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Enter a Novelist

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Anthony Adverse. By Hervey Allen. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $3.00.

Nothing, so far as I know, has been published before in America in the least like Hervey Allen’s “Anthony Adverse.” It is as nearly as its author could make it the complete story of one man’s life. Facing the full-packed twelve hundred and twenty-four pages of type, the reader who has no conception of the richness of the experience before him hesitates to plunge for so long a stretch, but once in, the swift flowing narrative carries him forward with little effort of his own. For “Anthony Adverse” is a novel of remarkable variety and astonishing lusti-hood. Mr. Allen’s invention never fails him and his creative power is equal to his invention. Not only do the pages swarm with constantly changing figures, clatter with exciting events, and glow with the richness of object and detail with which the setting is achieved, but the book is vivid with what Stevenson called “epoch-making” scenes. Many of the characters materialize out of the pages into that authentic group of men and women that one has known memorably.

The Novel began in the picaresque form. A man—more or less of a rogue—wanders from place to place and has experiences—lusty ones more often than not—with all sorts of people. Such a device was used as long ago as the time of the Latin narratives, “The Satyricon” and “The Golden Ass.” Cervantes, Le Sage, and Rabelais found the wandering hero suited to their uses. Perhaps he entered English literature by the name of Robinson Crusoe, but he had been strongly hinted at by some of the Elizabethans, especially Thomas Deloney. Fielding and Smollett kept their heroes on the move, and no more genuinely picaresque “hero” ever strutted than Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. There are certain picaresque features to “The Pickwick Papers.” But the picaresque novel, like the novel of letters, fell out of use. Perhaps the nearest approach to it are such tales of adventure as Hudson’s “Purple Land” or life novels like Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” A book like “Tono-Bungay” belongs, figuratively speaking, in the tradition, but it was constructed on perpendicular social and economic phases of society rather than in the horizontal method of the older novelists who introduced their heroes to many human circumstances by geographical travel.

Hervey Allen has not merely revived an old form. He has told his story in the full-blooded, free-moving manner of the old novelists. It is filled with incident and episode, intrigue and adventure, love, lust, and fighting upon sea and land. But “Anthony Adverse” is written for the taste of 1933, and its author is a very gifted poet. It is informed— though not hagridden—by the subtleties of modern psychology. By delicate symbolic use of certain objects of Anthony’s childhood that had become a part of his imaginative thinking—the bronze figure of a boy, the tree that grew by the fountain, a madonna which had belonged to Anthony’s mother—there is created the poetic suggestion, which helps the continuity of the book, of a sort of spiritual pilgrim’s progress.

The first part of the novel would form a delightful narrative story if printed separately: it relates how Anthony Adverse came to be born. The next two books, completing what is termed the first volume, are unsurpassed for beauty and richness of human appeal by any other part of the novel. They tell the story of Anthony’s childhood and growth to manhood in his grandfather’s country house in Livorno. The second volume begins with an eventful voyage in a ship haunted by a dead baby, takes Anthony to Cuba, then by a yet more exciting sea-trip lands him in Africa, where he becomes rich as a slave-trader. The scene of the third volume moves from Italy to France, England, and Spain, then to America. The period is the exciting one of Napoleon in Europe and the transfer of Louisiana to the United States in America. Major and minor historical figures cross the pages in intimate and natural perspective and great events fall into the patterns of the daily lives of the characters of the story.

The pattern of the book is printed by Anthony’s acts and Anthony’s thoughts. Even the three women that he loves and possesses enter the story and re-enter only when his life touches theirs. There is a constant crossing and recrossing of the paths of certain of the characters which bind the structure of the novel together more tightly than was possible with the earlier picaresque novel. The one fault of the book is that the third section is less beautiful, less exciting, than the first two. The interest is sustained always, but as in life the movement is a falling one at the end. Many of the characters are unforgettable:—old John Bonnyfeather, Cibo of the mammalian philosophy, Captain Jorham, Don Luis and his man, Sancho. The men are better, on the whole, than the women. It is a very masculine novel: it has the quality of a book written by a man for men. That is not to say that it will offend women or that women will not like it. The contrary may prove true; for the frankest episodes are told with delicacy, and interpreted by poetic imagery.

“Anthony Adverse,” though Hervey Allen’s first novel, places its author among the important living novelists, for it is incontestably, whether one likes it or not, among the few more notable American novels. It has marked individuality, strong creative power, vital human appeal, and in the main is as exciting as a first trip in an airplane.


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