American Novels

I HAVE not in a long time read so moving a novel as God’s Angry Man, by Leonard Ehrlich (Simon & Schuster, $2.50). In writing it the author, evidently inspired by a great subject, has achieved a quiet, homely eloquence very rare in contemporary fiction. One may suspect that the key was set by the spoken words and the letters of John Brown of Ossawatomie, who is the protagonist of the story, and colored by the Journals of Thoreau, who appears memorably though only for an instant. The men of the eighteen-forties and -fifties, fired by a great ideal, spoke an English of Biblical strength, homely as the soil, lofty as religious faith; and this is the style of the book throughout. And yet the author has employed all the devices of the new fiction and new biography, beginning with the ‘Pottawatomie Massacre,’ turning back to Brown’s earlier days in the Adirondacks and even further back to the life of his father, and yet never halting the grim forward march of Brown’s destiny, to its tragic climax at Harper’s Ferry; and as a kind of diapason there runs the theme of Brown’s religious fanaticism, expressed in passages from his letters, prayers, and speeches.
John Brown had eleven children, each concerned in some way in his desperate venture; and they are portrayed in all their variety and degrees of devotion or skepticism with admirable vividness; nor are the women neglected, or the members of the MassachusettsKansas Committee, or the many military and political personages whose lives in some way impinged upon Brown’s plot. But above all towers the impressive figure of John Brown himself, fearless, devoted, ignorant, foolish, inconsistent, heroic; willing to commit almost any crime or treason because he believed himself dedicated by God. Tragedy, in the old sense of profound significance and epic dignity, is so rare in our literature to-day that one welcomes a book which in both subject and telling really achieves a tragic effect.
Sinclair Lewis’s new novel, Ann Vickers (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), is the biography of a modern girl who became a Famous Woman. She was born in Illinois, the daughter of a professor, her mother dying when she was ten; she learned of life and love from one of the town boys, from a young teacher at college, from a Jewish recruit about to leave for the War, from a somewhat blatant social worker whom she married, finally from an Irish judge whose mistress she became, after he had been imprisoned for misappropriation of funds. This was her private life. Publicly she was successively a suffrage agitator, going to jail for her principles; headresident of a settlement house; secretary to a millionairess; warden of a women’s prison; recipient of honorary degrees; superintendent of an industrial home; and authority on vocational training. The list, although it indicates the richness of subject matter of the book, gives only a faint impression of her education and career. She also had two babies, out of wedlock, the first of which she disposed of by illegal operation; and, in addition to the men, she knew all sorts of women, from the abnormal Isabel Herringdean and the criminal Kittie Cognac to the ‘meagre and earnest’ Pearl McKaig and the robust and enlightened Dr. Malvina Wormser. Pages more crowded with modern lore would be hard to find, us would pages more full of the zest of living.
Amid such variety one may perhaps choose as the dominant theme the one I have named, zest of living. For Ann is never one to let ‘“I dare not" wait upon “ I would.’” As a younger girl she declares: ‘ I don’t want to be loved by any spaniels. I am me. I’ m going to see the world.’ And she remains true to both resolves. Her adventures at suffrage headquarters, at Copperhead Penitentiary, or among the æsthetes, intellectuals, uplifters, — all narrated with a fine gusto, - however disillusioning they may be, never kill her instinctive conviction that the best thing about life is the living of it. She represents women in general by her longing for love, a child, a home; she represents the women of the century by her espousal of causes, her social-mindedness, her quick action and grit. And in the course of her career she makes several major discoveries: such as that it is better to be alive than to be proper; that ‘sex is as normal as eating and digesting food ’; and that ‘ people actually are people,’ no matter what their social position.
The most successful portrayals in the book are perhaps the instinctive creatures, like Birdy, Tessie, Kittie, Miss Filson, and the aggressive, enlightened women, like Miss Bogardus and Dr. Wormser. The effect of reality would have been heightened if the author had restrained his tendency toward militancy and satire. His finest accomplishment is the building up, decade by decade, of the sense of social change. This is the sort of thing which, with his eye for significant detail, he has always done well. Under a style at times a little smart, one feels a dominant temper of honesty, testing all people, ideas, movements, by the touchstone of hatred of pretense.
R. M. GAY