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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 230

Twain’s joyous Life on the Mississippi. If happiness or gaiety ever lighted up Fairview and Twin Mounds Howe’s story does not tell it. There is something symbolic about the figure of the narrator’s father, the Rev. John Westlock, who outwardly practises the most ferocious Calvinism and yet is daily haunted by gorgeous processions of sin sweeping before his eyes, until he runs off with a vulgar woman to an existence more miserable than the first. Symbolic, too, is Lytle Biggs, who serves as impudent chorus with a cynicism that plays over the face of the story, cheapening and corroding all it touches. Howe wrote about Twin Mounds as Crabbe wrote about the English village—determined, it seems, to paint it “As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not”: a neighborhood as barren of beauty and elevation as of lakes and mountains; dogmatic without being religious, ambitious enough without having any intelligent aims, industrious but futile. A Parisian never wrote more contemptuously of provincial life. And yet beneath this cold exterior, which will not let the narrative or the dialogue be flexible for one moment, lurks authentic power. No shallow mind could have conceived the blind, black, impossible passion of Joe Erring, who loves like a backwoods Othello; no tepid mind could have conducted such a passion through its catastrophe to the purgation and tranquillity which succeed. That Howe, though he wrote another novel or two, ended his career as a novelist almost where he began it, meant a grave loss to American fiction. He made himself a successful country journalist, a wise and ineffably disillusioned country sage; but the energy of his imagination sought other channels than the novel.



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