by James Boyd.New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1925. 12mo. vi+488 pp. $2.50
As an A.E.F. veteran, and thus familiar with ‘ the hot contagious breath of war,’as a North Carolinian country gentleman, James Boyd, in his first novel, Drums, may be said to have written with experience. As a student of history he has spent two years in re-creating the life of another century. If is this mellow blend of experience and knowledge which will distinguish Drums from the neglected shelffuls of historical romances.
Drums is distinctly a book of great breadth. If is a story, not of battles, but of a civilization during the years 1770-1781; it is an intimate picture of the life that nourished the causes and suffered the effects of the Revolution, and if that life is centrally confined to the Province of North Carolina there are yet varied excursions to sea, to England and France, no less active and observant.
Son of a Scotch squire and bred in the rugged back country of Albemarle County, Johnnie Fraser came down the Roanoke to Edenton, there to perfect himself as a young gentleman. As the Squire’s son he rode, supped, and studied his classics with gentlemen. The portentous polities he failed to comprehend: he was too young to feel the taxes, yet old enough to resent bitterly the mob’s attack on his Tory friends. He was disturbed but not fired by the drums that called to arms. At his father’s suggestion he embarked for England, there to become a merchant, perhaps a man of fashion. The cold, corrupt society of London brought him to his senses and a realization of the cause for which his Province was struggling. Opportunity opened. He fought under John Paul Jones, returned to the Province a crippled hero, and lost his arm for good serving with Daniel Morgan at Guilford Court House. At the end, as at the beginning, a reluctant spectator, he waited for victory and the hopeful coming of new life.
So large a canvas affords pleasant variety. The rugged simplicity of the back country, the easy gentility of Edenton, will delight the antiquarian. So will the London routs and the meeting with Charles Fox. The friendship of men and horses is told with the love of a sportsman. The victory of the Bon Homme Richard, the sailor brawls at Brest, the campaigns of the Carolina militia, written with gusto, will persuade any veteran of their reality. Indeed there is almost too much variety. Through the early chapters we are sensible of the growth, the stirring culmination of the Revolution, which recruits our enthusiasm despite all knowledge of schoolbooks. Then presto! we are lifted to London, the tumult dies in the distance, triumph and defeat are no more than echoes. Johnnie buys a lutestring suit and goes courting. This transition from the objective to the subjective emphasis is belittling and disappointing.
In its just treatment of the period, with its passions, its campaigns, and its notable characters, the book recalls another endearing romance, Hugh Wynne, by Dr. Weir Mitchell. In a smaller compass Dr. Mitchell has chosen to write a moving history and love story. Mr. Boyd has widened his circle at the expense of his characters. Sally is little more than a picture. There is no growth in Sir Nat and Cherry, and too often Johnnie himself is a thoughtless actor in stirring scenes. In Drums there is a ‘sweet humanity of the whole’ rather than of the part. But the action is supreme, and as a sincere study of our beginning civilization Drums is as valuable as it is picturesque.