The Son of a Prophet

THE history that crystallizes itself in great events or great personages is mostly made in secret. Only a small proportion of it, and that the least vital, ever comes to the surface in the chronicles. Hence it is that the periods of history have always been so potent to set the busy imagination of the romancer at work speculating on those hidden forces and vitalities which, if their visible results are so great, must themselves be of as much deeper significance as life is deeper than show or speech.

The author of The Son of a Prophet,1 while frankly avowing a purpose of this kind, has made a variation from the ordinary theme of the historical novelist which is worthy of special note. Instead of tracing the story of some renowned hero or of some important social and political period, he has undertaken to search out and reconstruct the history, with its influences, individual and national, mental and spiritual, that must have preceded the creation of a great work of literature. At the same time, the work which he has thus attempted to account for is a work that, in its wealth of world significance, is worthy of the romancer’s best efforts, being that " noble book, all men’s book,” the book of Job.

“ Books,” says Milton, “ are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” True as this is of books in general, any one who has become deeply familiar with the record of the patriarch of Uz must see that this truth as applied to the book of Job is of well-nigh inexhaustible significance. By the law that involution must be equal to evolution, a book so vital as this has proved to be, so profoundly true to nature, human and divine, must have behind it and underneath it one of the greatest personalities of the ages, — whether of patriarch himself or of author it matters little. Certainly the book stands for great “ searchings of heart ” on the part of some transcendent soul; it could never have spun itself out of an idle brain and an empty heart, or flowed off in a drop of ink as the tour deforce of a glib writer. “ Behold the man who was in hell,” people used to say of Dante. It was the piercing heart-life that vitalized his poem, not the mere genius, that extorted the remark. In such life as this the book of Job falls no whit below Dante; while in its sanity of spiritual insight, and in its truth to the heart of ancient and modern, of unlettered and scholastic alike, it stands far above the work of the Florentine. Nor is it in spiritual wealth alone that the book of Job repays investigation. Its author, whoever he was, must have had more than common endowments of mind and learning; he would have been recognized as a scholar in any age or country. The book is packed full of the fruits of wide travel, keen observation, sound and judicious thought. To account for these in some reasonable way is of necessity to become acquainted with a personage rich in the spiritual and intellectual heritage of a long life, and with an age and land full of vital forces and traditions.

Where so many threads of experience, contact with the world, suffering, and meditation unite in a great work of literature, the problem of tracing them back to their beginnings is confessedly no easy one ; and yet the solution, when it comes, will be found to lie much nearer our common life than we are apt to think ; so near, indeed, that the interpreter’s chief success will be not to have stumbled over it and been broken in the reach after something more extraordinary. To seek it in psychology or dogma is to lead the reader into deeps that only the learned can explore; to interrogate merely the environment of art and thinking, custom and ceremonial, that surrounds the personages of a remote and alien age is to seek an interest that, for any but the antiquarian, can result at best only in galvanism rather than in life. After all, our hope is in the “ russet-coated epic,” which can deal not only with deep things, but with neighborhood and domestic affairs, with the small matters of village and market and hearth. The historical novel exists, indeed, in order to translate what is ancient and strange into the dialect of every day, the dialect in which men traffic and jest, and give expression to what Beethoven would call their unbuttoned moods. And it is no small thing to say of Mr. Jackson’s book that it reads, as we say of good translations, not like a derived, but like an original work. The story in which he has embodied his study of David’s and Solomon’s time does much, alike in plot, incidents, and characters, to lend the interest of to-day to lives of long ago.

To take the word that comes most naturally to mind as we finish reading the book, and say that the author has done his work in an eminently workmanlike manner, is to leave so little said as to be misleading. The book is workmanlike, careful, true to historical fact and spirit; but it is more. If the story-taster who would be scared away by such a description will stay a moment, he will find it by no means lacking in the qualities that he desiderates in a story. It is a real story, and it is alive. The movement, it is true, is not rapid, not flippant and electrical; its deep and solemn theme would make such quality out of place. But neither does it halt, nor wait for antiquarian research and sermonizing : and this is a great thing to be assured of when we consider the peculiar nature of the undertaking. A well-studied plot, of deep and searching interest, rich not merely in thought, but in thought-provoking incident, with characters so real and individualized that we follow their fortunes, tragic or tranquil, with an absorption that we hardly realize until the last page is reached ; and then, thinking back, we find that we have been looking with realistic eyes at a bit of the actual life of long ago, of that best life such as attended the genesis of great thoughts. There is tragedy here ; there must have been in the life of that great man, whoever he was, that wrote the book of Job; but it is relieved by many a pleasant domestic scene, and by intervals where time and nature come in to medicine sorely tried souls. And not heroes alone, nor heroes only in their heroic moments, but womanhood and childhood, as well as every-day moods and life, do their part in making up the fabric of the story. Nor is the story wholly lacking in touches of gentle humor ; such playful amenities as make us realize that the men whom we associate with the strenuous life of great affairs could also be genial and pleasant, and yet not be trivial or make a burlesque of history.

On the whole, then, we lay the book down with a deep respect not only for the historic imagination which has so successfully lived itself into a long-past age, but also, and not less, for the narrator’s art which has embodied the results of its study into a whole so satisfying and consistent. It is a helpful book to those who love what is great and solemn and serious in life.

As we study the great literary works of the past, we easily get fallacious ideas of what we really want to learn concerning them. We attach great importance to an authorship or a date, as if everything were settled by pinning these down to stern exactness. But names and figures, after all, are barren things. It really makes no difference whether the man who wrote the book of Job was named Eleazar or Heman or Jeremiah; whether he wrote in the year 700 or 813 or 622 before Christ. What we really desire to know is something very different. The book before us is wise and able, it seems to us, in adhering to what is of true and universal interest. It does not attempt to settle date or authorship ; it has larger work than this in hand. A date must needs be assumed, of course, or rather a milieu, for the germination of the book; but whether we would put it so early as our author does or not, we at least can agree with and profit by the general portrayal of influences here presented. The question is not of facts, but of spiritual principles and potencies. So far all will agree : that Job is a product, and the ripest product, of the Wisdom literature,— that literature which, in its beginnings, we identify with the reign of Solomon ; and if we can see the spirit of Hebrew Wisdom rising and coming to expression, if we can get our imagination into the current of that important era of thought, as this story helps us do, it makes little difference whether we put its greatest monument one or two reigns earlier or later. The story affords its help just the same, and this is its service, — a service which is thoroughly, learnedly, and attractively done.

  1. The Son of a Prophet. By GEORGE ANSON JACKSON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.