Reflection XXX: In which characters behave inexplicably, and the reader and protagonist both contemplate suicide

I realized my last post didn’t really provide much context for the story.  I don’t want to get into the plot much, but I guess if any of this is going to make sense to you, I need to provide something.  So, the McLaughlins of the title are one of a confused network of Scottish families, all of whom are interrelated somehow—a society not unlike Wharton’s New York (in that one respect).  Their eldest son, Wully (whose true first name is either unknown or I missed it), is a soldier for the North who enlisted alongside his younger brother, and who watched that little brother die in battle.  Wully has often been injured or imprisoned–the details are always fuzzy.  A neighbor family, the McNairs, consists of a father (back in Scotland—and has been for years, despite the narrator giving only vague indications as to why), a mother (dies early in the book, having been preceded in death by most of her children), and three or four young ones, of whom the oldest, Chirstie, is perhaps 17 years of age.  Wully falls in love with Chirstie in a single conversation (which I related to you) before returning to the service for a few months more at the end of the war.

The portion I’ve read covers Wully’s return to find that—surprise, surprise—the girl with whom he exchanged almost no words (but lots of “fearless” kisses) behaves coldly to him.  Apparently while he’s spent months dreaming of marrying her, and has arrived home figuring they’re basically engaged, she’s not anxious to speed that along at all.  She, in fact, basically orders him out of her house, after his response to her coldness is to move towards her in pretty physically aggressive fashion.  A real model of chivalry, our Wully.  He cannot go on with life, and contemplates ending it all.  But, lucky him, at church one morning he catches her looking at him during prayer—which is, as anyone knows, an indication of unmistakable romantic interest.  So he sings the final Psalm loudly and happily, and then races to her house, only to discover her sitting on the porch in tears.  Wully is confused.  Poor Wully.

So, what has Wilson taught me about bad writing?  To begin with plot (since I’ve just related most of it, thus far), it’s clear that bad writing involves characters whose behavior is unjustifiable given the circumstances.  Every indication we have of Wully’s character suggests that he is the stable and rational child in the family.  I accept that “stable and rational” types can go overboard…but surely it would take more than a kiss standing by a well to do so?  I know, I know—a lot of movies and novels are built on the premise that every buttoned-down introvert is just a step away from behaving madly and wildly at the sight of a beautiful human being and the thought of romance.  But isn’t that more the way love feels than the way love truly is?  Wully just seems to be irrational when it serves the plot, and calm and composed when that’s convenient.  Bad writing.

And style-wise (don’t worry, I won’t include any excerpts this time, out of consideration for our digestive systems), bad novel writing seems to consist of disjointed moments.  Wilson doesn’t bother to set up emotional moments: she simply announces that they are happening.  Boring or mundane events are narrated in the same casual manner as critical and meaningful events, which leads to either apathy or a sense of frustrated anticipation.  Mostly, though, I am told over and over again “facts” that were blatantly obvious.  When someone sees the woman they are in love with, I hardly need to be told it is exciting for them.  If a mother sees that her son is ill, taking additional sentences to note that she’s concerned and hopes he will feel better soon seems pretty pointless—now, I can envision that a different author could use these sentences to reveal important things about their relationship, or the emotional state of the mother, or any of half-a-dozen other useful topics.  But Wilson seems frightened of writing a sentence with a comma in it, leaving me reading simple declarative sentences that would be useful if I was reading about the economy of Bolivia, but neither engage nor usefully inform me of anything.

Will Wully marry the woman of his dreams? (Uh, yes.)  Will Pa remember all the words to the Psalm after dinner? (Has he ever forgotten?  No.)  Will Chirstie’s father return from Scotland? (At a critical juncture that neatly wraps up the plot, almost as though he’s an actor waiting in the wings for his cue?  No, surely not!)  Reading this novel is like eating bacon that tastes like unseasoned green cabbage: it’s unexciting, it overwhelms me with an absence of taste, and despite its attempts to convince me otherwise, I’m pretty sure it isn’t good for me.  See you next time.

“You Americans are always looking for something outside you to warm you up, and it is no way to do. …”

“… In old countries, where not very much can happen to us, we know that,—and we learn to make the most of little things.”

In this quotation, Ernest, Claude’s German immigrant friend, is attempting to explain why he is very content to settle down and farm, marry a nice German woman, and forget about the world of ideas.  Claude, meanwhile, cannot understand why Ernest, his old study partner (who has learned Latin and read literature and is remarkably capable, academically), does not want to hear the marvelous tales of the European history class that Claude is taking at the State University (as a non-matriculated student—Claude’s still at the Bible college full-time, at this point) and various other intellectual concerns.

Cather is doing a very solid job of creating characters that are both appealing to read about and clearly imperfect.  I’m very sympathetic to Claude, but not because he’s a saint—rather, I think his interests overlap with mine a lot, and frankly some of his faults match mine pretty closely, as well.  Claude’s made friends in Lincoln, a German family (the Erlichs) of boys his age, ruled by the kindly and intelligent Widow Erlich, who frankly would probably marry Claude if she wasn’t two decades older than him (and she seems to harbor hopes, regardless). In Lincoln, this provincial farm-boy, Claude Wheeler, has a chance to become a man of letters and ideas, a man of the world—he researches the trial of Joan of Arc, he meets opera singers, he raises his consciousness about the sheer size and diversity of the world.

And then his father comes crashing in.  Mr. Wheeler is a good man in many ways—generous, good-humored, ambitious without being greedy—but as a father he is too blind to who his sons really are.  He’s acquired a cattle ranch for his younger son, Ralph, to go off and manage, having missed somehow that Ralph is interested in machinery and not livestock.  While he goes to help Ralph “get started”, it will be Claude’s task to leave college and run the family farm himself.  There is no disagreeing with a man as influential and successful as Claude’s father: what he wants to happen will happen, and Claude accepts his fate now with a grim determination to make a success of farm life.

It leaves me wondering, though.  My sympathies (being who I am) are naturally with Claude…I want him to go back and take another European history course, not scythe the dead cornstalks for fodder and plant the northeast acreage with winter wheat.  There’s an attitude in his rural American community (indeed, in Claude himself, if he pauses to examine it) that hard physical labor is more “honest” than the life of the academic mind.  But is it?  Would we still say so?  And while I sympathize with Claude, I return to that quotation from his German friend, Ernest—there is certainly something to be said for taking joy in the small things in life.  I have no idea what Cather’s position on all this is (and would be interested to hear from you all, if you have ideas to share!).

And I have to emphasize that Cather doesn’t deal in stereotypes—this is not an oversimplified family (in the style of, say, Booth Tarkington).  Mrs. Wheeler may be a “simple” woman in Claude’s eyes, with little interest in the larger world inhabited by women such as Mrs. Erlich, but Claude’s mother spends her Sunday afternoons reading literature like Paradise Lost, and then entering into a conversation (however brief and limited) with Claude about the nature of evil.  Mr. Wheeler may have spoiled Claude’s plans for the future, but then Claude has long made no secret of his disdain for his father’s methods: Mr. Wheeler, quite naturally, says to Claude that, as he’s always said he could make a better living out of this farm than his father has, it’s time to see what his new ideas can do.  There’s no sense here that Mr. Wheeler’s setting his son up for failure—to the contrary, he wants to see Claude succeed, to see Claude prove his mettle.  I share Claude’s sense of loss that he has had to turn away from college life, but it’s very hard to see Claude’s parents as anything but benevolent in attitude towards him.  I imagine the success or failure of the farm will have a large impact on the course of the plot, moving forward, and I can’t honestly say I know which outcome is preferable to me as a reader.

“Claude Wheeler opened his eyes before the sun was up and vigorously shook his younger brother, who lay in the other half of the same bed. …”

The opening line of One of Ours, a novel by Willa Cather, and the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, introduces us at once to the book’s central character, Claude.  There’s something refreshing about the shift in scenery and focus in this book.  Cather’s novel is set well out away from the captains of industry and complicated social networks I’ve been moving among for weeks now on this project.  Granted, the Wheelers are a wealthy family (by rural Nebraskan standards), but Claude’s still waking up his younger brother Ralph out of excitement that the circus is in town, and Claude will have to drive the wagon and mule team into town that day to sell some rank-smelling horsehide for his father.  This isn’t wealth in the way Mrs. Manson Mingott experienced it.

What I’m struck by so far is the inherent decency of the people in this society.  They have their flaws and faults, but generally they seem to be honest and straight-forward people with a sense of honor and ethics.  Claude, for example, has a bit of a temper and doesn’t get along with his older brother Bayliss, but when a rich friend of Claude’s mentions with pride that he’d struck Bayliss in the face for his rudeness, Claude insists on fighting his friend to defend the family honor.  When his friend refuses, Claude asks him to stop the car, because Claude will walk home rather than accept a ride from someone who’s struck his brother.  There’s a kind of nobility to Claude: he is a scholar (and befriended a young immigrant who has become his close friend and study partner) as much as any Nebraska farmboy circa 1915 had the opportunity to be a scholar.

I don’t want to dig into the details of the society too much yet, since I can’t tell what matters.  Claude’s father has a tendency to hire objectionable (and incompetent) hired hands, most of whom don’t seem to get along with Claude, but this fault is mitigated by the fact that Mr. Wheeler doesn’t need a successful farm to be rich.  He acquired so much land long ago, his rents will surely see him through any hard times.  Claude has some brief encounters with friends and acquaintances in town when he goes in to see the circus.  And there’s a long-standing disagreement over college: Claude feels he ought to go to the state college, but his mother insists on him attending a small religious college, out of her faith in ministers as conduits of truth.  I can say this, though: the characters seem real, they seem grounded in their environment, and I feel as though I can understand them and connect with them.

More will follow once more has been read, but the early signs are promising.  I hope Willa Cather proves worthier of her reputation than Tarkington did!

“The patient, an old-fashioned man, thought the nurse made a mistake in keeping both of the windows open, and her sprightly disregard of his protests added something to his hatred of her. …”

So begins Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1922.  Tarkington, as has already been mentioned, is one of only three authors to receive the Pulitzer for the Novel/Fiction on two occasions.  In my opinion, his first Pulitzer for The Magnificent Ambersons could hardly have been deserved–the book was thoroughly mediocre.  I wish I could say Alice Adams showed signs of marked improvement, but events so far are leaving me wary.

The unpleasant old man in that first sentence is Virgil Adams, who at the age of 55 has come down with some lingering malady that confines him to his bed under the care of a nurse (Miss Perry) whose attentions to him are accepted as gracelessly as he can manage.  His wife seems hopeless in her attempts to steer him back to health.  His son, Walter, is the walking definition of a ne’er-do-well.  And his daughter, Alice, possesses some disturbingly familiar traits–she talks condescendingly to essentially everyone in her life, particularly her mother, while feeling a sense of entitlement that doesn’t (as yet) seem warranted.  I know that, if I’m constantly looking for reminders of the Ambersons, I’ll spoil any chance I have of enjoying this book, but Alice’s resemblance to Georgie Minafer seems pretty evident at the moment.  I hope I’m reading her wrong, or that Tarkington has a lighter, more measured touch with this story that will avoid the problems I saw in his last book.  We’ll see.

I could go on–the weird casual racism is back (already, only a couple dozen pages in), and the dialogue is no better than I remembered.  But I really do want to withhold judgment for now, if I possibly can, and see if I can revive my opinion of Tarkington.  If not, I have a real conundrum to face down–how did the board that picked two clunkers by Booth Tarkington manage to put Wharton’s masterpiece in the same list between them?  What did they see in Tarkington at the beginning of the 1920s that is not evident to me now?  I’m not content to say that they were uncultured or unsophisticated simply because it was a long time ago.  There must be something they valued that I have difficulty seeing, but trying to see it is part of this whole journey I’m trying to take.  What can Tarkington, who I’m really learning to dislike, tell me about America, or at least American literature?