On Plymouth Plantation (Bradford)
Though the USA has since been shaped by the practice of slavery, industrialization, and immigration, one continues to look to Bradford for an account of an American essence, and he delivers. The middle class origin of the first settlers is quite explicit, and Bradford documents the persecution they encountered as Dissenters in England as well as their difficulties in the Netherlands before they took the daring leap across the ocean. On the scene during the beginning of the colony he names in his title, he details (often in self-justification) the settlers’ contractual obligations to investors and their protection of their own interests, including once boarding a ship that had come to trade without permission, a raid that resulted in death. The collectivist will read with sorrow of the colony’s beginning in communalism only to fall back after a few years to private ownership of land. Here, too, one can read a contemporary account of Roger Williams’ break – Bradford calls him a devout and righteous man, but woefully misguided. He has no such sympathy for Thomas Morton, whose followers erected the famous maypole at Merrymount about which Hawthorne wrote. Morton himself had said that he found the natives (or, as he said, “Infidels”) “most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other [i.e. the Christian Englishmen]. “ One can imagine an entire alternative America. Though the economic plays a large role in his values, Bradford was sincere in his religious beliefs and, in fact, as he wrote toward the end of his life, he lamented the falling off in fervor that had occurred since the rough early days. The book has a consistent value that accumulates from the mass of detail Bradford records. His prejudices and self-interest only enrich the account further.
The Talisman (Scott)
To read Scott with pleasure one must understand the value of convention. The reader whose gorge rises at phrases like “trusty steed” and “valiant knight” will put the book down after a single page. To me these predictable patterns approach the depth of myth. There are reasons that the popular is popular but it is only rarely that a purveyor of best-sellers will be as talented as Scott. The historian of orientalism will find the tale slim pickings. Saladin and his court exactly mirror their European opponents in civilization and in heart. In fact the antagonists could be anywhere at any time. Far from diminishing the story’s cultural nationalism, this strengthens it with the assumption that all people must share the same values. The story reassures its audience of their culture in a way largely dependent on pure abstract structure that (as is generally true of taboo). The rules could be of any sort. What matters is who practices them. For the reader who shares with Scott an admiration of love and honor the story retains its power.
Point of No Return (Marquand)
Having read The Late George Apley as a teenager (when I believe Marquand’s literary standing was higher), I was curious to read this when I came upon it in a Salvation Army store. Point of No Return is (like the earlier novel) intently concerned with class. Marquand’s own family, though possessing the finest of American pedigrees, had fallen on relatively hard times, and he attended Harvard as a scholarship student in an era when that school was even more thoroughly than today the all-but-exclusive reserve of the ruling class. Perhaps one reason for Marquand’s decline is that the Eastern WASP establishment is no longer clearly in control.
However that may be, this book is concerned with the relation between what it calls the upper-upper class and the upper middle class which characterizes the hero, Charley Gray. I was pleased at least that Marquand did not make his hero a sensitive and rebellious player, but rather that far more common type, a striver seeking to rise a rung or two on the socio-economic ladder. My own background in a family occupying a lower stratum in a very affluent suburb fed at times my interest, but, for better or worse, I rejected money and consumerism very early while Charley feels only a slight ambivalence. In the end, when he thinks he has hit a reverse in his career, he feels suddenly liberated, only to fall back into line when he finds he had been mistaken. The American idolatry of status and money certainly persists, though much in this 1949 novel is dated. The bankers here spend their time not trying to generate profit from hedge funds and minute price fluctuations, but instead coddling wealthy and aged clients. They also wear “boiled shirts,” though surely these were almost obsolete, worn only by the most conservative of businessmen.
Apart from jumbling the chronology, the narrative is straightforward. The characters are well-drawn but shallow. Perhaps Marquand would have contributed as much to American literature if he had continued to produce genre books like his popular Mr. Moto mystery series.