The urge among all who study a “neglected” writer is to justify the writer’s historical and literary importance and, by implication, the importance of the act of critical valorization in which the student is engaged. No matter whether the book be Frankenstein or Varney the Vampire: the justification is likely to be equally impassioned and, I suspect, to make equally little impact on readers either unfamiliar with the text in question or familiar enough to have already formed and grown attached to judgments of their own. Those who admire Varney will applaud the novel’s overdue advocate; those who do not will, at best, tolerate the eccentricity of his taste. The tendency to champion an overlooked or underappreciated author and at the same time to chastise the responsible popular/critical/ academic community has been particularly common during the past few years, when the literary canon has come to be recognized, at least by some, as a product of political and ideological choices and has been attacked and redefined from a variety of cultural and theoretic perspectives. Our bookstores—our journal articles—are filled with rediscovered “classics” and little-known “masterpieces.”
Such thoughts are provoked by the recent publication of George Garrett’s Understanding Mary Lee Settle, the first book-length study of one of the more interesting yet overlooked of modern American novelists. To Garrett’s credit, he wastes little time railing against either the high-brow or low-brow audiences that have remained indifferent to Settle’s work, despite his powerful belief in its importance and his obvious impatience with the faddishness and insularity of contemporary criticism. Instead his book is a lucid, perceptive introduction to the sources and central concerns of her fiction and, especially, to the Beulah quintet, the sequence of historical novels that represents her major achievement. He does, however, allude more than once to her “career of ups and downs,” and certainly his seminal work provides an occasion on which to consider why the ups in this particular career have been so infrequent and the downs so lengthy and recurrent. Indeed, the history of the response to Mary Lee Settle is worth exploring not just because her work is important, but because that response, puzzling in some respects, reveals much about the process by which popular and especially academic judgments are formed.
Actually the reaction to Settle’s first two books carries little warning of any subsequent neglect, just as the novels themselves seem in few obvious ways preparatory to the more ambitious novels that follow. The Love Eaters (1954) and The Kiss of Kin (1955) are compact, bitterly ironic examples of contemporary social realism, more reminiscent of works by Angus Wilson or Evelyn Waugh than of fiction either American or historical. Both were widely and on the whole favorably reviewed in England and the United States, and the selection of the latter as a Book-of-the-Month-Club alternate seemed to anticipate a career of at least moderate popular success. The consistency of opinion among the reviewers is noteworthy. Aside from the formulaic testimonies to the “promise” of the beginning novelist, their most frequent subject is the deftness, relevance, and almost painful accuracy of her social vision, a vision described again and again—in language of sometimes astonishing violence—as raw, acidic, vicious, relentless, and, in at least four different reviews, sharp. The one hint of Settle’s later difficulty in attracting readers comes in the reluctant, almost oxymoronic quality of this early praise: her novels are described as “morbidly fascinating,” “uncomfortably alive,” and “unpleasant [but] true,” as fiction steeped, in a memorable phrase, in “wholesome acids.”
This relative unanimity of response disappeared when Settle published O Beulah Land in 1956. Most striking about the reviews of that novel and of Know Nothing, published in 1960, is the radical difference between the reception of Settle the contemporary ironist and Settle the writer of (still ironic) Southern historical fiction. The reviews, positive and negative, share a sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit regret that so talented a novelist has chosen to work in so debased a form and argue either that she manages to transcend its ordinaiy limitations or that she has contributed yet another to a long series of “blowzy Technicolored so-called historical romances.” Some favorable reviews seem less concerned with praising Settle’s fiction than with castigating, in the strongest possible terms, other historical novels of the time: O Beulah Land “is head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries,” and “ranks far above the formula-ridden and sensational historical novels that have misrepresented American histoiy in recent years.” Know Nothing is “a welcome contrast to the mass of. . .historical romances designed for those who prefer to read lying down”; if “books which bury the past beneath a weight of verbiage bring historical fiction into disrepute,” this novel helps “reinstate it.” Other reviews are so awash in contempt for the genre that praise and condemnation are almost impossible to separate: O Beulah Land “can be appreciated by those who prefer their history like their breakfast cereal—sugar-coated”; it appears “a sound historical novel suited to that taste of men, women, and some young people who want more than just blood, thunder, and bosoms in their reading about the past.” And Know Nothing provides sustenance “for those voracious readers who must read everything about the Civil War, and for those who have never gotten over Gone With the Wind.” Somehow, in the minds of the reviewers, the shift from the 20th to the 18th and 19th centuries thoroughly neutralized the wholesomely acidic qualities of Settle’s earlier work.
Clearly the effects of Settle’s categorization as a mere writer of historical fiction were lingering: none of her next three novels—Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday (1964), The Clam Shell (1971), and Prisons (1973)—received nearly the attention of her initial four (only the first, for instance, is even listed in Book Review Digest), and all moved in and out of print very quickly. Even the reception by Blood Tie of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1978, which Garrett calls “a turning point in at least the public aspect of her life’s work,” initially provoked more complaints about the nature of literary awards than recognition of Settle, the tangential literary-political issue overshadowing the achievement of the novelist. Still, largely because of the stature conferred by the award, Settle’s next two novels—The Scapegoat (1980) and The Killing Ground (1982)—managed to be reviewed in more prominent places (such as the front page of The New York Times Book Review), by more prominent persons (E.L. Doctorow, Gail Godwin), and certainly in more flattering terms (Robert Houston calls The Scapegoat “as good a novel as anyone writing in this country today could have written”). The Beulah quintet began to be reissued in a new paperback series, though, characteristically, publishing problems prevented all five volumes from being released in the same format by the same press.
At this point Settle seems to have reached a state of equilibrium as far as the popular press and the publishing industry are concerned: her most recent novel, Celebration (1986), was widely though not prominently reviewed in respectful though not wildly enthusiastic terms. Her older novels, including those in the quintet, are in the process of being again reissued in paperback (by Scribner’s), though it is unlikely that any will be supported by a significant advertising campaign and receive much consequent attention. Mary Lee Settle, in other words, has managed to pass from promising newcomer to proven old hand without ever experiencing a period of real acceptance.
Essentially a novelist can achieve something larger than limited renown in two ways: by reaching a broad popular audience or by impressing the literary establishment, in one way or another, sufficiently to be considered an important creator of “literature”—by which I really mean appealing to what Terry Eagleton identifies as “the largely concealed structure of values” that informs such cultural determinations. Leaving aside for the moment questions of merit, it seems clear that Settle has been ill-suited to gain acceptance through either channel. Her historical fiction bears almost no resemblance to the sort that has for the last several decades been widely read; in fact, the tendency of some reviewers to liken her novels to the conventional historical romance is compelling testimony to the power of expectation (“Here we have another novel set in the antebellum South . . .”) to shape one’s experience of a text. “Wherever one places Settle in the literary spectrum,” Peggy Bach has noted, “she cannot be accused of writing easy reading.” All of her novels, but particularly those of the quintet, can be demanding to the point of frustration. Works so populated as these by huge casts of named characters (O Beulah Land, for instance, contains nearly three dozen) ordinarily arrange them into groups of clearly differentiated importance, with carefully developed protagonists surrounded by less fully rendered figures playing secondary or tertiary roles. Many of Settle’s characters are pictured with equivalent care, play roles of roughly equal importance, and move in and out of the text unpredictably, now occupying the center of the frame and now vanishing altogether. The expected hierarchy breaks down, and the familiar devices for ordering, judging, and recalling characters are rendered of little use.
Similar liberties are taken with plot and point of view. Because, in most of the novels, different characters are of primary importance at different times, plot consists not of a central tale surrounded by others of lesser prominence, but of a collection of incidents and histories woven together into a complex narrative. Point of view, often tied in Settle to the consciousness of the character currently central, may shift abruptly from first to third person and from one level of omniscience or reliability to another. Even a first-person narrative like Prisons will glide almost without warning from 1649 to 1634 and from the perspective of an adult to that of the same adult seeing again through his own eyes as a child. The effect of all this has been likened to that of Faulkner, of a tapestry, of a kaleidoscope, of an elaborate folk dance—but never, by those who read Settle carefully, to that of conventional narrative.
Additional demands are placed on the reader by the unusual complexities of Settle’s prose. Her intention in each of the historical novels is to rely as fully as possible on the spoken language of the represented time, so that Prisons is written in the literate, Biblically-informed voice of a 17th-century gentleman, O Beulah Land in the harsh voice of the Virginia frontier, Know Nothing in a mix of Romantic posturing and studied informality characteristic of the antebellum South, and so on. Even for readers familiar with the literature of these periods this can be daunting, because the spoken language—reconstructed from broadsheets, transcripts, letters, and the like—often seems less regular and recognizable than the language of carefully edited or consciously literary texts. And even for readers prepared for an immersion in the cadences of the past, Settle’s prose can be trying. Regular syntax and expected constructions are often abandoned, forcing one to enact within individual sentences the process of discovery and re-vision demanded in larger ways by the historical narrative as a whole. In one’s apprehension of language, as in one’s apprehension of the past, too heavy a reliance on habit and formula leads easily to failures in understanding.
Thus Settle’s absence of appeal to a sizeable popular audience is easily enough explained. But the difficulties posed by her fiction would seem perfectly designed not to discourage but to attract the attention of a critical industry whose primary tasks, at least since the advent of New Criticism, have been to explicate and interpret. Despite the length of her career and the generally respectful reviews, however, Settle has gone so unnoticed by the academic community that the most recurrent subject among those few who have written about her is the fact that she has gone so unnoticed. “Critical response to Settle’s work has not reflected her downright awesome accomplishment,” according to Nancy Carol Joyner. “Despite positive reactions to her individual volumes, [her] literary reputation remains obscure, and scholarly attention to her work has been conspicuously and mysteriously absent.” Peggy Bach acknowledges that “Settle’s career has been marked by a division in critical recognition and understanding,” Jane Gentry Vanee that critics have “generally condescended to her historical novels.” And Garrett, who even before his book was Settle’s most ardent supporter, has written that the response to her fiction “can tell us a good deal … about the condition of serious criticism in this final quarter of our century.” He is, of course, correct: not, I believe, because criticism today is less capable of recognizing quality than it was in the past, but because the preferences among the critics of any age and society tell us a good deal about their “condition”—that is, about their attitudes, biases, criteria for judgment, and so on. If we grant that the decision by representatives of a particular culture to accept, to institutionalize, a writer is at least in part a political and ideological one, then any writer’s reputation can be studied in political and ideological terms. Success or failure among the academic critics is no simple question of “merit,” and, while superficially mysterious, can generally be traced to a set of discoverable causes.
Settle, it seems to me, has failed during the past 30 years to appeal to academic critics for several compelling reasons. Vance points to her refusal “to follow fads in fiction writing”;
I would go further and suggest that she has avoided not only fads but, for the most part, the sorts of consistency in subject, style, and genre that allow writers to be conveniently labeled. Criticism often begins with categorization, and writers who cannot be fitted into a clearly defined category, who belong obviously to no particular area of specialization, tend to be brushed aside in favor of those whose place in the literary hierarchy is more easily assignable. This is not necessarily faddishness or even narrow-mindedness, but the inevitable practice of a discipline arranged in almost every professional and intellectual sense into distinctly separable fields. To this discipline Settle would naturally seem elusive. She is an American novelist who lived for many years in Europe and whose literary influences seem a mixture of the Southern and the Continental; she is a writer of novels set in centuries from the 17th to the 20th, and in locations from England to West Virginia to Turkey to Hong Kong; her protagonists are male and female, and, while her concern with the place of women in Western culture is strong, she is not overtly a feminist writer. Students of contemporary fiction are liable to be dismayed by her attention to the past, students of British and American history by her reliance on the formal and stylistic complexities of the moderns.
The one category into which Settle has most automatically been placed is, from the point of view of reputation, in many ways the least fortunate. If writing historical novels was a guarantee of mixed reviews, it was an even more certain guarantee of indifference in the academy, which has for most of this century treated historical fiction as a sort of disreputable cousin of the serious novel. Such fiction has, in fact, long occupied a paradoxical place in the development of and response to the novel, embodying at once the form at its most grand and most commonplace. The great historical monoliths at one extreme—Waverley, Les Miserables, War and Peace—are countered at the other by the much more numerous historical romances and costume-dramas responsible at the same time for the form’s popular success and critical disrepute. This disrepute represents an ironic reversal: during much of the 19th century, when some of the worst historical fiction in existence was manufactured, the form was nonetheless viewed almost reverently by writers like Carlyle, Cooper, Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot, who, though only indifferently successful in their attempts at what Eliot called “historical picturing,” shared her belief that such picturing seemed “capable of a development that might help the judgment greatly with regard to present and future events.” Romola, like A Tale of Two Cities, Henry Esmond, and a host of other British and American historical novels, may stand as a relative failure precisely because its author was so self-consciously ambitious.
Several developments converged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to render Eliot’s view of historical fiction unfashionable. The general reaction among serious artists against anything characteristically Victorian naturally led to the repudiation of a tradition so enthusiastically embraced by so many canonical authors and to assertions like Arnold Bennett’s, in 1903, that the historical novel was an exhausted form. The rise of realism and naturalism, moreover, shifted the focus of novelists increasingly to the contemporary scene, where, as Avrom Fleishman points out, writers like Ford Madox Ford and George Moore chose to set their “most powerful evocations of social history.” The demand for scrupulous accuracy in detail would inevitably have made representations of the distant past appear unreliable and escapist, and the emphasis, in writers such as Hardy, on man’s helpless participation in historical processes would have made the less deterministic attitudes of Carlyle or Eliot seem naive. Modernism’s even more radical rejection of both conventional forms and instructive connections to the past intensified further the hostility toward “historical picturing.”
Attitudes shaped more than half a century ago still control, at least in part, our response to historical fiction and certainly have affected the critical reaction to Settle. Historical novels continue to be written in large numbers, but, even leaving out the very worst, the vast majority descend less clearly from Scott and Cooper than from the popular romances of Bulwer-Lytton and G.P.R. James. The relatively few historical novels taken seriously by critics seem to descend, to another extreme, from a book like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: less historical fiction than metafiction, they seemed designed to subvert the conventions of the form and to raise questions about the efficacy of literary attempts to reconstruct the elusive past. No longer is the ability of history to “help the judgment greatly with regard to present and future events” accepted so readily as likely or even desirable, and no longer are representations of the past designed scrupulously to exclude signs of the present. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, even Peter Ackroyd’s recent Hawksmoor, have been taken seriously less because they are historical novels than because they are, in effect, fictional meditations on the limitations of narrative history, with the contemporary voice and concerns of the author as prominent as the recreated past. Novels like those comprising the Beulah quintet, which neither entertain in the manner of the historical romance nor take as their subject their own problematic form, are today extremely rare, and elicit either a confused response or no response at all. One simply has little context in which to judge them.
Historical fiction generally and Settle in particular have suffered during the past few decades from another influential critical preference. The historical novel is perhaps of all fictional forms the one most emphatically insistent on some connection between the imaginary world constructed by the novelist and some larger, independently verifiable world existing outside the text: the inclusion of actual historical figures, of details drawn from research into the past, testifies to a belief that the success of the fiction is somehow dependent on its fidelity to life as it was lived. Historical novels, unlike virtually every other literary form, are judged as often in relation to nonfictional narratives and documents as in relation to other fictional texts. For Settle this has been particularly true. Her own belief that “the work’s too hard not to tell the truth, as nearly as you can,” has been reflected in her habit, before beginning, of immersing herself in the documents of the past until the verbal habits and frames of reference of an earlier age become part of her contemporary consciousness. It has been reflected as well in the rare critical explorations of her work, which tend to focus on such topics as her use of the voluminous Thomason Tracts, a collection of 17th-century publications, in writing Prisons, or her reliance on a five-thousand-page transcript of a Senate investigation into the mine wars in writing The Scapegoat. Such source-studies, while enlightening and reflective of Settle’s own priorities, do little to encourage further discussion. The most influential movements in recent criticism have been away from an emphasis on the connections between literature and life, and thus, in many respects, away from the central aim of historical fiction. If one argues like Wolfgang Iser that the world of fiction is fundamentally “different from the world [the reader] himself is used to,” like Roland Barthes that “”characters” … can neither be described nor classified in terms of persons,” or like Umberto Eco that even to suggest that language “necessarily corresponds to an actual object is a distinctly naive attitude,” then the ability of an author faithfully to re-create the past becomes considerably less important. Of course historical fiction can usefully be seen through the eyes of reader-response or structuralist or deconstructive criticism, but those critical approaches tend to erase the identifying characteristics of such fiction and thus to challenge its existence as a definable form. Certainly the traditional emphasis of the historical novelist on “telling the truth” is rendered of less moment, or at least is understood in entirely different terms.
The reception of the Beulah quintet, moreover, was not helped by the unorthodox and rather confusing history of its composition. Rather than evaluate a series of novels whose interrelations and controlling structure were relatively apparent, readers were forced continually to reapprehend a series whose shape and dimensions kept changing. If, as is ordinarily the case, the order of publication had corresponded to the order in which the novels were finally arranged, I suspect the reaction to the whole would have been less divided. Instead, Settle began by writing O Beulah Land and Know Nothing, eventually the second and third volumes in the sequence and still, in many ways, the volumes whose connections to one another are most noticeable. These were followed four years later by Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, intended initially as the concluding volume of a trilogy, but a novel whose relations to the earlier two are, in part because of some ill-advised editorial tinkering, less than clear. Fight Night received the worst reviews of Settle’s career—even she considers it, in its published form, a failure—and undoubtedly contributed to a downward reevaluation of the earlier historical fiction. Not surprisingly, her subsequent two books remained firmly in the 20th century.
The Beulah trilogy continued intact and little-read for nearly a decade, until the publication of Prisons in 1973. Seventeen years after the appearance of O Beulah Land, Settle had now written a novel intended to precede it in the final fictional sequence and to clarify the background and motivations of its central characters. Because it was written at what appears, in retrospect, to have been the nadir of Settle’s popularity, Prisons, received much less attention than it merited and did little to alter the reputation of the previous three novels. Still, the trilogy was now a quartet, with the most recently composed work occupying the earliest place in the fictional chronology. Even seven years later, when The Scapegoat turned the quartet into a quintet by fitting between Know Nothing and Fight Night, the restructuring was not complete. The concluding novel remained a disappointment, so in 1982 Settle reissued it in a dramatically revised form as The Killing Ground. Thus the final series—Prisons, O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, The Scapegoat, The Killing Ground—took shape over a span of 26 years, with each addition demanding that the nature of the total achievement be radically reassessed. If one grants that each of the novels affects in essential ways one’s reading of the others, then the Beulah quintet is, despite its lengthy period of composition, a relatively new work whose final form has only recently become clear. Until now one was reading a work-in-progress.
For the critic of Settle, this convoluted history introduces an interpretive complication. In measuring her “downright awesome accomplishment,” one has to consider not one fictional structure but two: the final, more obvious structure running from Prisons to The Killing Ground, and the structure, emerging through time, that begins with O Beulah Land and Know Nothing, detours through Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, then continues in Prisons, The Scapegoat, and The Killing Ground. If the novel set in 1912 builds on the one set in 1861, then just as surely the novel written in 1980 builds on the images and ideas of those written during the previous three decades; and if changes in method and design can be expected among novels set centuries apart, then surely they can be expected among novels composed over better than 26 years. Does one read O Beulah Land, set in 1754, as a continuation of Prisons, set in 1649, or Prisons, published in 1973, as a follow-up to O Beulah Land, published in 1956? To measure these difficulties, one might consider the prospect of interpreting, say, The Brothers Karamazov had parts one and three been written in the 1870’s and parts two and four 20 years earlier, prior to Dostoevsky’s Siberian imprisonment. Only for criticism that severs all ties between text and context are the complexities introduced not substantial.
Consider as well the peculiar tension that exists among novels designed as both discrete, independent works of fiction and as interdependent segments of a larger literary whole. Settle is emphatic in her insistence that the quintet is not a loosely related Comedie Humaine but “one book” whose parts are inseparable. Without the knowledge of humble beginnings provided by O Beulah Land, the snobbery of Know Nothing would be unironic, and without the latter novel the ancestral connections among the characters in The Scapegoat would be undiscoverable. Objects and scenes accumulate and change significance as they reappear from work to work. At the same time, however, too absolute an emphasis on the novels as parts in a whole might lead to the overlooking of some substantial differences: can the experimental first-person narrative of Prisons, for instance, really be considered as belonging to the same “book” as the more conventional third-person narrative of O Beulah Land? Unlike sections of a single long fiction, each of the five novels unfolds an entirely self-sufficient plot, and unlike, for example, A la recherche du temps perdu, only a handful of minor characters appear in more than one of the works. While it would be mistaken to read each of the five without knowledge of the others, it might be nearly as mistaken to view them as if they had been published at the same time between a single set of covers.
Ultimately, I think, the novels can be best if not exclusively read and understood in the order in which they were finally arranged and as contributing parts of a single fictional whole. Defining the nature of a discrete “book,” distinguishing it from a collection of intimately related “books,” is probably impossible. If the parts of the Beulah quintet are not inseparable, they are at least mutually strengthening, and the strengthening is most dramatic when they are read as a sequence moving chronologically through British and American history. If the differences among some of the novels, particularly those written decades apart, appear distinct, the similarities in theme appear equally distinct and are certainly strong enough to forge an essential connective chain. And, lastly, if Settle’s accomplishment in any one of the novels seems impressive, it seems much more so when the five are considered as a long and intricately constructed unit. Because the Beulah quintet was, largely by chance, presented to the world in a manner designed as if to minimize appreciation of its virtues, the reader approaching it only now, after its completion, has a peculiar advantage over the reader who had encountered the parts as they were being published. The latter has in effect to forget a misleading structure with which the former was never familiar.
Finally, and in a manner not easy to explain, Settle seems to approach the subject of family and politics with a passion that appears, in its relentless intensity, strangely alien to contemporary literature. E.L. Doctorow, in praising her “sense of the individual as a member of a family and as a political being in history,” notes that “there were more writers of this conviction fifty years ago. There are precious few now.” He is not necessarily being nostalgic or even evaluative, but merely accurately descriptive: the truth is that there are very few novelists today who approach their subjects in the uncompromising manner of Settle and consequently few readers familiar with the sort of world she creates. Earnestness is not a quality one associates with any of the dominant schools of contemporary American fiction; Settle, however, is a profoundly earnest writer who has more than once been likened in intellectual and moral rigor to that most earnest of Victorians, George Eliot. Her fiction is consistently informed by a sense of American democracy as, in her words, “a fascinating revolutionary form of government,” and of familial and regional considerations as influences on individual conduct. While these subjects would doubtless have been of concern to George Lewes, F.R. Leavis, and even Lionel Trilling, it is less likely that they would appeal to the structurally and linguistically oriented critics of the past 25 years. Settle’s “conviction” in other words, has been not a liability but an irrelevancy. The critical language of an age tends to determine which writers and subjects come most often under critical scrutiny, and contemporary language has little vocabulary with which to discuss this aspect of Settle’s achievement. Her political vision, like her chosen form, happens to occupy one of the few silent spaces in today’s noisy analytical discourse.
If the lack of attention paid to Settle is neither conspiratorial nor a sign of bad taste, it is nonetheless a somewhat jolting example of the scarcely noticed power of fashion and expectation to shape the literary canon. In theory her chosen form or theoretical orientation or political enthusiasm should have little to do with the amount, though much to do with the nature, of the critical attention she receives; in practice each has much to do with both. Because there exists no value-neutral or bias-free way of judging literature, this situation is not ultimately correctable: the coming into fashion of Settle’s fiction would undoubtedly mean the moving out of fashion of someone else’s. It is, however, recognizable, and if one can recognize the influence of beliefs and biases on aesthetic judgments, one can perhaps move toward judgments more purely aesthetic. At the very least one can render the question of an author’s inclusion in or omission from the canon— until now the question of most concern to Settle’s readers— less mysterious and less intrusive. To say that any author “should” receive more attention is to say, at least in part, that the preferences or expectations of an age should be other than what they are.
Even so—even, that is, if one takes a radically relativistic approach to the question of literary value—George Garrett’s book and the others that are certain to follow do well to bring to the work of Mary Lee Settle the most careful critical attention. Writing an ambitious historical novel, let alone a sequence of five, means not only confronting the intricacies of history, but bearing the burden of a complex, self-referential, insistently didactic tradition of historical fiction reaching back nearly two centuries. By few would the anxiety of influence be felt more strongly than by the novelist writing historical fiction in a manner descending from Scott, Eliot, and Tolstoy. Settle manages to combine a thorough familiarity with the tradition from which she emerges with an original vision of the past. Put another way, she adapts a tradition largely European and conservative to subjects American and revolutionary. For though historical fiction of this depth and extensiveness had been written before, never had it been by an American author attempting to define the characteristically American historical experience. Though the nature of the result will always be subject to debate, the attempt, really the only one of its kind, is undoubtedly to seek in the past the meaning of being American, of being formed by a peculiar set of social and historical pressures, as Tolstoy had sought the meaning of being Russian—to discover, as Settle has written, “the birthright earned by nameless people through the 300 years of our becoming.”