Some Political Novels
THERE are other reasons besides weakness of will which lead people to prefer novels to congressional documents or tables of statistics, even when both have reference to the same problems. Literature has this immense advantage over official reports: that it may take into account the forces which every one knows to be efficient, but cannot reduce to figures, and there is opportunity for such selection in art as shall give one swiftly the really vital points in a great political or social situation. There is no reason in the nature of things why a novel may not be a very truthful and very cogent political argument, since man is a political animal, and the novel excludes nothing which concerns the essential elements of human society. The novelist, too, ought to be more impartial than the political orator; it is his business to state things as they are, not to plead a cause ; he gives a microcosm, and gives it most perfectly when he maintains the proportions, on a smaller scale, of the larger world. Judge Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand commended itself by its freedom from partisanship; even in its recital of gross outrages, it was always ready with an explanation, which was not an exculpation, but a reference back to historic causes and transmitted character. A somewhat different account must be given of Bricks without Straw,1 where the author seems to us to have come down from the position which he had taken, and to enter the arena as a somewhat angry and impatient officer of justice. The title of the story intimates the moral. In his former novel he was intent on discovering the folly of the Northern gentleman who undertook his part of the work of reconstructing the South; in this he wishes to show the freedman bidden assert his freedom and citizenship, while yet the means of sustaining the new character is withdrawn from him. The negro’s sole ally, so to speak, is the Northern school-mistress, and the author has just missed a fine opportunity for dramatic success and poetic justice. Nimbus, with his honorable material ambition, and Eliab Hill, expressing the latent spiritual force of a delivered race, are both fine conceptions. If Molly Ainslie, the beautiful school-mistress, had been truthfully conceived and delineated in relation to these, there might have been an exceptionally dramatic and representative epitome of recent history. Unfortunately, Judge Tourgee felt it necessary to constitute himself a special champion of this girl, and to justify her to the Southern gentleman, instead of recording her truthfully and unaffectedly. Accordingly, besides the love passages between her and a lay figure of a young Southerner, he has given her special accomplishments to conciliate Southern tastes. He has seemed to say, See, here is a Northern girl who can ride a splendid horse; you must n’t think only Southern girls are brave and daring; and in an offhand way, that she may not be taken as an exceptional case, he remarks, “ Even in her New England home she had been passionately fond of a horse, and while at school had been carefully trained in horsemanship, being a prime favorite with the Old French riding-master who had charge of that branch of educatior in the seminary of her native town,” — in Berkshire, where every one knows, of course, that French émirgrés are attached in that capacity to most of the highschools. She is made to take a daring leadership of the blacks in an impending riot, and avert the consequences in a manner calculated to fire the susceptible young Southern heart; and she has a perilous ride on a fiery steed for more specific purpose of the same kind. Finally, she is gifted with a lordly pride, as a match for that of the mother of her lover, and the disdain of the Southern lady is answered by the haughtiness of the Northern. All this cheap melodramatic business makes the novel commonplace, and weakens one’s confidence in the political tract.
Nevertheless some of the scenes illustrative of the struggles of the freedman to make his tale of bricks are very effective. The acquisition of a name, the sanctification of marital relations, the effort for an education, the ill-starred assertion of manhood suffrage, these are described with much nervous and humorous power, which makes one regret that the author should have been, as he apparently was, more eager to make a campaign tract than a work of imagination and description, which should survive the presidential election of 1880. Indeed, there are glimpses of better thought. It is a pity that the author’s suggestive and forcible comparison of the Northern town with the Southern fiction of the same, given at the end of the book, should not have had an earlier and more component part in the story. He has left out of view, besides, what history demands as a completion of the picture, — the scenes of negro political ascendency, and the disgraceful alliance with the baser Northern element. In one of his books he complains that the North joined in the hue and cry after the “carpet-bagger;” but the North detested what was detestable, and applied that name not with the indiscriminateness which he charges upon the South. Upon the whole, one will find many admirable sketches of negro life in the book, some good portraitures of Southern blood, a few earnest protests against political folly, excellent suggestions as to radical causes, but no compact and well-studied statement, in fictitious form, of a great subject, and a specimen of novel - writing which is hardly worth serious attention. There are marks of hasty writing everywhere. The strong points of A Fool’s Errand are repeated here with weakened force ; the blemishes and structural short-comings of that book are made emphatic.
The value of A Year of Wreck2 as a contribution to our political history is perhaps not as great as it was to the characters who survived the experience, and lived, according to the postscript, to look back fourteen years afterward with the calmness of prosperity upon an apparently profitless investment. It is a narrative, told without much art, of a small party from the Northwest who were allured by visions of sudden wealth to a cotton plantation on the Mississippi in 1866. All possible misadventures and discouragements seem to have been compressed into that year. The people among whom they lived, the soil in which they planted, the water they drank, the air they breathed, all conspired to defeat their purpose. They were attacked by innumerable foes of nature, and the civilization in which they had encamped was hostile to them. The result is briefly summed up in arithmetical form in the preface : —
Promise ..... $108,000.00
Result ...... 6,564.27
Yet the strongest impression made upon the reader is that all these obstacles combined scarcely equaled the difficulties raised by the ignorance and folly of the persons who engaged in the venture. The author, who sometimes writes in the first person, sometimes in the third, apparently has little compunction in playing Dogberry to the public’s Conrade. The book contains, no doubt, a picture which is reflected in other men’s fortunes who undertook a like experiment, but it is hard to believe that many embarked in the enterprise of Southern colonization who were so utterly disqualified by former experience and training for the life they were to lead. The view of Southern anarchy here given is scarely more valuable as a historical contribution than the failure of these innocent cotton planters as a lesson upon the folly of expecting success without the use of the most ordinary means. The writer has not the skill to select from the multitudinous events of a disastrous year those which shall remain in the memory as typical and valuable, and yet has attempted to animate his narrative, so that we have a body of fragmentary incidents, with just enough attendant fiction to make us hesitate about accepting the whole as a veritable experience. Yet, after all, ungracious as it is, we are forced to think that the author could scarcely have told a story reflecting so hardly upon his wisdom, unless it had been substantially true.
The experience of these luckless cotton planters is of larger dimensions than that told by a young man and his wife in How I found it North and South.3 This can scarcely be called a political novel, but is conveniently classed with books that treat of personal experience in agriculture in the two sections. Here, the young farmer and his wife are not unused to the work. They make no sudden and rash change from city to country life, but return to farm-work in Massachusetts after a trial of city life. The larger part of the little book is taken up with the narrative of the young man, who relates in detail his experience in carrying on a milk farm, and then, discouraged at this, his attempt at winning a rapid fortune in a Florida orange grove. The latter part of the book is occupied by the wife’s account of their first trial of farm life immediately after marriage, and before their ten years in the city. It is an odd way to make a book, and we advise readers to get a clearer chronological view of this matter-of-fact couple by beginning with Mary’s Statement.
The low key in which the whole story is pitched renders it an eminently safe book for those who know of farming and orange groves only by hearsay, and fancy that the life in either way would have great charms. The story is so homely and plain that we easily believe it to be in accordance with fact. It would not be worth any one’s while to imagine anything so uneventful and dull as the life of these people. Yet the very simplicity of the narrative has a faint attraction for the reader. Occasionally a little show of humor relieves the pages, but the chief joy which the reader gets is in a contemplation of the patience and sincerity of the young farmer and his wife and children. Here is a life which thousands of families may be living today, — honest, toilsome, hard, and to the ordinary view unlovely and hopeless ; yet what a solid basis it offers for a nation’s prosperity ! The contrast between the river life as shown in A Year of Wreck, and of the Florida life as hinted at in this book, with the close, scraping existence on a New England farm is very striking and suggestive. Transplant the stocky virtues compelled to thrive in such barren soil into the luxuriant ground of more fertile regions, and what possibilities of national wellbeing are presented!