Skip to main content

Past and Present

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

Storm against the Wind. By Helen Hull Jacobs. Doclcl, Mead and Company. $2.75. The Seas Stand Watch. By Helen Parker Mudgett. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.75. The Mocking Bird Is Singing. By K. Louise Mally. Henry Holt and Company. $2.75. Fire Bell in the Night. By Constance Robertson, Henry Holt and Company. $2.75. Treason. By Robert Gessner. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.75. Bedford Village. By Hervcy Allen. Farrar and Rinchart, $2.50. Strange Fruit. By Lillian Smith. Reynal and Hitchcock. $2.75.

The common reader long ago discovered that he felt less shame about wasting his time on a story if the story were based on fact. In the “Winter’s Tale” the country wench Mopsa may seem a trifle uncritical when she says, “I love a ballad in print, o’ life, for then we are sure they are true.” But she and her friend Dorcas are very sharp with Autolycus and very sure of their criterion of judgment when he offers them a ballad of a fish that appeared on the coast one Wednesday in April and sang a pitiful ballad against the hard hearts of maids. Is it true? they demand; and they will not allow their swain to buy it for them until Autolycus swears that he has “five justices’ hands at it, and witnesses more than my pack will hold.”

The spiritual descendants of Mopsa and Dorcas are so numerous that six of the seven novels of the American scene chosen for this review are historical fictions. And apparently the standard of judgment has not changed. Mrs. Robertson and Lieutenant (jg) Jacobs acknowledge in prefaces the aid of learned men and scholarly works; the publishers assure us that the background of Miss Mally’s story is “immensely true,” that Mr. Gessner began to study Benedict Arnold the week the Nazis rode into Paris, and that Mrs. Mudgett is a teacher of history. Only Mr. Allen’s knowledge of the past goes unpraised, and doubtless his publisher assumes that the public has already accepted Mr. Allen as a master of American colonial history, if not of a prose style. Now, as Mopsa and Dorcas would insist, it is necessary for the historical novelist to know history, but their criterion is too limited: they would disregard the fact that he must also be a novelist, that he must create convincing characters who engage in probable action. Five of the novelists here assembled fail as story tellers, and the sixth has only a limited success. Most of them have studied too much Americana and not enough Scott and Thackeray.

Scott could show them that a sense of the past is more important than an accurate knowledge of the past, and that an historical person introduced into a novel does not live again simply because he lived once. The Queen in “Kenil-worth,” for example, is not Elizabeth Tudor, 1533-1603; she is Scott’s Elizabeth, with fiction’s trick of convincing. This is so elementary a fact of fiction that one is amazed to find an historical novelist of 1944 content with a cardboard Patrick Henry, unaware, for all her sense of fact, that one of the primary facts about this excellent American is that he is dead. Perhaps because I am not an historian, I am easily persuaded that the novelists I must criticize have done everything except live in their periods—but unfortunately most of their characters do the same.

The historical novelist who attempts to compensate for second-rate storytelling by first-hand information produces a monster mistier than the fish of Autolycus’s pitiful ballad: it cannot be good fiction, for accurate stage setting and meticulous costuming will not make man and woman of Punch and Judy or give coherence to their actions; and it cannot be good history either, for history is always made by creatures of flesh and blood.

In “Storm against the Wind” Helen Hull Jacobs has written a story of the Revolution that follows the hero from the Tidewater to Kentucky. Doubtless every false entry in the ledger of Miss Florrie’s overseer has been well authenticated and the 12,000 acres of Colonel Braxton’s up-country tract have been properly surveyed. But the reader is disturbed by a growing conviction that the author learned of human nature from the movies and the art of dialogue from a teacher of elocution. Characters have been provided to represent all the important political opinions, and their conversations give one an unendurable sense of being educated, As for the pattern of emotion, the lovers move from formula to formula like two children, breathless with the joy of discovery. Lieutenant (jg) Jacobs is not the novel’s Wave of the future.

Helen Parker Mudgett, author of “The Seas Stand Watch,” writes well as long as she concerns herself with the story of New England shipping from the end of the Revolution to the close of the War of 1812. Her hero, John Noyes, is perfectly adequate as a sea captain engaged in the China trade. He is an excellent sailor and a smart trader,’ and the details of navigation and business make good reading. But John Noyes as a lover is another matter. He marries a French girl named Julia; and the theme of the novel, regrettably enough, is the struggle between the sea and Julia for the love of John Noyes.

In an effort to lend novelty to this formula, Mrs. Mudgett attempts to convince the reader that John consummates the marriage just twice in about thirty years. In the meantime, Mrs. Mudgett admits, John has some rather disturbing thoughts about sex, but he takes comfort in an emotional relationship with his ships. It is not until he reads in Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature” that sex is a good thing, and until he ponders this knowledge in the genial heat of a tropic sun, that Julia wins the battle with the sea. Mrs. Mudgett declares in a foreword, “John and Julia were real people,” but I shall never believe it.

“The Mocking Bird Is Singing” by E. Louise Mally is a better novel than “The Seas Stand Watch,” but it has the crowded emptiness of a story filled with characters and incidents, none of which is very significant. The background is adequate: New Orleans and the Texas frontier in the time of the Civil War and the unsettled years that followed it.

But the theme of the novel is Therese Beaumarc’s search for happiness, and although Miss Mally often writes with skill and understanding, the theme is not fully realized—the search never seems as important to the reader as it does to Therese. Jed Brownell gives Therese the mocking bird, and she chooses to have it learn the tune of La Donna Mobile. The song is not unfitting for the lady, but the gentlemen who engage her emotions are invariable. Her cousin Charles is charming by definition, her husband Keith McCloud is a Scot (he talks and trades that way), and Jed Brownell is a free-thinking Yankee. La Donna is only sufficiently mobile to make the gentlemen who surround her perfectly static.

“Fire Bell in the Night” opens briskly at Syracuse, New York, in 1850. A hot town meeting about Abolition is followed by a fine barroom brawl over the same subject. More skillfully than any other writer in this group, Constance Robertson conveys a sense of the place and the time. The Abolitionists are strong, their underground railroad is running escaped slaves through Syracuse, and the Democrats are determined to hunt down the operators and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Mrs. Robertson makes this conflict vivid and exciting.

But her three main characters, though admirably suited to hot arguments, smooth deceptions, midnight pursuits, and noble but brief internal conflicts over love and principle, are simply not adequate to the intense emotional drama which the author forces upon them. After giving her heroine the depth and subtlety of Marlene Dietrich (to whom I mean no offense, for I admire her very much), Mrs. Robertson tries to turn her into a tragic actress. On the author’s insistence, the reader finally takes the heroine seriously and decides that she is a pretty tiresome girl and that the situation in which she is involved is undeniably phony.

Like Mrs. Robertson, Robert Gessner can write a good action story, and in “Treason” this talent is well applied. He is not very skillful with character—the chief narrator and nominal hero of the novel, though convincing at first, is less and less so as the story proceeds—but he meets the particular problem of the historical novelist with minor but defi- j nite success: he brings imaginative understanding to bear on the facts of Benedict Arnold’s career. The Arnold who emerges is not a complex or compelling character, but his I decline from hero to traitor is a highly interesting story, and I Mr. Gessner makes shrewd use of its inherent dramatic irony.

The first part of the book is the best because it presents the fighting general on campaign. Seen through the eyes of his hero-worshipping aides, Arnold at Saratoga is magnificent. When he becomes military governor of Philadel-

phia, the movement slows and is almost obscured by detail. It is here that the motives for treachery develop, but Mr. Gessner is not at his best in exploring motive, and the story drags until Arnold is made commander at West Point. One is always less interested in the egocentric general, the creature of his own glory, than in the anticipated denouement. Rut one does continue to anticipate it, and that is the measure of the book.

In this group of historical novels Hervey Allen’s “Bedford Village” demands special attention because it is not a novel. It is Book II of Volume I of “The Disinherited,” a novel which in the fullness of time will comprise six books in two volumes. The reviewer can only comment on various aspects of the current installment.

Mr. Allen’s method of beginning is poised between the leisurely and the immobile. After opening with a clear bugle call on November 4, 1703, “Bedford Village” spends about one-third of its pages in description of place and characters. The reader learns, for example, of Salathiel Albine, the hero, who was raised by the Indians but has now returned to his white heritage. Struck with amazement and triumph that white men have created the luxury of Pendergasses’ tavern and that he is accepted as a white man, Salathiel reveals himself as an early American Tarzan of the Apes—”He felt an all but overpowering impulse to give the triumphant scalp helloo of the returning successful warrior. The impulse rose in his chest like a solid thing trying to escape through his mouth.”

Mr. Allen’s prose style has a daft air of precision that comes from his occasionally placing quotation marks around a word that does not need them. And sometimes he turns a memorable phrase: “There his horse died of sheer inability further to continue in a state of equanimity.” Although no important action can be concluded in this second book of the hexateuch, a number of things happen, such as a brawl at the tavern and a fight with the Indians. Nothing, however, lays any permanent hold on the reader’s fancy until Salathiel meets Frances O’Toole and Frances tells him the story of her life. It is patently picaresque and possibly in stage Irish, but it is nevertheless the most interesting narrative in “Bedford Village.”

For the reader who wearies of the past and wishes to avoid the lengthening shadow that “The Disinherited” casts on the future, the only escape to the present that this review can offer is by way of Lillian Smith’s “Strange Fruit,” which at last report was being read and discussed by some 200,000 Americans, “Strange Fruit” is a controversial novel, and it may be reviewed in several fashions. The standard New York review has doubtless already appeared. The writer is made uneasy by a book like “Mr. George’s Joint,” which presents Negroes simply as human beings; but his critical consciousness is equipped with a slot marked “South” into which “Strange Fruit” fits as neatly as a nickel in a subway turnstile, and it rings the same kind of bell. “Tender . . . daring . . .,” he writes, “. . . pity . . . terror . . . man’s inhumanity to man.” But this, after all. is not a criticism; it is merely a conditioned reflex.

Another review might be written in terms of sales appeal: ‘Using the themes of miscegenation and lynching in the deep South, Miss Smith has created a highly flavored story. It is naturally selling very well because it allows readers to indulge their itch for sensation and to justify it somehow by their high-minded indignation over the conditions that the book describes.” This review would make more sense than the first but it would be unfair to Miss Smith, for her aim is not cheap and her manner is not shoddy.

A third review, indeed, might treat “Strange Fruit” as a serious work of art. It would praise the brilliant actuality of Miss Smith’s little Southern town, the tightness of her dialogue, the richness and clarity of some of her characters. But this judgment would not apply to the whole book. As the story proceeds, the characters, at first so sharply real, blur into symbols of antipathy, and the convincing pattern of action fades into’brutal melodrama. This collapse is inevitable because Miss Smith’s purpose is not to present the tragic effect of racial prejudice on individual lives, but to shock the people of the United States into action that will benefit the Negro. The propagandist who turns to fiction always narrows and solidifies the flow of experience until it loses human shape and becomes a sword to strike with.

The practical effect of Miss Smith’s propaganda would be easy to predict, but I am concerned with the literary qualities of her book. It is not a good novel. It fails in the same way as do almost all of the historical fictions already considered. Human beings are not simple enough to be wholly contained within a social or fictional formula, and human beings are the business of the novelist.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading