LAURENCE STERNE was an habitual and accomplished liar; one of his most brilliant and successful epigrammatic prevarications was the phrase, ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,’ which he stole from the French, but which is true neither in France nor in England. It is true only in popular, sentimental romances, where both the shorn lamb and the tender reader find the wind suited to their sensitiveness by a hotair specialist.
In Deep Channel—a sincere, artistic, and powerful novel — there are two shorn lambs who shiver in the wind — more unkind than winter — of village opinion. Whatever may be said for the advantages of the small town over the large city, and such sayings often have the flavor of the famous grape, there is no environment so cruelly hostile to eccentric or timid specimens of humanity as the isolated hamlet. Dorothy Canfield says you can learn more about human nature in a village than in a large centre of population. This, like everything she says, has much truth; but for one enlightened vivisect ionist like Dorothy Canfield there are forty persons who have the brutality that comes from lack of imagination. Dostoevsky, who wrote on small-town life in a manner that makes Main Street seem cheery, said, ‘Everybody in the provinces lives as though he were under a bell of glass. It is impossible for him to conceal anything whatever from his honorable fellow citizens. . . . The provincial, by his very nature, ought to be a very profound psychologist. That is why I am sometimes honestly amazed to meet in the provinces so few psychologists and so many imbeciles.'
Many are surprised that there is so much more tolerance of opinion in England than in America, and more in New York than in Podunk. But the reason is clear enough. Tolerance and individual liberty accompany a diffusion of intelligence and civilization. There is no tolerance whatever among small boys.
Miss Montague has described a woman and a man who, perhaps, never ought to have been born, but whose birth was only the beginning of their bad luck. Julie Rose is a creation, absolutely real, who suffers as the chronically timid always suffer in a harsh environment. The village types are clearly depicted; she is the only one who has ‘nerves,’ and is therefore incomprehensible to her vulpine neighbors, who, in place of sympathy and understanding, have simply predatory instincts. She is a doormat, cursed with self-consciousness, and feels acutely every hobnail. In a stout heart courage may rise with danger, but the morbidly fearful never become callous, never ‘get used to it,’ — it being life. They are like gun-shy dogs; the oftener you shoot, the worse they feel. Every fresh outrage is as devastating as though it were accompanied by the shock of surprise.
Julie is saved, not by any kindly, muscular champion, but by the appearance of a man equally shrinking and unassertive. United they stand, divided they fall. The union of these two will seem improbable only to those who regard them as contemptible nincompoops, to those whose minds are hermetically sealed in fat. In order to understand the desperate adventure of Julie and Bixby, one must remember that men and women who seem obsequious and self-obliterating are often boiling with suppressed rage. It is the Spiritual history of political revolutions.
To write a novel with such a hero and such a heroine required originality and unusual literary skill. The author of Deep Channel has both, and has succeeded in producing one of the best novels of the year.
WILLIAM LYON PHELPS.