Mitch Miller

by Edgar Lee Masters. New York. The Macmillan Co. 1920. 12mo, vi+262 pp. Illustrated. $3.50.
ANY book in which an adult author tries to paint life as a boy sees it is certain to be a subject of controversy, and Mr. Edgar Lee Masters’s Mitch Miller will be no exception.
The author assumes to tell, in the person of a twelve-year-old boy of the Middle West, the story of a year or two of the boy’s life and his chum’s, in a time fixed with more or less accuracy by a casual reference to the Cleveland-Harrison campaign. ‘Skeeters’ Kirby, who tells the story, is the son of the county attorney, and his chum, ‘Mitch’ Miller, is the son of a clergyman. Both live with their parents in Petersburg, a Sangamon River town in the Lincoln country. Mitch is an impressionable, imaginative boy; a dreamer, to whom Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are real characters, still living and still of his own age. Under the spell of Mark Twain’s genius the two boys dig for treasure, write Tom a letter, and even run away to visit him in Hannibal. They find the treasure, but lose a greater one, and Mitch is the chief witness at a mysterious murder trial, the disappointed and heartbroken lover of a girl sweetheart of his own age, and finally the victim of the mischievous habit of ‘flipping’ freight trains.

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It is plain from internal evidence, as well as from the epilogue, — in which the author speaks for a time in his own person, — that Mr. Masters is both earnest and sincere: that he has written what he regards as a tragedy of boy life; and there will be readers, and probably critics, who will agree with him; but the work will not bear analysis. The architecture of the tale is clumsy, if not impossible, and Mr. Masters has not made the most even of its possibilities. To speak truly in the words of a boy is to speak also with the mind of a boy, and that at once imposes limits other than those of language. There are passages in which Skeeters discusses or describes boyish matters, and they are mostly good, for the language fits the subject and gives an air of simplicity and naturalness to what he says; but there are other passages in which he describes, still in his boyish way, things that only men know and talk about, and those passages are almost invariably bad. There is also evident throughout the book a certain carelessness in the use of dialect, a lack of the sureness of touch that alone raises dialect into the realm of artistic truth. Moreover, the dialect as a whole is not the well-fitting garment that it should be, but only a loose cloak that confuses rather than confirms the outline of the boy who is speaking.
Skeeters, therefore, is not a character that lives and stands out, but only a dramatis persona — and that in the original, etymological sense of persona: a mask through which the actor, Mr. Masters, speaks.
Worst of all, the book leaves an impression of mental and moral squalor and vulgarity. The reader, even if he have warm friends in Spoon River, will lay it down with a feeling of disappointment and regret that the life of the Middle West, as represented in Petersburg, has not found a more sympathetic interpreter. E. W. F.