.
Her father's farm is a huge enterprise employing over one thousand natives, growing and milling tons of corn and wheat for the government to feed workers on the Uganda Railway. The farm is described in four or five pages, and although she does not go into detail, we learn more about the working of the farm in this book than we learn about the farms in the other books. Such a description is important for the reader to know where he is, his place in the landscape. Then she focuses sharply on an adventure hunting warthogs with her dog and two natives, trotting for miles, carrying spears. This movement from general descriptions to closely observed accounts of specific incidents is characteristic of the book, quickening our interest.
Her father raised and trained thoroughbred horses, so Beryl naturally became a horsewoman. Then a drought ruins her father and he sells the farm and goes to Peru, leaving the choice of her fate up to her, then seventeen. She chooses to stay in Kenya and become a horse trainer. She is slowly but surely building up her business when, in an exciting chapter, one of the horses she has trained wins the most important race of the season, a triumphant end to her horsey career, because the next chapter describes her watching an airplane land in Nairobi, piloted by a man she has met before, who tells her she's going to be a flier. So Tom Black teaches her, she earns her license, and becomes a freelance, "carrying, mail, passengers, supplies to safaris, or whatever had to be carried." She concentrates on safaris, scouting for elephants by air. Finally she recounts a flight to England followed by her flight across the Atlantic (crash landing in Cape Breton), the first solo by a woman from east to west, in 1936.
This is the story of a determined, strong-willed character committed to a life of adventure, as she says of her flying:
I have never felt [the plane's] wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and exhilaration of firstborn adventure.
Despite some similarities, Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika is quite a different account of two years, 1913-1915, in the life of the author, then six to eight, as she and her parents try to farm in the Kenya highlands, and it begins, conventionally, at the beginning and proceeds to her (temporary) departure for England at the end.
We set off in an open cart drawn by four whip-scarred little oxen and piled high with equipment and provisions. . . . I sat beside my mother, only a little less fortified in a pith helmet and a starched cotton dress . . . We were going to Thika, a name on a map where two rivers joined. Thika in those days was a favorite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain.
There's a subtly funny scene while their household goods are being loaded on the cart in Nairobi. Tilly, the mother, has been out on the plain and returns "peppered with tiny red ticks" which she picks off her clothing, squashing them between her fingers. The elegant wife of the man who sold Robin the land watches with
. . . fascinated horror . . . "Roger, I don't feel very well. You must take me home." . . . Tilly went on squishing ticks.
Tilly refers to the place where they're going as a "farm," and the speaker (Huxley) says it isn't a farm, only 500 acres of blank space," and the speakers slips back to an earlier conversation:
"Best coffee land in the country," Stilbeck had remarked.
"Has anyone planted any yet?"
"My dear fellow, there's no need to plant coffee to make sure of that. Experts have analyzed the soil . . ."
And so on, obviously a con man's pitch. So Robin bought the land at a higher price than he could afford and also, on the con man's advice, buys a share in a syndicate in Uganda, guaranteed to bring in a lot of money fast
On paper, the logic was inescapable. The Uganda syndicate made nothing at all for fifteen years; Robin received the annual accounts, which nearly always started with the item: "To manager's funeral expenses, six rupees." After that, it went into liquidation.
So Robin's gullibility and Tilly's imperturbability are established at once, conveyed with gentle, comic irony. They arrive at the "farm":
Robin pulled up and said, "Here we are." We did not seem to be anywhere. Everything was just the same, biscuit-brown, quivering with heat and grasshoppers.
Then we are treated to Robin's fantasizing:
"This is where I thought we'd put the house. . . ." Robin talked on. The whole place was thriving and making several thousand pounds a year before Tilly had managed to dismount and sit down on an old eroded ant-heap to wipe her face. . . .
Tilly may not be so gullible, for she, too, is a romantic:
. . . by the time I was sent off to bed they had already harvested their first crop, bought a motor-car, built a stone house and booked their passages for a holiday trip home, when they would stand their relations expensive meals and take a grouse-moor in Scotland for the rest of the summer.
Nevertheless, they get on with work:
[Tilly] was abroad in the sunshine laying out a garden, supervising the planting of coffee seedlings, marking out a citrus plantation, paying labor in a corner of the store that served as an office, rendering first-aid . . .
Slowly the neighbors emerge - some live miles away or are there only intermittently, when not out on a safari, for instance. They interact, their relationships have consequences, some comic, some tragic, and as we near the end of the book, Huxley begins to see and feel this. Among the three books, this one is the most social. While the child may seem concerned only with herself and her own trivial concerns, she is remarkably sensitive to the adults around her, and is very aware in a seemingly innocent way, of their subtler relations. I say "seemingly" because there are several places where she overhears scraps of significant conversations that she then dismisses as uninteresting to her childish ears.
That is one of Mrs. Huxley's devices by which she accomplishes her amazing achievement: the illusion of a world seen through the eyes of a child actually guided by a mature, sophisticated sensibility, done with a most delicate, sensitive touch. She recorded these events more than forty years after their occurrence, but by this fictive creation of a child's world, they are as fresh as morning dew. The African background - a case of witchcraft, clever cattle thievery, dangerous hunting, multiracial contretemps and misunderstandings - is always interesting, but it is the background to the human comedy in which the characters play out their roles, accompanied by tears and laughter - that is the foreground. A wonderful book, an incredible achievement.
This is the opening of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa:
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the daytime you felt that you had got high up, near the sun, but the early morning and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
You know at once that there is an artistic sensibility at work here; that this book will be an esthetic experience in a way the other two are not. You know it by the second sentence. The sudden mention of the equator is jolting; you do not expect it, it introduces a concept much larger than the farm, and when you finish the sentence you are at six thousand feet, and the whole experience - for that is what it is - has been transformed from the simple, offhand statement of the first sentence into something that will be richly significant. I do not mean they are devoid of artistry - far from it. But everything in this book is written with an eye to its esthetic character because the author is, above all, a writer. The other two have stories to tell; so does Isak Dinesen, but its esthetic quality is as important as the story. To get the flavor of this writing, I should have to quote too much, but here is a small incident:
One night, after midnight, [Kamante] suddenly walked into my bedroom with a [lantern] in his hand, silent, as if on duty. It must have been only a short time after he first came into my house, for he was very small; he stood by my bedside like a dark bat that had strayed into the room . . . He spoke to me very solemnly, "Msabu," he said, "I think you had better get up." . . . I told Kamante to go away again. . . . "Msabu," he said again, "I think that you had better get up. I think that God is coming." When I heard this I did get up, and asked him why he thought so . . . there was a big grass-fire going on, out in the hills, and the grass was burning all the way from the hill-top to the plain; when seen from my house it was a nearly vertical line. It did indeed look as if some gigantic figure was moving and coming towards us. . . . I began to explain the thing to him. I meant to quiet him, for I thought that he had been terribly frightened. But the explanation did not seem to make much impression on him one way or the other; he clearly took his mission to have been fulfilled when he had called me. "Well yes," he said, "it may be so. But I thought that you had better get up in case it was God coming."
The prose is simple, declarative, and it brings the scene clearly before our eyes, the writing of a master, the art that conceals artistry. The writer and the boy stand before the windows, looking out at the grass-fire. What could be simpler? But by the end of the passage we know something about the two of them and something about their relationship.
The book describes her life on the farm with animals, visitors, shooting lions, her activity hauling supplies with ox-carts during World War I, the death of a Kikuyu chief, and finally, the sad story of the sale of the farm and her departure from Kenya. Contemplating the book, it seems to be like a beautiful object, a highly polished piece of furniture, or a finely sculpted monument that I can gaze at again and again with pleasure.
Many years ago, in my first teaching job, I was teaching Hamlet, and I asked the class what the character Hamlet was made of? Much puzzlement, many wild answers, until I answered the question: "Words, only words."
The artistic arrangement of words creates a memorable character (400 years after his creation we are still arguing about Hamlet's character), just as Isak Dinesen created a picture of her life in Africa which we shall remember long after we have forgotten the other books, worthy as they are. *
Writers for Conservatives 52: Kenneth Roberts and the Art of Historical Fiction
The author was a writer of historical fiction novels that were very popular in the 1930s and '40s, and that are still worth reading. I read them avidly when I was a boy, and I have enjoyed rereading them, with a critical eye, for this essay. Historical fiction is an amorphous genre regarded by literary critics with a dubious eye, if only because it encompasses so many kinds of books of such varying quality: War and Peace, American Westerns, the swashbuckling novels of Rafael Sabatini, The Scarlet Letter, bodice-busting Regency novels whose only claim to historicity is the props - the fashions, quaint language (especially oaths), wigs, swords. Most use history only as background for the fictional plot. Even Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace to demonstrate a theory of history, was more interested in his fictional characters than in Napoleon or Kutuzov, who get only cameo roles.
There is a type of this fiction however, that is intended to be historically accurate, that means to bring to life the past by weaving through its meshes fictional characters in their own plot, and Kenneth Roberts was such a writer. His subject was the American Revolutionary period from the 1760s through the War of 1812. The novels for which he will be remembers are Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Northwest Passage, and Oliver Wiswell. The first two are about Benedict Arnold's march through the Maine wilderness to Quebec in 1775, and his subsequent struggles with Burgoyne's army on Lake Champlain, ending with Arnold's triumph at Saratoga and Burgoyne's subsequent surrender. Northwest Passage is about the career of Major Robert Rogers of the famed Rangers, the scout and Indian fighter. Oliver Wiswell looks at the Revolution from a Loyalist viewpoint.
The center of interest in the first two novels is the dynamic, charismatic figure of Benedict Arnold, who was certainly one of Washington's best generals, a tactical genius on the battlefield and no mean strategist, as his decision to challenge Burgoyne's fleet on Lake Champlain shows. Portraying Arnold in incredibly precarious situations as he guides his men through the wilderness or through the battle of Valcour Island, are the most vivid parts of the two books, those scenes that are remembered long afterwards.
Similarly, in Northwest Passage what holds our attention and lives in our memory is the perilous adventure (the expedition against the St. Francis Indians) and the excruciating tale of hardship in the wilderness stoically endured by Rogers and his men. The latter part of the book, when the narrator seeks out Rogers in debtor's prison in London, showing the once towering figure in ignominious ruin, is a masterful touch.
Oliver Wiswell is an anomaly - a description of the War of Independence from a Loyalist perspective. It is difficult, to be sure, to sympathize with the narrator, but the novel is very well done, and it reminds us what we tend to forget, that the war was also a civil struggle waged with great bitterness and brutality.
The writer of historical fiction must always face the problem of how closely to mesh the historical and fictional characters. Roberts chooses first person narration (by contrast, War and Peace is third person narration), and then he manages the mingling of the two strands, historical and fictional, by making his narrators in Arundel and Rabble in Arms scouts directly responsible to Arnold, a relationship neither too formal nor too intimate, allowing the historical characters to enact their roles as we know they did, while the fictional characters move in and out of the story as the author wishes. So they are always there when Arnold is in action, when Roberts' writing is most skillful.
Roberts was a thorough and scrupulous researcher, and later edited and published The March to Quebec, a compilation of diaries, letters, and accounts of the men who made the arduous journey with Arnold. Accuracy as to facts is one thing, but historical understanding is another, and in that department Roberts was lacking to a degree. So he attributes Arnold's troubles solely to scheming by petty incompetents in the army and ignorant politicians in the Continental Congress, showing a shallow understanding both of Arnold and the Congress at the time. In Robert's defense, however, I should point out that he was writing about what we should call Arnold's heroic years, 1775-77, when he was at his best. But the character of the man who would, in just a couple of years, plot with the British to surrender the fortifications at West Point and capture George Washington, was already implicit. We have to ask ourselves why Arnold was such a stormy petrel, why such dubious characters were so persistent in their calumnies. Other generals, notably Schuyler and Washington, were slandered and plotted against, but it was Arnold who made such an issue of these matters. The truth, I think, is that Benedict Arnold was a shallow man, a first-rate fighter who could see and foresee the ramifications of a course of action (which was why he was such a bold strategist), but who quite lacked depth of feeling about himself and his world. So he seems never to have grasped the enormity of his betrayal and how it would affect the rest of his life.
But this is really a minor complaint. If Roberts' fictional characters are stock figures, they don't get in the way of the historical characters, the ones who really interest us, about whom Roberts wrote so well.
A good biography of Arnold is Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by W. S. Randall (1990). Not very insightful about Arnold's character, but the picture of the radical atmosphere in Philadelphia in 1778-9, when Arnold was military governor, and made the decision to become a traitor, is vivid and suggestive. *
Let us consider Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows (1908), an account of episodes in the lives of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, with Otter thrown in occasionally, and bit parts given to weasels, ferrets, rabbits, and field mice. Toad, in his adventures in the Wide World, encounters motorists, policemen, judges, a jailer, a barge woman, a jailer's daughter, a washerwoman, a train driver, and a gypsy - but these humans are mere cardboard figures in Toad's eccentric adventures away from the enchanted rural habitat where the animals live. The central contrivance of the book and of other books like it (Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit books began coming out just a few years before this) is the endowment of the animals with a degree of humanity. Thus they dress and speak and behave as humans, but they also retain their animal characteristics. So Mole and Badger agree that underground homes are best, and Rat being a water rat, loves to mess about in a boat. Writers like Grahame and Potter knew just how much human to mix with animal.
The plotting is very clever. The second chapter introduces Toad, but he doesn't reappear until Chapter 6. The three intervening chapters are full of interest: developing the Mole-Rat relationship, introducing Badger at home - frightening Mole (and the reader) in the sinister WildWood. The Toad chapters come thick and fast now: 8, 10, 11, and 12, just as Grahame's conception of Mole and Rat begins to run out of steam. In Chapter 7 is a mawkish tribute to Pan, the only false note in the book, and in Chapter 9 is a overlong recounting of the adventurous life of a seagoing rat. By interspersing the chapters and quickening the pace, the author maintains the reader's interest.
One of the finer points of the book, and this is something Grahame was very good at in all his books, is the way he creates an enduring character with just a few strokes. By the end of the first chapter we know, without being directly told, that Mole is a very happy, sensitive, and timid creature, while Rat is practical, capable, and cheerful, but dreamy, too. Badger is stern, solitary, and homely, but a tower of strength to his friends. Toad, of course, is Grahame's greatest creation, conceited, impulsive, madly daring, fearful, inconstant, condescending, and lovable.
One of our granddaughters (8 years old) was here for a week last summer, and before her father left he said he'd tried Wind but it didn't seem to interest her. He had begun at the beginning, but when I took up the book, I started with Toad and stayed with him. In Chapter 10, when the motorists pick him up, disguised as a washerwoman, where he has collapsed in the road, Alana suddenly exclaimed, "Can't they see she's a toad!" That was my moment of triumph - with the exclamation and the use of "she," my granddaughter showed she was in the grip of the fiction. Note, however, that I gained my end only because I left out everything but Toad's adventures; the rest of the book is not really interesting to children. We'll look into the significance of that in a moment.
Kenneth Grahame wrote two other books that are usually (but mistakenly) thought of as children's books: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). These slim volumes "are studies of childhood in idyllic rural settings where the adult world of reality is sharply contrasted with the fantasy world of the child," as the jacket of one proclaims. It was Grahame's misfortune that his mother died young and his father withdrew his affection from the children, so they were sent to be raised by relatives in the Thames valley (the scene of Wind). A fact in Grahame's life, the absence or indifference of responsible adults, is a recurring theme in much of this literature. In "Prologue: The Olympians" he speaks of those relatives:
They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognize, the result of a certain stupidity) and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal.
There are exceptions. In The Golden Age it is the curate
. . . who would receive, unblenching, the information that the meadow beyond the orchard was a prairie studded with herds of buffalo. . . . He neither laughed nor sneered, as the Olympians would have done. . . .
As the quotation implies, the fantasy world of children is magical, unfazed by the remorseless realties of time and space and probability. Of course, all children play in that way. Recall your own childhood games, or look into the books of Iona and Peter Opie, especially The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and Children's Games with Things. The difference between my fantasies and those in these two books is that the latter are much more clever and daring and highly colored, they take place on an estate in the English countryside, and there are governesses and tutors in the classy background.
That's because these books, with their dedication to the cult of childhood, are really aimed at an adult audience. I know that when I read these books to my children: I enjoyed them more than they did. You can see this quite clearly in Grahame's books by the level of diction and assumptions:
After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the others busy working. - The Wind in the Willows
. . . while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. - The Wind in the Willows
. . . he proceeded to play upon the inexperienced Mole as on a harp. - The Wind in the Willows
That was the frank note, the joyous summons of the day; and they could not but jar and seem artificial, these human discussions and pretences, when boon nature, reticent no more, was singing that full-throated song of hers that thrills and claims control of every fibre. - The Golden Age
From worms we passed, naturally enough to frogs, and thence to pigs, aunts, gardeners, rocking horses, and other fellow citizens of our common kingdom. - Dream Days
What I am suggesting is that the whole cult of childhood, so embodied in these books and many others, is an adult fantasy, one that is highly colored with upper middleclass trappings and assumptions. These books are thought of as classics, and sometimes I see essays about children's literature in conservative publications, essays that usually bemoan the present state of the art while they praise these old classics. I believe, however, that they belonged to a moment in time, from the 1890s to the 1950s when middleclass Americans liked to think of themselves as WASPS, with all that the term implied. As an old WASP myself, descended from a man who, in the 1630s was reputed to be the "handsomest man to make foot prints on the Nantucket shore," I have some mild regrets at the passing of that moment, but remember the lesson of this series: superior art has a life of its own, so the Beatrix Potter books will last if only because of her wonderful illustrations, and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, thanks to the incredible character of Toad, will be read long after we are gone. *