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. *