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Chronicles of the West

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

American Years. By Harold Sinclair. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Free Land. By Rose Wilder Lane. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $2.50. What People Said. By W. L. White. New York: The Viking Press. $2.75.

It is probably safe to say that literature in America has not, since the days of Nathaniel Willis, been a leisure art in the sense of being practiced by the leisure class as a form of relaxation and enjoyment. The persistently close relationship of fiction and social history has been natural for Americans from early nationalist times, perhaps because what V. F. Calverton calls the “colonial complex” has forced our writers to appraise and evaluate the peculiar differences of their country. We have been like a setting hen with a nest full of duck eggs—extravagantly hopeful in the beginning, amazed and sometimes critical at sight of the result. Call the hen’s anticipations the American Dream; call her duckings and rustlings and long sessions over the warm eggs the pioneer period; call the ducklings whatever you will: industrial war, class struggle, debt, depression, deforestation, the Dust Bowl. As hens, we look those ducklings over with a good deal of dubious curiosity. We are not quite sure we like them. Certainly they are not what we expected. And if we are hens of sensibility, we may go back and sit on the cold and empty nest, where we can recreate our original anticipations in peace, undisturbed by our unnatural offspring now quacking in the horse-trough.

The latter tendency is evidenced in Harold Sinclair’s “American Years” and in Rose Wilder Lane’s “Free Land”; the amazed bitterness of disillusion is the driving force behind W. L. White’s “What People Said,” The first two novels chronicle different chapters in the pioneering of the Middle West. The last views with a kind of pitying despair the stale end of the dream.

“American Years,” though it fuses social history and fiction more completely than most novels, conforms to a fairly well-known pattern. It adopts the typically American device of making a social entity, rather than an individual, its principal character. We have seen the same tendency in epic novels like “Giants in the Earth,” where the northwest prairies, the huge earth and the huge sky, dominate the little lives of people. In this case the hero of the novel is Everton, Illinois (actually Bloomington, I am told), whose growth is followed from 1830, when it was a lonesome grove with a backwoods store snuggling against it, to the eve of the Civil War, when it had become a thriving little metropolis with a history and a future.

To say that Mr. Sinclair falls in with the habit of romanticizing the pioneer would not be quite fair. “American Years” is the first of a trilogy, and it deals with a period when the pioneer town-makers romanticized themselves, drugged themselves on dreams that came true often enough to convince them of the possibility of New Jerusalem. Moreover, Mr. Sinclair writes sound history, and there are enough premonitions of eventual disillusion, enough pictures of his Evertonians running like antelope from a handful of peaceful. Indians in the beginning of the Black Hawk War, to convince us that the balance of courage and cowardice, of integrity and sharp dealing, of stupidity and wisdom, was much the same among our ancestors as among ourselves.

But it is fair to say that “American Years,” for all its vigor and authenticity, is an uneven book. Mr. Sinclair’s writing is not always up to his material. At his best, when he is dealing with the rowdy old settlers, he is superb. The dialogue has the right backwoods tang, the anecdotes drawl out into miniature tall tales, the people are solid and convincing. At his worst, when dealing with educated pioneers, lawyers and doctors and politicians, he is almost dreadful. Two Everton lawyers talking comfortably together have power to dismay almost any reader. There has seldom been worse dialogue written.

Naturally, since the town and not its people is to be the central character, the people are thumb-nailed and sometimes do not come off. Mr. Sinclair has had to adapt his technique to his job, with the result that his book is a pastiche of episodes, incidents, character sketches, and descriptions. In effect it imports the pointillist method of painting into fiction, an infinite number of tiny dots each adding its single effect to the larger whole picture. With his historical figures, Douglas and Lincoln and the others, Mr. Sinclair fails rather conspicuously. With his pig drivers and store keepers and livery-stable loafers he succeeds just as conspicuously. And the picture as a whole is good. The town lives and acquires character.

Of “Free Land” the best one can say is that it is carefully and often beautifully written, that its details of life in a Dakota soddy are authentic and handled with the ease of long familiarity. Artistically it is a better job than “American Years.” Unfortunately, it falls so patly into a pattern that we have the impression of having read all this before. The exodus from settled to unsettled regions, the building of a shanty, the breaking of the tough prairie sod, the anxious watching for rain, the dangers of drought and hail and cyclones and blizzards, are the very bones of the pioneer novel. Unless the people involved in this struggle with the earth are striking enough to dominate our minds and emotions, the book is likely to seem staled by long handling. “Giants in the Earth“ ‘and “Vandemark’s Folly” and “A Son of the Middle Border” all played variations on the theme. “Old Jules” did the same, but kept its stature as a novel because its principal character was a strange and violent man whose personal life we followed with as much interest as we followed the breaking of the land.

In the case of Mrs. Lane’s book there is no man or woman whose fate we are particularly interested in. So the novel, in spite of its undoubted veracity, in spite of its treatment of experiences common to thousands of Americans, in spite of writing that rises sometimes to great beauty, leaves us a bit cold. Like almost all epic novels, it specializes in “big scenes,” and the big scenes are much the same as those given spectacular life by Rölvaag and Quick: blizzards, cyclones, hail storms. Mrs. Lane even seems limited in her big scenes, and falls back upon blizzards no less than four times. Perhaps blizzards were more frequent in the old days than when I lived in Dakota, but even so, four in one book seem a good many.

But let us try to be fair. Out of her own childhood and out of her admiration for her father, Mrs. Lane has written a book strongly conceived, finely phrased, and carefully documented by experience. Her only difficulty is that in making Dakota the hero she is writing about a character already classically done. She does it well, but for the third or fourth time.

Both “American Years” and “Free Land” are historical; both concentrate on a way of life, a social entity, rather than on individuals. “What People Said,” by W. L. White, differs in two ways, though it too deals with a way of life which overshadows the fortunes of single persons. Like “American Years,” it is a picture of a small town, but it is contemporary, not historical, and it develops, not the theme of optimism, hopefulness, progress, but that of bitter disillusion and sour pity for a people gone ethically bankrupt. In this novel the hen looks upon the ducklings which she has raised at such trouble and with such high hopes, and does not find them good.

She finds, specifically, that the optimism characteristic of the days of wide-open opportunity has degenerated into Rotary mouthings, that the ideal of the Progressives—to march up toward perfection by a series of regular steps—is a stupid self-delusion; that the ethics of a business civilization are rotten; that prosperity is a fraud and optimism a fickle whore; that even our best friends, people we like and admire, can be so tainted by the tacit hypocrisies of contemporary life that they ride the roller coaster to ruin and drag most of their friends down with them.

It is beside the point to notice that W. L. White is the son of William Allen White, and that the whole town of Athena, Oklarada, is Emporia, Kansas, under a thin disguise. It is beside the point to recognize in Charles Aldington Carrough the author’s famous father, and in the Lee Norssex case a banking and political scandal that stirred up mud in Kansas a few years ago. That is all beside the point, except as it illustrates how close fiction and social history can become in a country trying to understand itself. Even under its disguise, even with history and fiction inextricably tangled, this book is a picture of the contemporary American small city as valid as any ever written. It has the spirit, the feel, the color of the Western town, the very quality of its people, the depth and extent of its optimisms and prejudices. As reporting, it is magnificently detailed.

Mr. White knows many things that an ordinary novelist is likely to slur over. He shows, with the exactness of a trained expert, Isaac Norssex kiting checks, Lee Norssex juggling bonds, the politicos of Oklarada juggling favors. He shows the sleek middle-class fronts, the idealisms of the Progressives, the chit-chat of the business-men’s luncheon clubs, under a fluoroscope as revealing as that of Sinclair Lewis. As a matter of fact, lessons that Mr. White has learned from Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos show sporadically through the novel as the style shifts through different points of view. Though not a literary book, not a book marked by stylistic mastery like “Free Land,” “What People Said” is eloquent and powerful, and more strikingly original than either of the other novels considered here. It adds a chapter to the story of America, a chapter full of the twistings and turnings of men bred to a philosophy of progress and get-rich-quick dreams, but faced suddenly with the closed door. Lee Norssex in the old America would have been able to utilize his sharpness and his ambition within the letter of the law. In contemporary Oklarada the climate of opinion he was born in gave him all the urges and none of the outlets, with the result that he became a sharper, a dealer in dubious promotion schemes, a slot-machine vendor, a political lobbyist, a juggler of bonds and speculator on the market, eventually a forger and a convict. His story of amazing schemes and fantastic wealth, with its inevitable conclusion of disaster, is essentially the story of America. The implication is all there, but as one reviewer has pointed out, the real tragedy is not that of Lee Norssex or of his suicide father, but of the Junior Car roughs of America who watch their friends destroyed by the very qualities Americans are most accustomed to admire; the innocent bystanders who watch their friends go down, watch with pity and fear and doubt, while their minds struggle with the growing perception that the good Progressive beliefs of one’s youth seem inept, futile, insane. Somehow, on the way to 1938, America has lost the knack of marching up the road to perfection by a series of regular steps.


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