Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
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. *
This book, The Ungovernable City, John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, published 13 years ago is worth our attention because it reveals the nature of the liberalism, regnant in the 1950s, beginning to falter in the 60s, that was unable to comprehend and cope with the problems of the time, discrediting itself, leading to its present bankruptcy.
The author, Vincent Cannato, tells us briefly of John Lindsay's life and career before he was elected mayor of New York in 1965, but the bulk of the book is about his two terms as mayor, an absorbing tale it is as the author concisely but fully describes the issues and policies, the actions and reactions of the figures involved in the politics of the city. His mastery of such an intricate account, so clearly written, is astonishing. I read every one of its 579 pages with unflagging interest.
The Lindsay family was not wealthy, but John, tall and handsome, looked like a WASP patrician and he followed that path - prep school, Yale, wartime service in the Navy, Yale Law School, a prestigious law firm in New York - until he deviated from the conventional norm to go into politics, supporting Eisenhower, becoming head of the city's Young Republicans in 1952. A friend recommended him to Hebert Brownell, the Attorney General, and Lindsay went to work in the Justice Department, concentrating on civil rights cases. In 1958 he was elected to Congress from the Silk Stocking district of east Manhattan, chiefly populated by the upper class Protestant elite. As a congressman, Lindsay followed a path that would be characteristic of his entire career: ignoring day to day parochial politics, like tending to the needs and wishes of his constituents, he concentrated on national and international issues, often voting with Democrats. He was a well-known Liberal Republican, a national figure, when he ran for mayor in 1965.
Those of my readers who are old enough will recall the almost magical aura that surrounded John Lindsay in those days, but when we read this account we understand how the aura was created and how misleading it was. When the Republicans nominated Goldwater in 1964 for President, a good many liberals were frightened (they are always ready to believe the local Legion post secretly harbors troops of jackbooted Nazis, a fantasy Lindsay himself would entertain), and Lindsay, who refused to support Goldwater, became a liberal hero in the struggle for the soul of the GOP. And because his rhetoric was lofty and earnest, he was thought of as an "idealist," a vulgar error the Vincent Cannato falls for. An idealist is one who believes in principles that transcend immediate material need; it does not mean blindness to material reality. When the word was used to characterize John Lindsay, it was a compliment; essentially it meant that he was high-toned, classy. In fact, the secondary meaning of idealist denotes impracticality and foolishness, and that's what he was. What were thought to be noble ideas were merely empty rhetoric.
He presented himself to voters as a fresh young man of noble intentions running against politics as usual (always an attractive line) who would solve the pressing urban problems of the day, and for awhile, New Yorkers were impressed. Right at the start, however, in fact on his first day in office, the Transit Workers struck for 10 days and chaos ensued. The truth was that Lindsay, who knew nothing about unions or how to deal with them, handled the matter very badly, finally saddling the city with a needlessly costly contract.
Lindsay was not a hands-on day-to-day mayor. He brought in consultants (always a bad sign) and tried to force sweeping changes in the government of the city, as when he amalgamated city departments into super agencies, eventually putting more bureaucrats on the city payroll than all the workers in the docks, the banks, the garment industry. I shall not review Lindsay's entire mayoral career, so well described in the book, but two issues, crime and disorder, must be discussed because they display dramatically the central flaw in Lindsay's (and liberalism's) understanding of American society.
Liberals in general were suspicious of the police, and "police brutality" was a constant theme. Lindsay believed was always distrustful of the police. So when Negroes began making disturbances, he publicly sympathized with them, believing their behavior justified by white racism. He made every effort to restrain the police and placate the rioters. He was very proud of the occasions when he walked the disorderly streets, trying to calm disturbances by his sympathetic presence. He was very anxious that the riots not be called by that name, not wishing New York to be listed along with Newark and Detroit where the riots were much more devastating. They were bad enough, and Lindsay's hobbling of the police made them worse.
Lindsay was a leading figure on the Kerner Commission, tasked to report on the urban riots, a report which reflected the liberal view that white racism caused all the trouble.
The seizure of buildings at Columbia by radial students in 1968 is the perfect example of the failure of liberalism as a theory of contemporary society and its governance. When the students occupied the buildings, Grayson Kirk, the president, wanted to call in the police but he was dissuaded. The faculty was divided, many sympathizing with students, and eventually 100 or so tried to intervene, placing themselves as buffers between police and students (the fatuity of the faculty is still astounding). Eventually the police cleared the buildings, but the damage was done: who were more representative of the liberal establishment, the high priests of its ideology, than college administrators and prominent faculty? And what did they turn out to be but hollow men, headpieces filled with straw spouting words without significance, and so they have remained ever since.
There were two theories of order underlying what was going on in New York: the liberal theory said that order could be attained only by removing the "root causes" of lawlessness; since they were ameliorated, all would be well. The other theory, the conservative one, is that underlying problems and frustrations are never solved by lawlessness - order must be kept, or restored first. The liberals were sympathetic to rioters, whether radical students or Negroes in slums, and John Lindsay epitomized that attitude, an attitude that was tested by the 60s and found wanting. It took Mayor Giuliani, with heightened police patrols and attention to details of disorder to vindicate the conservative view and make New York a safer city.
I think the title of the book is mistaken. The city is not ungovernable, as mayors later proved, and Lindsay cannot really be said to have struggled to "save" New York. That was what he said, and I'm sure he thought that was what he was doing, but in fact he was projecting the gaseous vision in his rhetoric onto New York, and the vision was empty even as Lindsay was mouthing it.
Liberalism never recovered from the 60s. Today it is no more than a ragged series of reflexive gestures waiting to be dispersed. *
The great English novelists of the 19th century - the Victorian Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot - wrote social novels, stories in which the characters were firmly imbedded in a social context and could hardly be understood outside it. The reader will understand me if he considers the great American novels of the time: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn are concerned with individuals to the exclusion of society, even against society as in Huck Finn. But for the English novelists social norms are determinative, and characters are judged as they accommodate themselves to those norms.
Thackeray, a journalist who wrote comic satiric pieces for magazines like Punch, published his first novel, Barry Lyndon, about an Irish scoundrel, in 1844, and his next, Vanity Fair, three years later. Over the next ten years he wrote four more novels (Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians), but his reputation rests on Vanity Fair, and well it should for the novel is greatly superior to anything else he wrote. It is a masterpiece, one of the enduring monuments of English prose, a novel that artfully combines comedy, pathos, and irony in a way that only Thackeray could do.
Vanity Fair, in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, was a symbol of worldly society. Thackeray's novel opens with a prefatory note "Before the Curtain":
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place . . . [Here follows a description of smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing] . . . Yes, this is a Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy . . . the general impression is one more melancholy than mirthful.
He then refers directly to his characters as "the famous little Becky Puppet," "the Amelia Doll," "the Dobbin figure," and so on. The effect of the note is to endow the writer with an air of benevolent, bemused omniscience, and the book and characters with a veneer of irony. "And with this, and with a profound bow to his patrons, the Manager retires, and the curtain rises." What a beginning!
It was not uncommon for Victorian novelists to insert themselves in the text, to comment on the action or the characters, but it was Thackeray's constant practice, so ubiquitous in some of his novels that it becomes tiresome, but here it works because these little editorials (so to speak) constantly remark on behavior in the light of the Vanity Fair metaphor: "That is the way to get on, to be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair." These paragraphs came easy to Thackeray, too easy, because they sometimes seem a lazy writer's indulgence. Nevertheless, there's no question that these remarks are indispensable aspects of the novel; without them, it would be a much-diminished thing, because it gives the actions of the characters added moral significance.
This is not, however, a dull moral tale but a lively story full of unforgettable characters brought to life as soon as we meet them, by the writer's consummate artistry. The first scene of the narrative is the departure of Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp from Miss Pinkerton's "academy for young ladies," and before the first page is read we know Miss Pinkerton, and within a couple of pages we also know Amelia and Becky. Thackeray is not a writer of surprises - how a character first appears, morally and characteristically speaking, is how she shall appear at the end.
Thackeray's plotting is very clever. Beginning with Amelia and Becky together, he ensures, by a combination of Amelia's soft-heartedness and Becky's scheming, that their lives shall be intertwined, to a degree, for the rest of the story. Although she does not know it until the end, when Becky herself reveals it to her, the central fact of Amelia's life has been her husband's infatuation with Becky, while Becky's life has been a series of only intermittently successful intrigues. Becky is reprehensible, heartless, bright, brave, full of spirit and fascinating, while Amelia is a typical Victorian heroine, soft, sweet, and dull. She marries, and worships the rotter George Osborne, who is killed at Waterloo (just after proposing to run away with Becky), and goes on to raise her son in near-poverty, all the while dedicating herself to the memory of George. Meanwhile she has been loved (and unobtrusively helped and supported) by Dobbin, George's comrade in arms, whom she treats as a doormat. Finally, after a quarrel about Becky, Dobbin frees himself from his infatuation, telling Amelia that she is "not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you." It's a great, just, ringing speech, and Amelia is devastated when he leaves.
She didn't wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all.
Becky, eventually taking pity on Amelia, tells her of George's inferiority to Dobbin and his infidelity, shows her the note he gave to Becky the night before Waterloo, and by freeing her of her delusion about George, allows her to accept Dobbin's love. So a reconciliation takes place, they are married, and in time Amelia has a daughter, Jane. On the last page it is remarked that Dobbin is fonder of her
. . . than of anything in the world. "Fonder than he is of me," Emmy thinks, with a sigh. But he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle, or thought of a want of hers that he not try to gratify.
The episode is handled in a masterly fashion: the author gives the reader a happy ending but it is qualified. Dobbin gets Amelia, and their love is genuine, but it is not quite what he had hoped for; she does not have his strength of character. Thackeray's irony triumphs, as the last words of the book imply:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? - Come, children let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
I began this essay by remarking the social aspect of English Victorian novels, but then I busied myself with the plot. Why? Well, if you think about what you have just read, you'll see that the action is socially driven and controlled. Reflect on Captain Ahab or Huck Finn or Hester Prynne - they are all deviants, defiers of society; their struggles are with themselves, and their triumphs and tragedies are their own. But Becky Sharp is society's creature, always struggling for social esteem, always intriguing for social security, and she is condemned by society because she has violated its norms, just as William Dobbin is esteemed, not merely for his qualities of character, but because he fulfills his social role admirably. *
The question of the Americaness of our literature arose early in the 19th century when we were full of the ginger of nationalism. It was felt that as a new nation, and one cast in a new mold, we should create a literature significantly different and superior to the literature of the Old World (especially Great Britain). The popularity of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving was partly due to the knowledge that their subjects were distinctively American. But still, were they American enough? It was thought that the treatment of their subjects - the writing style, the attitude to their material - was lacking in some way, was still not American enough.
By the end of the century, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser were pushing our literature in new and distinctly native ways, but it was after World War I when an outburst of new, often experimental writing made observers speak of an American Renaissance. It was then that the idea of the Great American Novel arose, a concept still being talked about in the 1940s. A new novel by Faulkner or Hemingway was looked forward to with anticipation, and young men in garrets were reputedly typing away like mad on the latest entry in the sweepstakes. It was vaguely thought that the Great One had to be an epic, a saga, words which conveyed sweeping narrative historical (Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln would make cameo appearances), geographical (he would range over the country and would Go West), and political (he would fight corruption in high and low places), and sexual (his mate would be a deep-breasted daughter of the soil). There were actually some novels like that published after the war.
So, to a superficial glance, the quest for the Great American Novel: But at bottom, it is a serious business, because consummate art can be the expression of our essence, of what we are as individuals and as a nation. Distracted by mundane details, and in the case of too many conservatives, by politics, we forget that the details and the politics all grow out of our culture, our broad identity as thinking and feeling beings bearing within us the ideas and hopes and fears of a rich American past. We do not consciously know it, but we yearn for explications of ourselves, and it is the supreme task of art to give it to us.
Well, the Renaissance turned out to be a flop, and besides, the Great American Novel had already been written not once but thrice: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady will stand as long as the Republic is remembered as our greatest contribution to world literature in the novel line and, like the Republic itself, they are all about the confrontation of American innocence with the sinful world.
Now, in the face of all my mockery, I am going to tell you about a huge novel published in 1948, a bestseller and obviously a contender for the title, which is yet a fine novel which I can recommend for your reading pleasure: Raintree County by Ross Lockridge.
The first thing to understand is the book's technique, its organization. It chronicles a day, July 4th, 1892, in a village in Indiana, the birthplace and home of the protagonist John Wicklif Shawnessy, whose life, going back to his birth in 1842, is told in a series of flashbacks, so we move back and forth from the July day in 1892 to vivid scenes from the past, the most memorable being from the 1850s and 60s. A list of the flashbacks, in chronological order, is given in the beginning of the book for the reader's convenience, but it is best, I think, to read the book as it is written. Transitions from the present to the past are managed adroitly by merging the last sentence of an episode with the first sentence of the next, thus:
So in the still night he dreamed a fair young dream of going . . .
. . . Westward, the National Road pursued its ways.
The band is playing Yankee Doodle for . . .
. . . A big crowd of people had poured into the Court House Square.
It seems to me that the frequent shifts of time and scene give the story an excitement, a tension that make the long narrative much more interesting than if it were told in a straightforward way. Key events, like what happens to Johnny's first wife, are kept back until late in the book, and the most significant event, Johnny's return from the Civil War and what he found on his return, is not revealed until near the end. That placement gives these events more impact. They have been held back because they are so traumatic to Johnny, and now we realize their full force because we have long known the turns his life has taken because of those shocking events.
Johnny is a classic American hero: clean-cut, ingenuous, naive, shy, intelligent, handsome, humble. At the same time that he fulfills that well-known role, he has a rich inner life, displayed throughout the book. He is writing an epic poem about Raintree County, centering around the legend that Johnny Appleseed planted an exotic tree, the raintree with its yellow flowers, somewhere in the county. There have been two sightings of the tree, once by Johnny when he, drunk with liquor and sexual triumph, is making love to Susannah Drake near Paradise Lake after the famous footrace on July 4th, 1859. Under the circumstances he doesn't realize it until afterwards. The other sighting is by his very young daughter, Eva, who, lost in the swamp around Paradise Lake, falls asleep under the tree, beside two rocks marked with Johnny Appleseed's initials. She wakes, wanders off, and is found by her father, who discovers the yellow flowers in her pinafore pocket.
The myth and its meaning is discussed at length, especially at the end of the day (and the book) with "Professor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles (his initials are the same as Johnny's, indicating that he represents a side of the hero that is sardonically cynical), after Johnny the most interesting character in the book. He first appears when he establishes an "academy" in the town attended by Johnny and Nell Gaither, the predestined, but frustrated lovers. When Stiles tries to run away with the minister's wife, Johnny rescues him from a mob and spirits him away on a train. He later turns up in Johnny's life and is always amusing.
There are a number of walk-on parts but few major characters: Johnny's father, a country doctor, preacher, and herbalist; his mother, the three women in his life - Nell Gaither, Susannah Drake, Esther Root - Garwood Jones, Cassius Carney, Flash Perkins. The last named, a hard-drinking innocent rustic, Johnny's rival in foot racing, serves with him in Sherman's army. Carney, a young man with his eye on the financial main chance, finally becomes a big financier. Garwood, Johnny's rival in love, is a budding politician who becomes by the end of the book, a U.S. Senator.
In the 1850s, Garwood and Johnny are rival columnists for two weekly papers in the county: The Whig/GOP Free Enquirer for which Johnny (anonymously) writes a column signed Will Westward, featuring interviews with a salty rustic Seth Twigs, and the Democratic Freehaven Clarion where the "rising young orator" Garwood writes a column by "Dan Populus." These columns, and other excerpts from imaginary newspapers appear frequently in the book, reminding us of those raucous papers of the day, supply much local color, but also add imaginative and ironic commentary on the events. The first page of the book is an excerpt from the Free Enquirer heralding the day.
Lockridge believes the received truth that post-Civil War America was despoiled by robber barons, so Garwood Jones and Cassius Carney become symbolic figures of political cynicism and financial ruthlessness, but we need not let that spoil the book for us; the stereotypes, after all, are amusing, and although Johnny is condescended to by these illustrious sons of the county, we do not see him that way at all. Although the conventional view of the Gilded Age is grotesquely oversimplified, it is true that the pastoral America of antebellum days was replaced by an industrializing society. The village where Johnny was born in 1842, Danwebster, symbolically named, is now abandoned.
War had discovered in him a simple human being who clung yearningly and without criticism to the most ancient beliefs of the Republic. They made it possible for him to endure. They justified his agony. This agony was so great and terrible that only by infusing it with an ideal quality crudely religious in its fervors could it be endured. Only an intensely sentimental soldier in an intensely sentimental Republic could have fought and endured the Civil War.
Not only do I think those words are true about the Civil War, I think they are an accurate description of antebellum America; they certainly describe the picture Lockridge paints of the era, and that time echoes throughout the book. The courthouse clock in the engraving in the Atlas is indeed stopped, and Johnny still lives, to a degree, in that time which ended when he came back from the war and came upon a tombstone in the
Throughout the book there are arguments and discussions, mostly about weighty matters, among Johnny, Stiles, and Garwood (sometimes) that are thoughtful, intelligent, crass, stupid, reflective of the time and the personalities of the speakers. They are the counterpart to the events of the day and of the past, and the way Lockridge weaves them all together so that everything - happenings as well as discussions and ruminations - works together is one of the book's greatest feats.
Raintree County, of course, has a Meaning about the self and the Republic, and love, but I'll let you discover it for yourself. It is obvious from the start that such a grand (not to say grandiose) project must be an attempt to define America, and so it is. Although the definitive idea is voiced in the final conversation of Johnny and Stiles at the end of the book, it is implicit from the beginning, as on the reverse of the title page.
Raintree County is not the country of the perishable fact. It is the country of the enduring fiction. The clock in the courthouse tower on p. 5 of Raintree County Atlas is always fixed at 9 o'clock, and it is summer and the days are long.
What Ross Lockridge gives us is a moving portrait of a romantic conception of antebellum mid-western American. *
Beginning his third year at Harvard, Richard Dana, of distinguished New England ancestry, contracted measles that affected his eyesight. Facing the tedium of a long convalescence, he chose to embark as a common sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim, sailing to California for trading purposes. Returning to Boston in 1836 after two years, he resumed his studies, graduated and went on to law school, during which he wrote this account of the voyage, published in 1840. Shipboard life had never been described from such a viewpoint. It was a great success, and it is rightfully regarded as an American classic.
What makes the book so interesting is Dana's character: he's intelligent, curious, sensitive, warmhearted, strong-minded, and amazingly adaptable, but what makes his character clear to us is the writing style, which is clear, concise, unambiguous, supple, and sensitive. Nothing is vague or false. Dana's prose is not so subtle as Thoreau's nor so masterful as Teddy Roosevelt's, but it is in that tradition.
Of course he is seasick at first and unused to the labor, but he knows how important it is for him, privileged and educated, to be seen sharing the common burdens, and he soon catches on and becomes inured to the work, and later even volunteers for hazardous tasks. His account of the sailing is exciting, even breathtaking, as when he describes furling a frozen topsail high above the pitching deck, at night in a gale off Cape Horn. To most of us today the names and functions of the sails and rigging must be opaque, but by naming them and describing the sailor's efforts we get a vivid sense of the tasks and the whole voyage.
Beside the voyage itself and the incidents of life aboard ship, the book is fascinating because it is a full account of life in California, then a sparsely settled province of Mexico. The brig is engaged in trade, selling goods from an improvised store set up in the ship.
Our cargo was an assorted one; that is, it consisted of everything under the sun. We had spirits of all kinds (sold by the cask), teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockery-ware, tinware, cutlery, clothing of all kinds, boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cottons from Lowell, crepes, silks; also shawls, scarfs, necklaces, jewelry, and combs for the ladies; furniture; and in fact, everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fire-works to English cart-wheels - of which we had a dozen pairs with their iron rims on.
The sailors are kept busy freighting customers and their purchases back and forth from ship to shore, but their main activity is collecting cowhides (as well as tallow and horns) for shipment back to Boston. Hides were the main product of California then, and some idea of the commerce will be gained when you know that the ship on which Dana returned home was heavily laden with 40,000 hides. The inland missions were the sellers. There the cattle were slaughtered, the hides were dried, and then they were transported to the shore where ships picked them up to take them to San Diego where they were cleaned, cured and stored in large warehouses. It was the job of the brig (and other ships from other buyers) to sail up and down the coast, trading and collecting hides.
It must be kept in mind that the places where the sailors pick up the hides, the ports so to speak - Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, San Francisco - were insignificant, merely open beaches. The small population lived inland at the mission or presidios. But at San Juan they must toil up a steep hill, 400 feet high, carrying trade goods, and then they have to throw the hides downhill to the shore.
Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far into the air as we could; and they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book. The wind took them and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water, and as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height; the scaling of the hides; and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach! This was the romance of hide-droghing!
Ashore on liberty, the sailors walk inland to San Diego and immediately go to a pulperia, a crude saloon, and here Dana displays his tact. He and his Boston friend want to go horseback riding, but he knows that if they don't follow the drinking customs of their shipmates (paying for a round) they'll be looked at askance as effete snobs. So they pay their dues, as it were, and go riding afterwards.
The fine air of the afternoon; the rapid rate of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground; and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long.
Dana is always alert to the life around him on his occasional days of liberty, and when he is put ashore in San Diego for four months to help with the curing of the hides we learn a great deal more. There are six workers: Dana, a Frenchman, and four Kanakas from Hawaii, or as they were called then, the Sandwich Islands; the author explains them (he had great respect for them) as well as the task, thus pleasing this reader at least (I am always vexed when a writer mentions a procedure but doesn't explain it). First they soak the hides in seawater for two days, then they immerse them in vats filled with a very salty brine for another two days. They stake them out to dry, trimming and cleaning them, finally scraping the hides to remove any grease. They are beaten with flails to remove any dust and then are stacked in the warehouse. Each man processed twenty-five hides each day. Having approximately the same amount of work to do every day and leisure afterwards, they worked with a will, finishing early in the afternoon. Dana spent most of his spare time reading, writing, and mending his clothes. They kept a horse that they used to catch others for rides about the country and to the presidio.
He goes back to sea duty at the end of the summer by joining the crew of the Catalina, where he meets new shipmates, men of varied, even amazing, backgrounds, not uncommon at a time when ship's crews were composed of men from all over the world.
When they sail for home down the coast of South America, they reach Cape Horn in the depth of the southern winter, a fearsome time, and Dana's account of their passage is hair-raising.
The final chapter tells of his visit to California in 1859, of course registering the profound changes wrought in those twenty some years.
Dana became a distinguished lawyer, known for his advocacy of seamen's rights, and Lincoln appointed him U.S. District Attorney of Massachusetts. He argued before the Supreme Court the famous "Prize Cases" dealing with the depredations of the Confederate commerce raiders built in Great Britain during the Civil War. He died in 1882, full of honors, but he is best remembered for what he did and wrote about when he was a twenty-year-old sailor. *