“That’s my middle-west”: Nick Carraway’s Christmas Memories

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One of my all time favorite passages from The Great Gatsby concerns Christmas and the Midwest. The passage comes towards the end of the novel as Nick Carraway is describing the aftermath of Gatsby’s murder and preparing to leave New York. There’s something about this passage that captures that exhilaration of returning home for the holidays: the crisp winter air, the bustling pace of travel, the hurry through train stations or airports to family and friends at the journey’s end.

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Fitzgerald is, understandably, often thought of in connection with the eastern United States. His long association with New York City and surrounding areas, his years at Princeton, and the settings of many of his novels and stories reflect his time in New York and New Jersey. He is also, through his own life and the lives of his characters, associated with Europe, Hollywood, Baltimore, and various parts of the American south—his wife Zelda was an Alabama native. But Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was at his family home in St. Paul that Fitzgerald composed the novel that propelled him into the spotlight: This Side of Paradise (1920). The Midwest figures in an important symbolic sense in The Great Gatsby as a land of enduring promise, the “dark fields of the republic” that extend the promise of the new green world beheld by the Dutch sailors on the eastern Atlantic coast in the novel’s famous conclusion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

The Christmas passage appears after Carraway describes the pathetic visit of Gatsby’s father and Gatsby’s funeral. Shortly after his reminiscence of returning home for Christmas, Carraway describes his breakup with Jordan Baker. As many have noted before, the passage of time and the knowledge that comes with it are central to the novel. The book is rich in physical description, and the seasons are important. Much of the novel occurs during the course of a summer, but it is in the autumn that Gatsby is killed, and the world he created on his estate, which had already begun to collapse in late summer, is gone for good. Carraway and Gatsby’s father rummaging through the house’s empty rooms underscores the theme of death and decay.

This passage about travel at Christmas time took on renewed force for me recently as I  perused a cultural history of A Christmas Carol titled The Lives & Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by a scholar named Paul Davis. At one point Davis mentions an essay Dickens wrote entitled “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older.” According to Davis’ paraphrase of part of Dickens’ essay, “To the child Christmas is immediate and complete, and for the youthful lover it is entwined with visions and hopes for the future. But for the adult at midlife, it becomes a time to remember the dead.”

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Carraway’s Christmas memories are from his own time of “the youthful lover,” which echoes the broader story here of the two youthful lovers reunited years later: Daisy and Gatsby. But Nick is transitioning towards a midlife stage, if not within the chronological parameters which define midlife today, then at least in the sense of growing into wisdom and being tempered by life’s passages. He is remembering his college days–the days before his service in World War One, which themselves carry the symbolic weight of an earlier America that will vanish forever with war, Prohibition, and Jazz Age excess–and his witnessing of the sad series of events linking his own life with that of Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Gatsby, and George and Myrtle Wilson.

When Carraway parts with Jordan, he tells her, after she mentions the accident that killed Buchanan’s mistress, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” This isn’t the first time in the novel Carraway mentions turning thirty, which is significant to him. He knows that time is passing. The novel’s events have impressed upon him the ugly turns life can take, and how dreams can die hard. Dickens writes that on Christmas, for the adult at midlife, “Of all the days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City of the Dead on Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us.”

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

In the midst of autumn, as he prepares to return to the Midwest, Carraway calls to mind Christmas past—the time when the world seemed full of promise. Now he will return to the region of his youth, carrying with him the memories of those he knew who bore that promise as well. It seems certain that Christmas times of years to come will evoke the dead, among them Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson, as well as the dreams that have died.

The east itself has become a City of the Dead for Nick Carraway. He describes a dream shortly after his Christmas passage that symbolizes the loss and corruption of the world he has inhabited, associated for him with the eastern United States, but representing more broadly those forces in life that strangle dreams and defeat aspirations. He dreams of a group of men carrying a drunken woman’s body on a stretcher. The men are in evening dress, as they might have been at one of Gatsby’s parties. The woman’s hand dangles over the side of the stretcher. The hand “sparkles cold with jewels.” They walk up to a house and knock on a door, but it is not the woman’s house: “Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.” This is a world where any sense of human community is missing. There is no home for anyone. The implication seems to be that the men will carry the woman in vain for years, knocking at each door only to be turned away.

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the end of his Christmas reflection, Carraway says “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” This is essentially a roll call of the dead—Gatsby literally so, but the others, with the exception of Nick, spiritually dead, blighted by the world in which they live and the choices they have made. But I find myself wondering what lessons might be in store for Nick Carraway. He is a fictional character, but when a great book like Gatsby gets into our blood and bones we find these people about as alive as any standing next to us in the grocery store check-out line. Carraway is often held up as a classic example of the unreliable narrator, and I find myself wondering if his deepest lessons are yet to come–that this is only the beginning of his wisdom. Gatsby’s corruption began years ago, deep in Carraway’s beloved middle west along the shores of Lake Superior as Gatsby drifted from one woman and one job to another. When Gatsby rows out to Dan Cody’s yacht, he begins his journey on the route that will take him to his lonely death in a swimming pool far from midwestern waters.

Scott Fitzgerald

Scott Fitzgerald

Here is the passage from The Great Gatsby:

“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Hersheys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.”

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Great Gatsby (The Authorized Text). With notes and preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Scribner Paperback Edition, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1925, 1995.

The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1990.

Published A Century Ago: Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo and Other Poems.”

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It was 100 years ago that Midwestern poet Vachel Lindsay achieved prominence with his collection The Congo and Other Poems. Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879, had published a volume in 1913 called General William Booth Enters Into Heaven and Other Poems that garnered attention along with his dramatic public recitations. The Congo and Other Poems, with an introduction by poet and editor Harriet Monroe, sealed his reputation. That reputation would last only into the early 1920s, and by 1931 Lindsay was dead, a suicide who drank a bottle of Lysol after years of depression, poor health, financial problems, and a diminished status in the literary world of his time.

Lindsay grew up in Springfield. He briefly attended Hiram College in Ohio, than left for Chicago to study art. He later wandered the country, traveling by foot, on one journey walking from Florida to Kentucky. On one of the last of these trips he carried with him copies of a pamphlet of poems entitled Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread. Lindsay was deeply idealistic. He hoped to share with others along the way his vision of democracy, art, and the potential for America’s greatness as a civilization. It didn’t always work out so well, but I find something deeply touching in the image of this young man wandering the country and sharing his work and vision with others. He had great hopes for his country and for his native Midwestern region. He “put it out there” as we say today, and didn’t hold back from fear of rejection. He might have struck others as a starry-eyed dreamer, but Vachel Lindsay had guts.

It was during this time too that Lindsay developed a reputation as a lecturer and a reader of his own poetry on the college and lecture circuits. This public presence supported his publishing efforts.

Vachel Lindsay (image courtesy of The Vachel Pages).

Vachel Lindsay (image courtesy of The Vachel Pages).

The Congo and Other Poems is divided into five sections. I have the 1992 Dover Thrift edition, which is essentially a reprint of MacMillan’s 1915 reprint of the book only without the Harriet Monroe introduction. There are some slight changes in titling of the sections in my edition, but there is little difference between the edition I have—which is a common one—and the 1915 reprint.

Early edition of "The Congo and Other Poems" (image courtesy of Open Library).

Early edition of “The Congo and Other Poems” (image courtesy of Open Library).

The first section of the book is “Poems Intended to Be Read Aloud, or Chanted.” This section includes Lindsay’s famous and popular recitation piece “The Congo.” The poem certainly has a paternalistic racism, but is also an important example of Lindsay’s performance pieces. There are stage directions of a sort printed in the margins on the right suggesting how portions of the poem should be declaimed. Two of Lindsay’s other popular works in this vein—“The Santa Fe Trail (A Humoresque)” and “The Firemen’s Ball”—are included in the first section.

Lindsay in declamatory pose.

Lindsay in declamatory pose.

The second section is “Incense” and includes many poems on Biblical or spiritual themes, such as “The Alchemist’s Petition,” “Two Easter Stanzas,” and “The Soul of the City Receives The Gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Lindsay was also an artist. Here's an example of his style.

Lindsay was also an artist. Here’s an example of his style. (Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency).

The third section has an entirely different feel and is broken into two parts. The first part is “A Miscellany Called ‘The Christmas Tree.’ ” This section contains a mix of poems with subjects ranging from fairies and Cinderella to tributes to silent motion picture stars Blanche Sweet and Mary Pickford. The second part is “Rhymes For Gloriana.” It has only four poems. The first is about the memory of a doll that was taken down from a Christmas tree and provided comfort during a spell of childhood sickness. The remaining three poems are praises of a girl named Gloriana.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

The title of the fourth section pretty much says it all: “Twenty Poems In Which The Moon is the Principal Figure of Speech.” This section is also divided into two parts. The first is “Moon Poems For The Children,” and it includes the famous poem “The Moon’s The North Wind’s Cookie (What the Little Girl Said).” The second half is “The Moon Is a Mirror,” and once again various figures comment on the moon, or the moon plays a role in the poem in one fashion or another.

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet

The fifth and final section brings the collection to an end on a serious note. The section is “War. September 1, 1914: Intended to Be Read Aloud.” There are seven poems here, the first of which is one of Lindsay’s most famous: “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight.” In this poem, Lincoln, “the prairie-lawyer, master of us all,” is stirred from his tomb and walks anxiously about the earth as a new cataclysm engulfs the world. The great leader cannot rest, Lindsay tells us, until true democracy is established in Europe and the days of kings are at an end. All the poems concern war and bloodshed. Even the last poem, “Epilogue: Under The Blessing of Your Psyche Wings,” which concerns the persona taking comfort in some kind of spiritual female presence, includes the lines “Under the blessing of your Psyche-wings/I hide tonight like one small broken bird,/So soothed I half-forget the world gone mad:–/And all the winds of war are now unheard.”

World War I

For a period of time in America, Lindsay was enormously popular. His appearance in a city could draw front page notice and huge crowds. But his time was short, and as I noted earlier, by the 1920s he was passé, and poetry was moving in directions far removed from his own.

His world of prairie populism, fairy visions, exotic and Biblical landscapes and figures, combined with excursions into American folklore and political issues of the time may certainly seem a strange mix to a modern reader. But he has his own rewards for those willing to explore an earlier world of American poetry during the first heady days of Modernism. The Congo and Other Poems certainly provides an interesting overview of Lindsay’s poetic landscape.

Patrick Kerin

Source:

The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, edited by Shane Weller. Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1992.

“The Prairie-Lawyer, Master of Us All”: Vachel Lindsay’s “When Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight”

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One of the better known poems from Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo and Other Poems is his poem about the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln amidst the onset of World War One in Europe. The poem is entitled “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight.” Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879 and a popular poet of the early twentieth century, had, like other Midwestern writers of the time, a strong interest in Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln spent many years in Springfield. It was the last place where he resided before entering the White House.

World War One, or The Great War of 1914-1918 as it is also known, began 100 years ago this past August. The United States didn’t enter the war until April of 1917, but Americans couldn’t ignore the calamity that was happening overseas. The war produced a wealth of literature in a variety of nations, much of the best of it appearing in the years after the conflict, although a remarkable body of poetry was produced during the conflict by noted English soldier-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.

First world war

“Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight” is notable not only for being one of Lindsay’s better known poems, but also as a memorable early American response to the debacle of WWI. Lindsay’s belief in democracy as the best hope for humanity is also a noteworthy aspect of the poem.

Here is the poem:

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnoughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly, and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come:–the shining hope of Europe free:
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

—-Vachel Lindsay, 1914.

Patrick Kerin

Source:

The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, edited by Shane Weller,Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1992

Hart Crane: Torment and Triumph.

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Hart Crane (1899-1932).

Hart Crane (1899-1932).

The recent date of July 21 marks the birthday of American poet Hart Crane, born in Garrettsville, Ohio in Portage County in 1899. In his short lifetime—he lived to be only 32 years old—Crane created two memorable collections of poetry. Like so many artists who die young, the details of his life have become legendary. Crane’s legend is that of an incredibly gifted but deeply tormented poet who relentlessly drank and caroused and finally took his own life by jumping from a ship—in view of fellow passengers–while returning to America from Mexico. But there is so much more to Crane than the often sad and sordid details of his standard biography. His story is also that of a man who created a small but memorable body of poetry despite his demons, and scholars and readers continue to study and enjoy his rich and evocative lyric poetry. More recently, scholars examining homosexuality in literature and the lives of gay writers have examined Crane’s work and life, taking a fresh look at questions of image and identify in his poetry related to his sexuality.

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Harold Hart Crane was the only child of Clarence Arthur Crane, who made a success in candy manufacturing–he developed Life Savers–and Grace Hart, a delicate woman from Chicago and devout Christian Scientist. It was an unhappy marriage, and the parents’ problems would be a source of instability and anxiety throughout his life. Especially problematic was Crane’s mother. She was a smothering influence who developed an inappropriate relationship with her son, often sharing with him intimate details about her problems with her husband. She was successful also in turning Crane against his father.

C.A. and Hart Crane.

C.A. and Hart Crane.

The first nine years of Crane’s life were spent under the oppressive influence of his mother and the poisonous atmosphere of marital discord, but his mother suffered some kind of nervous collapse in 1908—she was apparently a hypochondriac—and this allowed Crane to spend much of his later childhood and adolescence in the home of his grandparents in Warren, Ohio, where he was exposed to a wide variety of literature. Crane explored the works of writers as varied as Whitman, Emerson, Voltaire, Balzac, Shelley, and Plato. By thirteen he had begun composing verse. Throughout his adolescence and early adult years, Crane continued to read deeply, becoming especially knowledgeable about the work of Rimbaud, Laforgue, the Elizabethans, Melville, Poe, Dickinson, Eliot and Sandburg.

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Crane left school at age seventeen, spending six months on his maternal grandfather’s fruit plantation on the Isle of Pines before leaving for New York City, where he hoped to take an entrance exam for Columbia University. Instead, Crane was drawn into the literary life of the city. It was here in New York that some of the destructive patterns in Crane’s life took shape: heavy drinking, promiscuous sex with sailors, and the inability to hold a job for any substantial length of time.

Emil Opffer, Danish journalist, sailor, and lover of Hart Crane.

Emil Opffer, Danish journalist, sailor, and lover of Hart Crane.

During much of his late teens and early twenties, Crane wandered back and forth between Cleveland and New York City. He attempted to join the U.S. Army during WWI but was rejected, and later held jobs ranging from working in a munitions plant during the war to stints as a reporter, advertising writer, and shipping clerk. Crane had begun placing poems in little magazines while still a teenager, and by 1926 had published his first collection: White Buildings. White Buildings includes some of Crane’s strongest early poems, including “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” and “Voyages.” Crane had fallen in love with a Danish sailor and journalist named Emil Opffer, and this affair inspired “Voyages,” which is a poetic sequence dealing with the redemptive power of love. “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” pictures the two mythological figures in the American 1920’s, and it celebrates the optimism of the postwar era. Unlike many other literary figures of the times, Crane saw things worth celebrating in the raw vitality of postwar industrial America. The success of White Buildings also attracted the attention of wealthy arts patron Otto Kahn, who gave Crane two grants to work on his next project, which would become his most famous work—the long symphonically structured poem entitled The Bridge (1930).

The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Bridge is a fifteen-part poem using the Brooklyn Bridge as its key symbol, representing a link between past and present. The bridge serves as metaphor in other ways, representing the length of the land from one coast to another, as well as the energy and ambition of 20th century America. It is a particularly rich symbol that is capable–no pun intended–of bearing the weight of multiple interpretations. The poem is Crane’s attempt to capture and celebrate America, its myths and promise, its fertility and vibrancy. A host of famous real and fictional figures crowd its pages: Columbus, Pochahontas, and Rip van Winkle are there, and the landscape of America is too, ranging from the western frontier and the shoreline of Cape Hatteras to the stony soil of New England and the urban roar of a New York subway.

Hart Crane with Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

Hart Crane with Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

Critical reaction to the poem was mixed, and continues to be so to this day. The Bridge has always had admirers, with some critics praising the ambition and scope of the work, along with Crane’s eloquent lines. Others have decried what they see as the formlessness and obscurity of the poem while noting the success of individual poems. It is often noted in discussions of The Bridge that critics more sympathetic to Whitmanesque long lines and rhapsody are probably more predisposed to view the work favorably, whereas others who favor classical unity are more skeptical of Crane’s achievement. It is remarkable to me how much polarization there is surrounding the poem, and how it is a kind of barometer measuring any one critic’s sympathy for literary romanticism.

TheBridge

Despite the mixed response, The Bridge helped Crane obtain a Guggenheim fellowship, and the poet left for Mexico, planning on writing a long poem on Cortez and Montezuma. His relationship with Emil Opffer had deteriorated not long after the publication of White Buildings, and Crane had continued his old patterns, drinking heavily, arguing with friends, and cruising the waterfront–sometimes being badly beaten by sailors while doing so. Crane continued to drink and carouse while in Mexico, but he startled his friends by embarking upon a heterosexual romance with Peggy Baird, who was separated from her husband, the critic Malcolm Cowley. Baird and Crane spoke of marriage and a future, but their time was shadowed by Crane’s deep personal problems. The poet was frustrated with his output and felt he had wasted his fellowship. Crane, only recently reconciled with his father after a long period of estrangement, lost his father in 1931. He drank heavily, created six different wills, and attempted suicide by drinking iodine.

Peggy Baird (Cowley) with Hart Crane.

Peggy Baird (Cowley) with Hart Crane.

He could take it no longer. En route to New York on the S. S. Orizaba, Crane leaped to his death shortly before noon on April 26, 1932 off the coast of Florida.

Crane’s life was full of anguish, but he managed to create a poetry rich with sonorous elegance and beauty. If The Bridge is a failure, as some critics insist, it is a magnificent one. As with any person who dies young, we can only speculate as to what he might have done had he lived longer. However, we have Crane’s collected work available to us, and we can be grateful for what he gave us in his short and painful life.

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane. Edited with introduction and notes by Brom Weber. Anchor Press, 1966.

Hart Crane: An Introduction. Clarence Lindsay, The State Library of Ohio, 1979.

Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950, ed. by William Coyle. The World Publishing Co., 1962.

Poetry Foundation website entry on Hart Crane.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, Philip Leininger. Entry on Hart Crane by Oscar Cargill and George Perkins. Harper Collins, 1991.

The Oxford Companion To American Literature, edited by James D. Hart. Fifth Edition. Oxford University Press, 1983.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 14, 1917: Thomas Boyd, author of WWI classic Through The Wheat, enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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devildog

May, 1917. Just one month earlier the United States has declared war against the Central Powers. The draft has begun. For almost three years Europe has been ravaged by the First World War, much of it brutal trench warfare in France and Belgium. Now the U.S. has entered the fray after a long debate about neutrality.

On May 14, 1917, a young man born in Defiance, Ohio entered a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting station in Chicago and enlisted. Like countless other young men the decision changed the course of his life dramatically, and like other young writers who have entered the service in wartime, the experiences he had of both combat and military life helped shape the books he eventually wrote.

Photo of Tom Boyd on the cover of Brian Bruce's Thomas Boyd: Lost Author of the Lost Generation.

Photo of Tom Boyd on the cover of Brian Bruce’s Thomas Boyd: Lost Author of the Lost Generation.

Thomas Boyd, who wrote a classic World War I novel called Through the Wheat, occupies, along with two other men, a special place in American literary history. When American novels of the First World War are discussed in standard literary histories, three particular books are often highlighted: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms; John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers; and e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room. It is an interesting fact of our literary history that these three famous works associated with American experience of WWI were written by men who were not soldiers but civilian ambulance drivers. This is a noteworthy anomaly since there has been a flood of fiction and poetry by America’s veterans in the wake of other twentieth century wars, especially World War Two and Vietnam.

This fact has no bearing on the high quality of these three famous books, nor their significance as important American novels. Neither does it take away from the sacrifices and courage of these three men, nor the fact that they witnessed firsthand many times the war’s carnage. Hemingway almost lost his life in a mortar attack on the Italian front, and cummings had the misfortune of being wrongfully imprisoned by the French government when he ran afoul of French censors in his letters to friends and family.

Badge of the Norton-Harjes ambulance unit.

Badge of the Norton-Harjes ambulance unit. (Photo from U.S. militaria forums).

For those who seriously study WWI history and WWI literature, the story of the volunteer ambulance units and their roll call of distinguished literary figures is well known, but it is certainly little known to those Americans who may have some general knowledge about the war. The larger story of the ambulance drivers in the Great War is one that Americans should honor and remember. It has never received the recognition it deserves. They rescued and transported the wounded, often under fire. They risked their lives in a foreign war long before their own country was officially involved. A number of them joined the U.S. Army’s ambulance units. It is also worth noting that cummings and Dos Passos were eventually drafted into the U.S. Army before the war ended, experiencing the American military’s rites of passage like so many of their countrymen. This was probably of particular value to Dos Passos as he was so dedicated to chronicling American life. He was exposed to a large number of fellow Americans from varied regions and social backgrounds in the close quarters of garrison duty.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan. Photo from the Ernest Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy Library.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan. Photo from the Ernest Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy Library.

But these three books are not the only important American novels that emerged from the war. There are other books that deserve recognition, and they too tell a story of how war exacts a toll on human beings. While bearing the impress and unique vision of their creators, these narratives also capture the doughboy’s experience of the war.

Any reexamination of American literature and World War One demands that Thomas Boyd, along with William March and Laurence Stallings, be brought into the light. These three writers are the most distinguished American authors of fictional works on the war whose experience was that of the rank and file American soldier on the front lines—those who enlisted or were drafted and arrived in Europe to confront the nasty realities of trench combat. They endured the military rituals of boot camp, battle, and eventual demobilization. This was an experience they shared with tens of thousands of other American men during 1917-1918.

William March in the Marine Corps in World War One.

William March in the Marine Corps in World War One.

And all three of these men were Marines, a branch of the service most Americans may not know was so deeply involved in World War One combat, nor that it was during this conflict that the Marines’ reputation as fierce warriors became better known to the American public.

William March, an Alabama native, wrote a memorable book called Company K. It is a series of vignettes, each one powerful on its own terms, that adds up to a devastating portrait of the war’s terrors and pain. March is likely better known for his book The Bad Seed, a novel about a murderous little girl. The Bad Seed was adapted for the stage and made into a motion picture.

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Laurence Stallings suffered a severe leg wound in the war and returned home to co-author with Maxwell Anderson a famous play about the military called What Price Glory? Stallings in later life wrote a well-regarded history of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) called The Doughboys, but he also wrote a novel—Plumes—that deserves a wider readership. It is not a war novel in the strict sense, but a novel of a warrior after he has returned home. It is a story of a veteran readjusting to civilian life and dealing with a Veteran’s Administration system swamped with corruption and notoriously incompetent (sound familiar?). The treatment of returning servicemen and women by Harding’s administration is an unpleasant chapter of the Roaring Twenties that is not usually covered in social studies class. This sad history has been repeated too often with successive wars.

Laurence Stallings, USMC, 1918. Photo by Arnold Genthe.

Laurence Stallings, USMC, 1918. Photo by Arnold Genthe.

Boyd would be best known for Through The Wheat, a novel that F. Scott Fitzgerald would say “is not only the best combatant story of the Great War but also the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage. Fitzgerald’s friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson, one of the best and toughest literary critics of the last century—and a man not lavish with praise—would call it “The most authentic novel written by an American about war.”

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Thomas Boyd was born in Defiance, Ohio on July 3, 1898. His father came from a once wealthy Montreal family, and his mother, Alice Dunbar, was one of nine daughters born to a Defiance farmer who was a descendant of one of the earliest families to settle western Ohio. They met in Chicago where Alec Boyd was trying to establish himself in business and where Alice was working as a nurse. They were married only a short time before Alec died from an illness. Alice returned to Defiance and gave birth to Thomas Boyd.

Thomas Boyd’s upbringing was erratic. He spent his early years with his maternal grandparents, who met his basic needs but were emotionally distant. His life was further complicated when his mother, who lived with chronic pain after eye surgery, became addicted to morphine. However, his grandfather taught him much about his family history and local Ohio history—interests that would remain with Tom Boyd when later in life he wrote much about the early American frontier.

Old Woodward High School in Cincinnati.

Old Woodward High School in Cincinnati.

Alice later overcame her addiction and took custody of Tom. He attended the Ohio Military Academy in the College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati and joined the Catholic Church. He later bounced between schools in Defiance, Porter Military Academy in South Carolina and Woodward High School in Cincinnati before going to live with relatives in Chicago. He eventually settled with an aunt and uncle from his father’s side of the family in Elgin, Illinois and adopted their faith: Christian Science. These relatives were also Oberlin graduates who valued literature, and Tom became more  interested in reading and writing. He was attending a local business school when the U.S. entered the war, and Tom and his friend Bob Hepburn went to a recruiting office in Chicago and enlisted. They were both soon bound for Parris Island, South Carolina.

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Tom Boyd finished basic training and was placed in the 75th Company of the 1st Battalion of the Sixth Marine Division. On September 16, 1917, he sailed for France and was promoted to corporal two days later. His first months in France were mainly spent on labor details, but in March of 1918 he was sent into the front lines near Verdun. From that point on Boyd and his comrades would, except for short rest periods, be involved in combat. Boyd would see action at Verdun, Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel. At Soissons, Tom Boyd was one of a number of men who rescued wounded Marines during a heavy bombardment, and Boyd was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for his actions. He was gassed on October 6 at Mont Blanc and evacuated to a hospital. Thomas Boyd would spend the rest of the war either in hospital beds or doing guard duty as a member of the army of occupation in Germany after the armistice.

American gunners in the Argonne Forest.

American gunners in the Argonne Forest.

Phosgene gas is one of the nastiest weapons human beings have developed. According to his biographer, Brian Bruce, Boyd “suffered through several illnesses and maladies related to his injuries, including bronchitis, laryngitis, diseased tonsils, and a hysterical spasm of his laryngeal muscles.” Boyd was eventually returned to the U.S. and discharged on July 10, 1919 at the Naval Hospital at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.

World War One Croix de Guerre with bronze palms and silver star.

World War One Croix de Guerre with bronze palms and silver star.

He returned to Defiance, then drifted to Toledo and Chicago, where he met Margaret Woodward, who became his wife. She was also a writer—she wrote under the name Woodward Boyd–who eventually had several books published by Scribner’s as well. Boyd and his wife moved to Minneapolis, where he managed a bookstore, became a literary page editor, and met many prominent writers. He also struck up a friendship with Scott Fitzgerald, who became one of his biggest supporters and encouraged Scribner’s to publish Through the Wheat. The book was published on April 27, 1923, and reviews were good. The book sold steadily and by April of 1924 went into its seventh printing.

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Boyd produced another war novel, The Dark Cloud, and followed it in 1925 with a collection of war stories entitled Points of Honor. He later turned to writing history, producing the biographies Samuel Drummond (1925), Simon Girty (1928), Mad Anthony Wayne (1929), and Poor John Fitch (1935). He also wrote a historical novel called Shadow of the Long Knives in 1928 and continued the story of Private Hicks, the central character of Through The Wheat in a novel called In Time of Peace (1935). In this phase of his career it’s clear that Boyd’s interest in midwestern frontier history resurfaced in the form of his historical novel and the books on Wayne and the famous frontier renegade Simon Girty. Boyd’s book on Girty is one of the few serious biographical treatments of this notorious figure.

Rendering of Girty from Boyd's biography.

Rendering of Girty from Boyd’s biography.

Tom and Margaret divorced and Thomas Boyd remarried and moved to Vermont. The Depression had a strong impact on Boyd and he became more radical in his politics, joining the Communist party and running as the Communist candidate for governor of Vermont. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1935. Thomas Boyd was only thirty-six years old. Doctors indicated that the mustard gas attack Boyd experienced in October 1918 likely contributed to his early death.

For decades Through The Wheat has gone in and out of print, but has always found appreciative readers. The story is a simple and timeless one. A young man named Hicks arrives in France with his fellows and prepares for the inevitable experience of battle. Soon they experience chaos and the destruction of combat. Here is a young man who would, in another time, be back at home making his way in the world, now plunged into a terrible and brutal conflict, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of destruction. The beautiful and fertile farm country of France has become a killing ground. It has been ninety-one years since this book first appeared, but the vision and gift of Thomas Boyd captured for all time the sad pilgrimage of a young man in a war that has shaped our lives more than we might believe. Hicks is still there, talking to the dead and trying to shake them awake, his boyhood left behind forever in the blood soaked fields of wheat.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

 

Thomas Boyd: Lost Author of the Lost Generation. The University of Akron University Press. 2006. At long last a good biography of Thomas Boyd, and the only one available. This book focuses more on his life and does not go into much detail about his works, but it is a good treatment of his life.

Through The Wheat , Popular Library 1978 (Lost American Fiction Series under the general editorship of Matthew J. Bruccoli.) Afterword by James Dickey and biographical note by Matthew J. Bruccoli.

Wikipedia entry on Thomas Boyd.

American Literary Almanac: From 1608 To The Present, Bruccoli, Clark, Layman. 1988.

Rvive Books biographical entry on Thomas Boyd. Rvive Books has brought a number of books by Thomas and Woodward Boyd back into print.

Here’s a link to their website:

http://www.rvive.com/live/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louis Bromfield: The Land and The Man Were One

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December 27 marks the birthday of Louis Bromfield, renowned Ohio author and conservationist. Louis Bromfield was born near Mansfield, Ohio on December 27, 1896. In his life he was not only a successful novelist, but also an agrarian spokesman who owned Malabar Farm, an experimental farm in Richland County now part of the Ohio park system. His influential writings about the farm and his philosophy of sustainable agriculture were widely read and remain in print along with some of his novels. Long before today’s green movement, Bromfield espoused an agrarian ethos in support of sustainable farming.

Bromfield’s family had lived and farmed in the Mansfield region for nearly a century by the time he was born. During his childhood and youth his family struggled financially, and at age sixteen he went to live on his grandfather’s farm. However, his mother wanted Louis and his brother to pursue a different life, and she encouraged their literary and academic interests. Bromfield eventually left to study agriculture at Cornell, returned briefly to work on the family farm, and then left for Columbia University. In 1917, Bromfield enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Ambulance Service and served with several different units of the French army during World War One. He saw action as an ambulance driver in seven battles and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the war Bromfield returned to America and worked as a reporter, editor, book and theater reviewer and an advertising manager for G.P. Putnam. He married Mary Appleton Wood on October 16, 1921. Bromfield had been writing in his spare time, and in 1924 he published The Green Bay Tree (1924), the first volume in the “Escape” tetralogy. This novel was followed by Possession (1925), Early Autumn (1926, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize), and A Good Woman (1927).

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After the publication of his first novel, Bromfield and his wife visited Senlis, France, intending only a visit of two months. The vacation turned into a stay of thirteen years, during which time Bromfield continued to publish novels and short stories and see some of his works made into films, including a bestseller in 1937-38 entitled The Rains Came, set in India. During this time overseas, Bromfield had come to enjoy the life of a prosperous expatriate artist, but there was a growing dissatisfaction with his life and its round of pleasures. He longed to feel more deeply rooted in the world and connected to the land, and had begun considering a return to Ohio as early as 1933. It was during the years in Senlis that Bromfield wrote The Farm, one of his finest and most personal works of fiction.

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With the prospect of another European war in sight, Bromfield relocated his family, which by now consisted of three daughters, back to the U.S. He purchased three adjoining farms near Mansfield and named the property Malabar Farm. Bromfield purchased these farms during the winter, and during a thaw he was shocked to see how worn out the land was from poor farming. He set out to restore the earth and root himself and his family on the property.

Bromfield also wanted an expansive house to live in, and he worked with an architect to build onto an existing farmhouse on the property, incorporating a number of architectural motifs found in Ohio. Malabar Farm soon became known as a relentless hive of activity. Bromfield himself was busy with his managers and farm workers when not writing the novels and screenplays financing the farm, and there was a steady stream of visitors, ranging from other farmers and the merely curious to Hollywood celebrities. These celebrities included Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were married at Malabar Farm on May 21, 1945.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

From the mid 1940s on, Bromfield’s writing became more focused on agriculture and ecology (although he continued to write novels), and he also wrote a syndicated newspaper column and hosted a Saturday morning radio show. Sunday afternoons were given over to leading large groups on tours of the farm—sometimes of 100 or more people–and expounding his agrarian philosophy. Bromfield and his workers were successful in restoring the soil, and the farm eventually developed into a livestock and dairy farm where livestock were grass-fed—exactly the kind of healthy, sustainable operation a lot of people today are choosing to support.

In 1945 Bromfield published the first of his agrarian works that are an essential part of his legacy: Pleasant Valley, a work detailing Bromfield’s return to Ohio and reasons for establishing the farm. This was followed by a collection of essays and journal excerpts entitled Malabar Farm in 1948. These were followed in turn by Out of the Earth (1950), From My Experience (1955) and Animals and Other People in the same year.
Bromfield’s ideas were influential, leading to the establishment of a Texan version of Malabar Farm and also Malabar-do-Brasil, an experimental farm in Brazil owned by a group of Brazilian businessmen. For a while Bromfield’s daughter Ellen Bromfield Geld and her husband managed Malabar-do-Brasil until purchasing their own farm in that country. Ellen Bromfield Geld and her husband still run that farm, and she is also a novelist, newspaper columnist and memoirist who wrote a memoir entitled The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories of Louis Bromfield (1962).

By 1951, Bromfield had published his last novel and had only five years left to live. His longtime friend and business manager George Hawkins had died in the late 1940s, and Bromfield’s wife Mary died in 1951. His daughters Hope and Ellen married in 1950. During the early fifties, Bromfield also became embroiled in litigation regarding the Malabar Texas experiment, and running Malabar Farm had become increasingly costly. He was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955 and had to sell his watershed timber rights to pay his hospital bill. After his death, a family friend named Doris Duke purchased those rights and donated them back to the family.

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His daughters sold the farm two years after his death. It eventually passed into state ownership in 1976 after previous possession by two different foundations. Now visitors can tour the farm and “Big House” and learn about Louis Bromfield and life at the farm, and the park also serves as a research center for sustainable farming. There is still a working farm on the property, but on a much smaller scale than Bromfield’s time. Most critics seem to regard Bromfield’s earliest novels as his best. By the early 1930s Bromfield was under critical attack, some suspecting he was writing with an eye towards Hollywood.

He also drew another kind of criticism. Although a Democrat and supporter of the New Deal in its earlier forms, Bromfield became critical of New Deal policies later on, seeing in them support for the kind of industrial society and government centralization he opposed as a supporter of Jeffersonian democracy. He was not alone in his position. Similar concerns came from some members of the Southern Agrarians and Robert Frost, but in the political climate of the 1930s such views were not popular with critics, reviewers and others in writing and publishing who leaned to the left, whether in support of FDR or towards more radical positions.

Bromfield’s nonfiction works didn’t focus solely on agricultural and environmental issues. In 1939 he published a book entitled England, A Dying Oligarchy, which attacked the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain and his administration. He later published works concerned with economics, international relations, and social planning and organization. These include A Few Brass Tacks (1946), and A New Pattern For A Tired World (1954).

Like many writers, Bromfield was preoccupied with the pressing question of how one should live in the world, and was concerned in particular with living in harmony with the land, with nature, and with other human beings. Although it might be tempting to see Bromfield as having two literary careers—one as fiction writer and the other as agrarian commentator—both strands of writing serve a vision.

louisandboxer

Particularly in his earlier novels, such as the “Escape” tetralogy, Bromfield writes of people who are thwarted in some way, whether by oppressive social or family relationships or pressures, and lack the kind of social support or structure that allows the release of creative energy. This search for rootedness and fulfillment by his characters is sometimes contrasted with a vigorous bygone world that was overrun by modern industrialized society. Bromfield himself sought a rich and meaningful life connected to the land and creation, similar to that of his ancestors in Ohio and the yeoman farmers Jefferson believed were the stewards of democracy. He might have run into the realities of the modern world, but we are the richer for his writings and example. The state of American agriculture is as important an issue of our times as it was for his.
Bromfield’s papers are held at both Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio and in the Munroe Archives of the Ohio Historical Society.

Louis Bromfield died on March 18, 1956 at University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Patrick Kerin

(This entry has been modified slightly. It was originally posted on Buckeyemuse on January 27, 2014).

Here’s a link to Malabar Farm:

http://www.malabarfarm.org/

Sources:

Louis Bromfield by David D. Anderson. Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York, 1963.

Ohio Authors and Their Books 1796-1950 edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.

“Louis Bromfield: Ohio and Self-Discovery by James M. Hughes. The State Library of Ohio, Columbus, 1979 (one of a series of monographs on Ohio writers).