Yes, In The Valley is very much an American Henry Esmond, or at least it’s a determined attempt to be such while making its own statement about personality and race and the formation of the American republic. It’s an extremely ambitious book, with a theme and topic that outstrips both the young novelist’s powers and skill, but it shows the workings of how he is discovering his gifts and metier at the same time.
Born in 1856 and growing up fatherless in Utica, New York, Harold Frederic had been spinning dreams from a young age of the heroism displayed on his native grounds, inspired by stories told to him by his grandmother. He was driven to action by a speech made by one of his mentors, Horatio Seymour, at the centennial of the Battle of Oriskany in 1877. An ambitious young journalist at the time, Frederic aspired to write a historical novel that would dramatize and reinterpret backgrounds and pivotal events in the revolution. It would be another decade, and he would succeed as a newsman and write another contemporary novel first, before Frederic was able to complete and publish the story that he had been contemplating and working on for so long.
The primary flaw in this novel, then, is that it was conceived by an adolescent, presumably, and then executed by a talented and somewhat experienced young writer who was at the very beginning of the journey of discovery of both his method and his powers. And his topic and his goals have all of the ambition and impossibility of youthful literary aspiration. Frederic struggled with writing his book for a decade, before he stepped aside and wrote Seth’s Brother’s Wife quickly, a story of contemporary realism in the manner of W.D. Howells which I haven’t read. Completing a promising and well-received first novel gave him the confidence–which was never really in short supply for HF, it seems–and the flow and style cues necessary to complete his historical fiction, and he did it with the brisk dispatch of his new persona as a novelizing journalist. The problem, however, is that Frederic’s goal was to write a masterpiece, and he wasn’t prepared to do that yet. In The Valley has both its beauties and its flaws, and it repays analysis and consideration, but in a way it is most interesting as an early stage in Frederic’s growth towards maturity.
The criticism of ITV that I’ve glanced at thus far seems to miss a few key points, at least from my own view. The general approach is to place Frederic’s effort as an attempt to improve upon James Fenimore Cooper, noting that his plot of two young men finding themselves on opposite sides of the rebellion, fighting over a woman in the middle, is a hackneyed approach repeated over and over after Cooper’s The Pathfinder. One assumes that the scholars who get around to writing about Frederic, and as far as his “dreary” historical novel, are Americanists who know Cooper a lot better than I do. And my assumption is that they know Howells, and their primary concern is to find the right place for Frederic in the realist tradition, in which he became an accomplished and important practitioner, while testing its limits too, in Theron Ware. But there’s a lot more to the background and influences on ITV than looking at it as failed progress from Cooper, and an unrealized adolescent reverie.
The shortcoming seems to be acknowledgment that Frederic became a novelist when he was working as a journalist in London, and that despite the American settings and concerns of his fiction, and his place in the context of Howells, Crane, Dreiser and others, the influence of British novelists and genre development seems crucial to a full understanding of his work. In reading about Frederic’s rise in journalism there are of course easy parallels to the early career of Howells, but I keep thinking of the most powerful 19th century transformation from journalist to novelist, that of Charles Dickens. It seems that some of Frederic’s confidence and belief that he could attempt and accomplish such an ambitious task as the one he set in ITV might stem from the bravado and success of Dickens, which was the primary example of literary ascendency in 19th century England.
But Thackeray seems a much more important influence and model. I believe my general hunch about Henry Esmond is correct, and the criticism notes direct statements made by Frederic of his hope that his effort “will make it in American literature what Henry Esmond is in English.” I’ve noted the mention of Cooper, and I’ve also seen a note that ITV is “largely modeled on Scott.” I’ll have to keep looking, but my impression thus far is that ITV is only addressed as a semi-solid early work by Frederic completists, without getting a lot of specific attention, and the Cooper and Scott references are a way of both categorizing and dismissing it. It would presumably be carefully considered in studies of literary treatment of the Battle of Oriskany and the story of the Mohawk Valley in the Revolutionary War (as my own zhiv enterprise might be described)–what or whereever those might be. But even those, should they exist, would consider the history side, and perhaps not Frederic’s primary intentions and model for In The Valley as a historical novel. I’ve written before about how Henry Esmond is little read, prompting others to take a look. But the quandary here, if that’s what it is, is the assessment of an obscure work that holds Esmond up as a familiar, obvious, and classic model of the genre of the historical novel. Esmond had its moment. Sigh. But that’s the fun part, right?
So I would love to read a careful study comparing ITV to Henry Esmond. It would be nice if I could do it myself, but the problem is that it has been ages since I read Esmond, and I don’t remember it very well. And almost nobody else reads it, although Amateur Reader is certainly helpful. It was hard enough to prompt anyone to read Esmond, and who will read In The Valley? Especially when I say that Walter Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk is a clearly superior work.
Esmond had, in fact, its own extended moment. AR does a good job of noting the high esteem in which it was held by other novelists and writers. Thackeray himself complained that “nobody reads it,” but he’s referring to its being unread by the masses who were gripped by Vanity Fair. It was read by other writers, and must have been seen as the state-of-the-art Victorian exemplar of the historical novel, unless I’m mistaken. I’ve noted how it beats Romola, and the contest with Tale of Two cities was one of popularity, not critical esteem. We lose sight of all this, of course, in large part because Tolstoy stepped forward and changed the game entirely.
And that provides an interesting and specific context for ITV. Frederic grew up in the late Victorian era, and took Thackeray as a direct model. Walter Edmonds, who approached the same material just less than 50 years later, works much more obviously from a Tolstoyan model, and the difference is striking showing how Frederic seems to have been completely unaware of Tolstoy and thus highlighting his dependence on Thackeray.
The only argument I can make, I suppose, is that Harold Frederic is a better writer than Walter Edmonds. Theron Ware is a legitimate masterpiece in my own humble view, well beyond anything that Edmonds wrote, I would imagine. ITV is thus interesting as an engaging work of an ambitious and high-level apprentice fiction, and it’s funny that Thackeray was his model, because one could perhaps draw (meaningless) comparisons between the two authors as important “bronze medalists,” for lack of a better analogy. But Thackeray is well-known and necessary, and duked it out with a legitimate inspired genius, Dickens, before getting squeezed on his flank by another, extremely complex female genius, George Eliot. Harold Frederic is simply obscure, and I’m not even sure how I would work out awarding him and Theron Ware a bronze, but I want to think it would make sense.
These are all lengthy preliminary musings about literary history and context. What makes it so obvious that ITV was directly modeled on Henry Esmond, and not Scott and Cooper, despite Frederic’s direct statement? And what is good about ITV, what works, and what are its flaws? And lastly, how does it stand against Edmonds’ book, Drums–how did Edmonds adapt Frederic and “Tolstoyize” his mistakes and shortcomings? I suppose those are the questions I will try to answer in subsequent posts.