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The Novel and the Past

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

It is not altogether by chance that artists in narrative continue to use the past tense and make no serious attempt to break the monopoly of the present tense held by smoking-room stories, scholarly resumes, and similar artless products of the urge or the necessity to recount something. There is nothing to be gained by any pretense that fiction can effect hallucination or even an immediacy comparable to that of the play on the stage. There is wisdom in the admission, however tacit, that fiction offers, not the illusion of actuality, but an experience akin to the memory of things actual. A novel is a kind of sublimated recollection and therefore savors always of the past.

We are especially conscious of this preterit quality in the novel when it deals with a past as wholeheartedly sought out as it has been by American novelists in recent years, and as often found notably near at hand. Indeed, the past crowds hard upon the present these days; and an author’s own memory, supplemented by interviews with those who “lived through it all,” works to the same end as does library research into more remote periods. Therefore such a pleasant fusion of old-timers’ yarns and the mystery story as “Honey in the Horn,” by H. L. Davis, and such a work as Ross Mc-Laury Taylor’s “Brazos,” which a few years ago would doubtless have been merely a conscientiously done western, come to us as authenticated novels of the past, to be bracketed with historical novels like “Northwest Passage” and “Gone with the Wind” and Frank 0. Hough’s carefully documented “Renown.” The “novel of the past” is, of course, a roomy classification, including all manner of effects from the realism of James Boyd’s “Marching On” to the poetry of Donald Cul-ross Peattie’s “A Prairie Grove.” The differences are obvious enough; yet there are significant resemblances. The more realistic of these novels display skepticism about patriots who feel patriotic on the battlefield or pioneers who plod on filled with the high awareness that they are building a nation. Eagles that would spread themselves too oratori-cally are promptly pegged out by our novel of the past. And, realistic or non-realistic, they give an exact account of life in the chosen period and region; and they carry that air of authentication which accompanies forewords declaring for the truth and acknowledging aid in right scholarly manner, not to mention the frequent appending of annotated bibliographies. It is, in all, a fictional use of the past which deserves the attention it is receiving.

In a rather evident stratification of interests offered by these books, those attractions uppermost are good storytelling and romance. Despite informative purposes and the hewing to the line of a truth often distressing (and in the novels of warfare often unsavory), there is excitement and there is glamor, far more of it than recent fiction of contemporary life has to offer. Obviously the wind that wafts our novel of the past into general popularity is from the same quarter as that which filled the sails of Anthony’s diverse adversities. Depressions and worrisome recoveries and recessions and the imminence of international calamities we would like to forget occasionally, and sometimes by the aid of a book rather than by that of the motion picture or the theater. We want escape, and in some variety.

The novel of the past gives us escape—with honor. If we grow abashed at our breathlessness when savages avid of long-tressed scalps are hard on the heroine’s trail, or when the Yankee raiders are heaping ancestral portraits for the firing of the mansion, while the Colonel and his daughter stand by in agonized disdain, we can turn to the foreword and the bibliography for reassurance. We can note then that even as the scalping knife is lifted we are perhaps learning what we had not known previously about its exact use. We may remain a bit dubious about some of the larger historical interpretations, but we are at ease about the authenticity of detail, a great deal of which is manifestly from personal records. Moreover, there is always the reflection that remoteness in time itself, as in space, justifies faith in the unusual, the extreme, the improbable, and the glamorous; indeed, it wellnigh demands them. To be sure, this is a condition of fiction dealing with the past that our novelists now apparently resent; but they profit by it nevertheless.

Furthermore, our novelists of the past usually follow the basic tradition of the historical novel that demands a recalling not merely of the past but of crucial events and social concerns of emotional power. Though the quieter and less widely significant of days gone by are not entirely disregarded, war and pioneering get most of the attention. Thus there is an abundance of elevated excitement. It is true that heroes are no longer paladins, but even the most poltroonish of them come in upon moments of high stress that are more than extreme personal unpleasantnesses. Heroes may sweat with fear, but there is a certain glamor in the fact that they do it at Yorktown or Gettysburg with Washington or Lee glimpsed dimly through the reek. Even an account of the agonies of march and hospital and prison-pen attains some of this glamor. Smirchings on the bright face of danger never yet have made the siren really ugly; and agonies endured as part of some great event take on a terrible high romance, no matter what the intention of the author who records them.

Not all the heroism is grudgingly permitted. There are patriots and idealists among the notables; and if the number of admitted heroes in the Revolution tends to diminish, there are ever more Southern leaders in the Civil War held up to admiration. Certainly there is no tendency to belittle our frontiersmen and their ability to perform romantic prodigies with the long rifle and the thrown knife, and to exhibit supernal woodcraft and to endure forced marches rivaling the retreat of Xenophon. Cooper’s noble-presenced philosopher of the leather stockings may have become Phil Stong’s cussing half-scalped wearer of buckskin breeches, in the recent novel so titled, but much of the romantic glamor remains.

Another quality remains in these frontiersmen, an Americanism even more easily recognized in recent fiction than in Cooper’s portrayals, doubtless because it has become a fuller and more definite thing. And with the perception of that interest in characters of the recent novel dealing with the past, we begin to discern an appeal less obvious but more significant than that of adventure and romance. These books are all written with a feeling for American scenes, ways, and personalities that is somewhat comparable to that of our best regional novels. Indeed, they contain much familiar material, especially of the folk type, for the transition from regional novel to novel of the past is not difficult. Folk are essentially a survival, and “folks” are essentially old-fashioned; what they are now is what they were long ago. But the immediate future threatens them direfully with change. Hence our novelists hasten to record the picturesque, the engaging, and the admirable as they still exist and as they were of old, pristine and unadulterated.

All manner of things, major and minor, deplorable and admirable, strike with the force of a sudden recollection from the pages of our novels of the past. There is warmth to the heart in recognizing some pungent phrase of the backwoods that one’s grandfather, long gone now, used to voice in moments of stress. That the manipulators of the long rifle, the Revolutionary flintlock, the Civil War musket, and the modern machine-gun are all united in the use of certain cuss words gives shameless satisfaction. There is a glow in such a very American thing as the poker-faced tall stories of “Honey in the Horn” and in the go-getting promoter’s expediency that colors the idealism of Robert Rogers’s attempt at the northwest passage—and a rueful sense of familiarity about the political and governmental chicaneries that helped to ruin him.

Indeed, there is an undercurrent of doubt and anxiety adding power to the interest these books contain when we see in them references by implication to the problems and dissensions of our own day. At any rate, we find ourselves putting together significantly what is said about the Continental Congress that paid no heed to drums along the Mohawk and overmuch to military affairs on the seaboard, and about the Congress of the Southern Confederacy that apparently never did the right thing. It seems possible that there is more than the interpretation of historical fact in the views of Jefferson Davis as the arbitrary idealist who contributed largely to national disaster.

In their record of our way with national difficulties and opportunities in the past, our novelists are not reassuring. They note the booming and land-grabbing in our westward movement, the sordidness of the frontier, the narrowness and social limitations of pioneering, the hysteria of wartime patriotism, the failure to plan soberly for a national future. They would have us feel, perhaps, that in our refusal to admit these shortcomings fully, we resemble a certain character in Mr. Harold Sinclair’s “American Years,” a veteran of the Revolution who had once seen Washington plain, and who, “like tens of thousands of other Americans had had a wordless dream and all his life had lived a part of it—a dream which was about one-quarter hope and three-quarters bitter disillusionment.”

Yet we are not cast down. We are at home in these novels of our past; they give us our own, our native land. There have been changes, but the larger physical aspects arc as recognizable as the characteristic features of an aging face.

We feel that there is something to defy erosion and change and subversion in each still familiar shoreline, mountain contour, or wide unbroken sweep of sage. And all the accusations leveled at our forefathers do not impugn their hardihood or the deep instinct for home-making and neighborli-ness that are the very center of what is best about “folks.”

At any rate, it would seem that no other body of historical fiction in English has been written so fully and intensely in the mood of the author’s own day. Contemporary interests appear, of course, in Scott and in the realistic historical novels of the mid-nineteenth century, like “Henry Esmond” and “Romola”; but such matters as the distinction between the gentleman and the snob and the problem of what to do with the woman of superior intelligence were hardly fraught with a possible revaluation of national faiths or with the urgency, let us say, of our concern about war.

This latter topic alone has called forth a group of novels, chiefly about the Civil War, that well represent not only the content but the artistry of recent novels of the past. What should be said of them leads on to thought about the varied fictional uses of the stuff of history, and to thought about the novel as something more than a compendium of what was up for debate and worry at the time a book was written.

Civil War fiction manifestly would not have been produced in such quantity of late were it not that novelists have exhausted the possibilities in the World War, and yet find war itself still a major theme. The Civil War is not too remote; and it represents large-scale warfare rather more typically than did the great siege from ocean to Alps. With skill developed in accounts of the World War, and possibly with a knowledge of killers and killing sharpened by the post-war crime-wave, novelists have applied to the Civil War a technique that in battle and hospital scenes is designed to work not merely on the perceptive faculties but on the nerve ends of the reader. When this method is employed with readers who have themselves survived a war, there results about all the immediacy of which fiction is capable. There is aroused almost a sensory memory. A reader sees not “them” but “us” carrying through with that which began largely because everybody else began it and continued because everybody else kept at it, a great going-on of sweating, freezing, stinking, half-starved men consigned to an experience debasing and demoralizing, yet filled, in retrospection, with the diabolical glory and glamor that make its repetition apparently inevitable for generations to come.

Such an effect represents a final stage in that attempt to actualize the past which started with mere pictorial description and which began to take on immediacy only when such principal characters as Henry Esmond and Romola became perceptibly aware of the scenes in which they figured. Indeed this relative negating of remoteness and antiquity suggests not only what the novel can do but also what it cannot do to effect actuality—and what other and more important achievements it is capable of. So the conviction grows that the powers and the limitations of artistic narrative do indeed resemble those of memory. The fact is recognized in the comments on imagination by English critics from Bacon to Coleridge. Kipling called the creative faculty “that half-memory.” And such it is—half pure memory and the rest an adaptation of memory, whereby men and lands and cities we have never seen come to us with the vividness of actual recollection, and with a depth of proprietary understanding more potent than that of memory itself.

The major problem in our recent historical fiction, often noted by critics as more or less evident in the historical novel from its very beginning, is that of adjusting an interest in small private affairs to an interest in matters of national import. It reveals itself just now in the need that individual experience yield a social significance which is not labored and didactic or too opinionated. The fruit of an author’s mature deliberation upon facts and scholars’ commentaries, and possibly upon his own tranquilized recollections, must come to each reader as if it were his own discovery of truth, a discovery through the unconscious help of some perhaps callow, highly sentient, distressed, and distressing observer who sees relatively little of a great event and understands even less. No wonder that the captains and the kings quietly depart— into popular biography. They might have helped to explain things; but they would distinctly be a bother in this modern social novel of the past.

Possibly the first step toward this sort of novel is the recognition that it should be a big one if it is to treat a society of any complexity at all. It cannot well be one man’s story; it is at best the account of more than one group. The nineteenth century established the pattern for this variety of fiction, and “War and Peace” is, of course, the classic use of it in the historical novel of that period. It is a type that will not require too much of any one consciousness on which circumstances record themselves, for it permits the use of several observers in each book. Speeded to modern tempo, frankly sectioned, with sharp alternations of interest, the group novel is the preferred device of our fictionists who treat of contemporary society; and the monumental example of it in our day will doubtless be Jules Romains’s “Men of Good Will.”

One of the best approaches to this method among our recent historical novels appears in Clifford Dowdey’s “Bugles Blow No More.” Its characters are grouped on a social basis, sound and discernible enough, though not insisted upon; and the sectioning into episodes is equally significant. The book is built up about a meaning which is more than a single vague generalization concerning war.

A work which may prove to be a very noteworthy instance of what the full-bodied historical novel can be in the modern realistic mode is Harold Sinclair’s “American Years,” if promised subsequent volumes complete what the first begins. Though it has a definitely personal quality, it is not about persons but about the mid-West in its adolescence. It is a sequence of relatively brief anecdotes, stories, and specific instances, not many of which are tied closely into one another. Though one or two narratives take on some bulk, and Lincoln and his associates appear in the proper connection, the personal interest never competes with a larger one produced by the spectacle of midwestern America’s becoming itself from the first definite settlement until such things as a railroad problem and an active participation in national politics indicate relative communal maturity. In all this there is no taint of the frustrated novel, such as impairs the excellence of Rose Wilder Lane’s “Free Land” and always menaces chronicle fiction; there is rather the air of well controlled recollection at work to important ends.

Possibly by definition “American Years” is not a novel but a history done in the way of modern fiction; yet it reads like a novel, a truly historical one containing social ideas that are not hasty personal opinions, and that are felt by a reader rather than thought, though always capable of being phrased and thought.

This novel has also another value linking it to recent novels of the past that are not complete historical novels. It attends not merely to the vividness of personal experience but to what may be called its quality. Hence it is to be thought of in connection with highly actual but scarcely realistic novels that develop moods needing slight historical attachment, but that profit by their location in the past. Romance is one of these effects, but there are others more impressive. The books which produce them are alike in what their mastery of vividness accomplishes; the pictures they summon up are detailed and significant, but their emotive tone is more important than their meaning.

Andrew Lytle’s “Long Night,” for example, mingles folk realism and humor with tragedy and horrific fantasy in a high-powered blend suiting its region and its time, but it thins out in a disappointing way when it becomes part of a rather conventional treatment of the Civil War. Another instance appears as the best part of Hervey Allen’s “Action at Aquila,” in the charmed and ominous tranquillity of an isolated military camp in the Virginia mountains, a prelude to ferocious combat, which is excellently made to order and admittedly off the historical record, and which, with its prelude, is best felt as something that happened “once upon a time.” The sense of a completed action in a no-man’s region and a no-man’s time permeates MacKinlay Kantor’s “Arouse and Beware.” It is an essay in strongly charged non-realistic immediacy, a merging of hysteria and meditative retrospection, sometimes in a mannered way, sometimes with the very essence of nightmarish slow-motion, especially when perils are most urgent. Things past and things improbable fuse into high fantasy under such compulsion, and the Civil War is but a death and a madness that dogs two fleeing, soul-shaken men and a woman who belongs torment-ingly to both and to neither.

In fiction of this type style is important; it always is in non-realism, particularly in that dealing with the past. Indeed, non-realism tends straight toward poetry, as, for example, the Gothic prose romance culminated in romantic verse narrative. When Scott turned to the historical novel, he used prose, sensibly enough; but it is unfortunate that he did not go back to verse when he composed that romantic tragedy “The Bride of Lammermoor.” Such considerations are dangerous, perhaps, for the man who has begun his non-realistic narrative in prose; but they are not so dangerous as they were before the recognition of free verse and of an imagism that is primarily a kind of super-actuality. Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” indicated that even the historical novel can be done in modern verse. Step that verse down just a bit, print it solidly on the page, and you have prose poetry, with no apologies needed.

Novels of the past in the appropriate mode can profit from the use of prose poetry, and they have somewhat in recent years. There is Leonard Ehrlich’s “God’s Angry Man,” many parts of which might appropriately have been given the lineation of verse. It renders effectively the por-tentousness of John Brown, the febricity of his thoughts, the dour pioneering primitivity out of which he came. It is as literary, yet as unaffectedly grim, as a collection of old ballads about to become an epic. And in milder strain there is Mr. Peattie’s “A Prairie Grove,” where an echo of Whitman is beautifully audible. It is an affectionate and elegiac lingering over a thing that is gone, but that is still part of us Americans, a “wilderness” which, when the wind is right, is ours with “heartbreak and delight.”

It will not do to see in these books a presage of anything about to be in our fiction of the past; but they are impressive in the effectiveness with which they give us the quality of their material. Also, they call our attention to another stylistic feature in novels of their sort, one inherited from the regional novel; namely, the casting of the book into the idiom that suits it, the toning of the whole to the movement and the wording of American speech and the timbre of American voices. There is, for instance, a basic sameness with distinct regional differences in the general styles of “Honey in the Horn,” “Brazos,” “American Years,” and “Free Land.” An earlier and fuller attempt to make the most of such possibilities is, of course, Miss Roberts’s “The Great Meadow,” in which she turned from folk novel to novel of the past. Manifestly she wished to bring out the essentials of her material by giving it the value of matured legend, a story without the modern sharpness of detail, and with the tone and texture of a grand si re’s tale fallen into the hands of a literary person who has preserved its folkness and added Homeric simplicity. The book lapses now and then into such labored simpleness as “in summer the cloth making was of wool, making garments for winter wear . . . “; but it does set echoes going that give voice and animation to our racial and national memory.

Such an experience from the printed page is a perception of quality; and quality resides in the mass as well as in the man, in the historical movement as well as in the moment. Our recent novels of the past are more effective with the man and the moment; indeed, they are more effective with the latter than the former. They do not totally fail in larger values; but they do not incline toward the ample historical novel that will forever declare itself such by the evidence that its author has truly studied the past socially; nor do they incline at all toward what might be called the epical rather than the historical use of chosen individuals, either great men or simple and vastly representative souls. Perhaps these things will be done if our novelists are not growing weary of the backward look. It seems more probable, just now, that any further accomplishment of note will be in the treatment of that which a single volume of average size can detail fully according to the modern mode. Possibly the moments of the past that are treated will be neither spectacular nor crucial, but worth remembering with that mastery of experience and understanding and that penetration into the life of things which constitute the art of literary narrative.


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