The Time of Man

by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: The Viking Press. 1926. 12mo. viii+382 pp. $2.50.
MISS ROBERTS is already known to Atlantic readers for her poems of childhood. Now, in her first novel, she joins the company of artists who, disregarding structure and convention, are attempting ruthlessly to dig their way down to the heart of American life. Her characters are ‘poor whites’ of Kentucky, and her method includes impressionism and psychoanalysis. The heroine, Ellen Chesser, may, to some readers, suggest My Antonia, but she does not reach Ántonia’s stature.
It is interesting to see material rather of the Sherwood Anderson type treated with a degree of subjectiveness much more suggestive of Dorothy Richardson. The difficulty of the combination must be at Once apparent. However worthy of analysis primitive souls may be, it is hard for any creature so sophisticated as an author to identify himself with the primitive point of view.
There is no plot. We meet Ellen in adolescence, watch her in marriage and childbearing, go through the crisis of her husband’s unfaithfulness and cruelty, and at the end of the book, after Jasper has been driven away from his home falsely accused of barn-burning, she, with her children, is again on the road, as she was, with her parents, at the beginning. Chronology is disregarded on occasion. Events marking milestones are passed over in a phrase, while a bit of dialogue, the suggestion of an emotion, may be elaborated for pages. Sometimes incidents are selected, one after another, to illustrate an idea; sometimes we merely follow, in more or less Freudian style, the fantastic trend of Ellen’s mind.
What Miss Roberts has that is wholly lacking in Dorothy Richardson is an overwhelming interest in nature. Her people cannot be dissociated from their background. Some readers may find this phase rather too lengthily developed; but it can perhaps be truly appreciated, surely it can be judged, only by one who knows the life described.
The influence of the movies on contemporary literature will some day be the subject of profound and curious study. This least sophisticated of art forms seems somehow to have combined with our passion for psychology to modify profoundly the technique of our most ’advanced’ fiction. Whether direct or indirect, the effect of the cinema is as evident in Miss Roberts’s swiftly shifting pictures as it is in James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
But it would be unfair to treat The Time of Man as if it were wholly an exercise in technique. I he book has poetic sensitiveness and keen human observation. There is some extraordinarily vivid dialogue, which never sacrifices truth to interest, yet which is absorbingly interesting because, being true to primitive humanity, it sheds light also on humanity at large. And certainly such episodes as Jonas Prather’s confession of sin — his horror over the hideous resemblance between his mother and the prostitute’s child — are done with power and with something of the restraint of genre painting. Some of the episodes are sordid, many readers will feel, even gross. There may be sources of strength and of spiritual energy in the’ Southern hills that the author has missed. For one thing the general absence of religion is notable. But it is evident that Miss Roberts has made a sincere effort to report accurately and fearlessly what she has seen and felt.