Posted by: zhiv | March 14, 2012

In The Valley, Harold Frederic: Part Two

I mentioned that I didn’t remember Henry Esmond very well. What does one remember, a few decades later about a book that one studied quite carefully? Novels leave a general impression of tone and character and incident, for me at least. When I started reading In The Valley, somewhat on the lookout for Thackeray, I was struck, early on, by the familiar intimacy created by the first-person narration. Reading through Amateur Reader’s notes and comments on Esmond, he makes a point, perhaps followed up later (I’d have to look), that there might be an important distinction between first-person narration and its function and powers, and standard 19th century narration, beyond the obvious notions of unreliability and such. As AR says, Bronte and Thackeray write fiction, while Lucy Snowe and Henry Esmond write memoirs, which are non-fiction. It seems I was recently pondering the unreliability of non-fiction as Janet Malcolm considers it in The Silent Woman, where she says that the only absolute knowledge and truth is that of the fiction writer, who controls his own world and materials. David Copperfield writes a memoir, of course, but Thackeray might have pushed towards innovation in Henry Esmond by writing such a polished, measured 18th century “memoir,” such a careful and direct replication of style, and a more complete immersion in historical context. There’s a strong impulse to say that Thackeray, an extremely eminent Victorian, was being quite modern in all this, just as Charlotte Bronte was in Lucy Snowe’s psychological probings. At any rate, these issues of fictional representation and historical intimacy are part of the lasting general impression of Henry Esmond. And Harold Frederic uses the exact same approach, and he attempts, to a degree, to create an authentic post-revolutionary memoir and document. Douw Mauverenson, the narrator and creator of In The Valley, is writing non-fiction, a straightforward (from his perspective) account of events and emotions from his tumultuous youth, remembered and recorded years later, in tranquility.

Another important thing that I remember for Henry Esmond perhaps speaks for a larger influence of Thackeray on Frederic’s work as a whole, aimed at and accomplished expertly in Theron Ware, but with precursors of it here in In The Valley. It’s a biographical note. Thackeray suffered through a disastrous marriage, as his wife went insane, tried to kill herself and had to be institutionalized, and he was left as a married and ineligible bachelor with two young daughters (one of whom went on to marry Leslie Stephen, of course, and died young, while the other was the resident lady novelist Aunt in his daughter Virginia Woolf’s childhood). Thackeray was in love with a married women, Mrs. Brookfield, and Esmond tells the story, as a “memoir,” of the same type of unrequited relationship. That’s about all I remember, but it’s all in Gordon Ray’s exhaustive biographical work about Thackeray. AR reminds me that Esmond is about style and the re-creation of the 18th century, while its wars are insignificant and obscure, and its plot is about impotence and thwarted desire. It’s about nothing, in short, all very post-modern–a relationship in which nothing ever happens.

In The Valley doesn’t go nearly so far, but it does contain, even within its rather obvious, if not hackneyed Cooperean plot, a rather sophisticated examination of the complexity of desire and romantic projection. The strong and forthright, if a little plodding, Dutch hero grows up under the same roof as the heroine Daisy, as they are both adopted by the transplanted cavalier “Mr. Stewart.” Douw’s sworn enemy from early childhood is Philip ?, raised in England, who returns to the Valley to take possession of an estate and join the gentry. There’s some intricate architecture here, as Philip is actually the son of Stewart’s friend, zhiv, who won the hand of Stewart’s beloved. So the conflict between Douw and Phiip is a repetition, on new grounds. Stewart is neutral, because he admires Philip’s gentlemanly detachment, and has a strong critique of Douw’s “Dutch” interest in trade and participation in the markets. Stewart is a settler and benefactor, but he is notably unable to participate in revolutionary politics on either side, his health and vigor failing, and he belongs to the previous generation. Douw and Philip are placed squarely on opposite sides of the conflict, however, ready to do battle over Daisy in the middle.

I’m getting ahead of myself by engaging in the political discussion. The remarkable episode, more so for a recent reader of Theron Ware, comes when Douw is returning from the commercial trip to the West in which he comes of age, and he realizes that he has always loved Daisy, and wants to marry her. The structure here is quite interesting: Philip, as a child, discovers Daisy as a fondling, and throws a tantrum when his father can’t take her back to England with him, leading to an early boyhood fight between Douw and Philip; Douw spends the next dozen years growing up under the same roof with Daisy as his sister; Philip returns as a polished and arrogant young man, taking a leading place in the community just as Douw leaves on an extended journey to establish himself as a tradesman. We know where this is going, of course, that Douw has made a grave mistake by leaving the field open to Philip for so long.

What I find fascinating is the way that Douw, writing his memoir and recording his own emotions and truths, doesn’t get it. As in Theron Ware, Frederic shows a remarkable ability to probe self-deception and romantic subjectivity, and he even hints at dangerous obsession here, not going nearly as far as TW, although the setting and circumstances are primed for violent conflict. The first striking section, paying off the extended set-up and properly beginning the story, comes as Douw imagines his triumphant homecoming, the return to his native hearth, his kindly benefactor and his beloved. Douw records every detail of the urgency and excitement of his return, a direct account of the grandiosity of his expectations. As an exiled man of commerce Douw comes of age and makes Daisy his romantic object of necessity and worship, his necessary other half. It occurs to me that this is all very Gatsby, starting with the heroine’s name, no? We know that Theron Ware was a crucial book for Fitzgerald, but how much Frederic did he know? (The smart money is on Daisy Miller, published by Leslie Stephen in the Cornhill Magazine in 1878, 12 years before ITV.)

Douw comes home to an empty house and cold hearth, his family removed to Philip’s estate. Douw understands with sudden disappointment that reality doesn’t correspond to his imagining. He drops into a sulk, which, remembering, he carefully analyzes, his narrator self well aware that when he left the die was yet to be cast, that Daisy was actually waiting for him to declare his feelings and own his attachment, just as he had intended. Whatever the quality of the essential plot concept, this sequence contains an evocative grasp of the self-imposed thwarting of desire and its general workings, and it’s an interesting practice run for the complex power of Theron Ware.

At this point In The Valley takes an interesting turn, one that’s quite different from anything in Drums Along the Mohawk, providing a relatively radical perspective on the rising rebellion. Douw is a free agent and he goes East this time, to Albany. Between his journeys west and east, Douw enters the early 70’s as a true American tradesman and citizen of New York. Frederic’s ultimate purpose is to describe very carefully the crucial role of New York in the fight for freedom, making the case for its superiority over Massachusetts and Virginia–while his primary thesis is that the war was won by the heroic stand at Oriskany.

Douw’s character formation is cleverly designed to exploit that argument. In his youth he has already encountered the key figures in Tryon County, staring with William Johnson and including Nicholas Herkimer, and in Albany he builds relationships with notables such as Philip Schuyler and Peter Gansevoort. Frederic’s key choice is to make Douw a Continental Army man, which turns into a rather neat trick. Gansevoort, Herman Melville’s maternal grandfather, provides a good model of young officer of Dutch descent from Schuyler’s circle, and Frederic makes Douw his friend, while still keeping the historical figure at a distance. Army enlistment and a commission makes Douw a part of Montgomery’s Quebec campaign, giving Frederic an initial critical battle to describe, and providing valuable context running up to the events of 1777. Philip is at Quebec too, in the fort and fighting on the British side, allowing him and Douw to have yet another purely violent interaction.

Frederic uses Douw’s wounds at Quebec to create for him a novel and non-historical position: he is sent home to recover, and assigned to be the Continental Army representative in the Mohawk Valley, eyes and ears for Schuyler, Benedict Arnold, and George Washington. Philip, as mentioned, has left his estate and Daisy to join the British. Daisy is a thoroughgoing rebel, just like Douw, but her marriage is still officially intact and it stands between them. This is an extension of the wartime section that is very Esmond, Frederic’s hero in love with a woman who is unhappily married to some one else. There is an odd moment, leading up to the climax at Oriskany, where Daisy shows how she is still attached to Philip, if he were to come back, that her vows and bond still mean something to her. Douw isn’t sure what to make of it, as Philip is his sworn enemy and they seem to brawl and try to kill each other every time they’re in close proximity, but this brief episode is perhaps meant to drive Douw’s curious actions at the battle.

The story and its strands and setups comes together well as Douw’s narrative approaches the Battle of Oriskany. I want to discuss the issues of race and ethnicity in a moment, but these figure importantly in Frederic’s version of the mustering of the Tryon militia and its march towards Ft. Stanwix. Frederic takes greater fictional license than Edmonds, starting with the idea that Douw is an army officer joining the brigade, and this allows him to give a sharper view of the steps and decisions leading up to the battle, albeit perhaps a less strictly accurate one. Frederic, and Douw’s “memoir,” gets closer to Nicholas Herkimer in this section than any of the other historical characters that appear in the book. ITV does a remarkable job of showing the overview of Mohawk Valley society and allegiances, and it’s one that includes an understanding of William Johnson and his son and nephew and others on the British/Tory side, including his fictional Philip, and Schuyler and Gansevoort as Continental Army opposition. But the portrait of Herkimer shows the complicated social divisions, as Douw spells out carefully how Herkimer’s family has players on both sides. And, according to what must have been the prevailing late 19th century view of the battle, it is Herkimer’s complicated family status that leads to the crisis. Frederic provides a wonderful, close and clear version of the morning of August 6. There has to be a question, I would think, of whether it is strictly accurate that the subordinate commmanders questioned Herkimer’s loyalty and desire to fight, causing him to rush heedlessly towards Stanwix and Oriskany, but that version is laid out in dramatic and convincing fashion here by Frederic. Herkimer is challenged, over and over, and he holds the side of prudence through the early morning hours, before finally saying “fine!” and ordering the march.

Douw is on horseback right alongside Herkimer at they cross the creek. Fredric’s description of the essential elements of the battle are clear and accurate–this entire section is an extremely solid primer on the characters and events of the battle of Oriskany, and it all very much comes to life. It works expertly and well all the way through the thunderstorm and into the secondary afternoon section. It’s effective because Frederic leaves Douw and Philip out of it, for the most part, as we’re waiting for them to inevitably find each other. Frederic used the same approach and technique in his version of the assault on Quebec, and it works fairly well. It’s a fascinating exercise to contrast Frederic and Edmonds’ choices and versions, which I might try to do at some point, but I would need to review Edmonds, in order to go beyond the broad strokes.

It’s hard to say exactly what Frederic is doing with his climax between Douw and Philip, but it’s interesting enough. My approach would be to call it, in my own old manner, psychological allegory, a revelation that the fictional characters of Douw and Philip are somehow meant to show distinct sides of a single self. Part of this view stems from reading backwards from Theron Ware and its masterful study of self-deception. Douw and Philip finally meet up downstream at the end of the battle. With the help of his woodsman companion (I’m forgetting his name), Douw gets the best of Phiip,and he could easily finish him off as part of the final slaughter. Maybe that’s not a viable ending for a 19th century historical novel. So even though Douw has harbored a clear murderous intent against Philip since early childhood, he spares and saves his life, and he even goes on an extended and laborious journey down the river with Philip, trying to bring him back to Daisy and German Flatts alive. It’s an overstatement to say that this is a prototypical existential journey along the lines of As I Lay Dying or Wages of Fear, but it’s aimed in that general direction, and it’s a rather surprising conclusion. Clearly, Douw can’t kill Philip because he identifies with him so strongly, sharing the same desire and fighting over the same space.

If Douw and Philip are doppelgangers, and Douw has to carry Philip down the Mohawk for three days, Frederic puts to use another element of Douw’s extended “character,” another part of Douw’s self, to achieve his conclusion: Douw’s slave Tyke rushes towards them just as they reach home, and he grabs Philip and carries him over the cliff with him, both of them dying. It’s basic, bizarre stuff, both satisfying and clever and odd and clunky. Philip, earlier in the story, had been responsible for Tyke being broken and disfigured–earlier, Douw and Tyke were well-matched soul mates, black and white, but since the end of childhood Tyke was a limping and twisted shadow self. And it’s this dark shadow that suddenly leaps in and finishes off Philip.

In The Valley thus concludes with a bald and relatively simple racial and social allegory with strong psychological overtones, easily interpreted along Freudian lines. The oversophisticated and parasitical British-aligned gentry is an unhealthy and destructive superego that is killed off by the primitive, disfigured drive represented by the black slave. The plodding, conflicted Dutchman gains his desire and stands with his beloved Daisy prepared to build a new nation.

ITV does a good job of clarifying the conflict of the Revolution as an effort, in New York at least, to prevent the formation of a dominant aristocracy in America. Frederic’s idea is that this is the true bedrock of the United States, more solid than the Virginia planters and their Puritan intellectual New England antagonists, whose unresolved conflict would lead to a Civil War that played out the same tableau (Frederic apparently wrote very well about the Civil War, in a collection of stories.) Frederic’s final chapters explain his historical thesis, which was perhaps the one proposed by his mentor Seymour in his Oriskany centennial speech. The idea is that the Tryon Militia was primarily composed of the descendants of Palatine Germans, who had fled a cruel and parasitical aristocratic system. Led by Nicholas Herkimer, this relatively autonomous body of men found itself at a critical historical confluence, acting as a human shield to protect the Mohawk Valley and prevent St. Leger’s British force from joining with Burgoyne at Saratoga. As it happened, the battle at Oriskany, itself unresolved, turned the tide of the war. It’s still a curious action, as the march was meant to support and relieve Ft. Stanwix, and the battle was an ambush, not a defensive position, and the reasons for St. Leger’s retreat remain obscure. But Frederic succeeds in making his thesis clear and convincing, with strong broad strokes portraying the key social and political elements and timing at play. With his characteristic bravado and confidence, Frederic thought he had the makings of a popular bestseller that could change the general historical perspective of the key actions of the war. But Henry Esmond, a personalized and intellectual approach to the insignificance of battles and troop movements that was little read, was the wrong model on which to build such a fiction-based manifesto.

Frederic has another massive blindspot, characteristic of his era. He sorts carefully through the ethnicity of the settlers, showing the importance of German and Dutch roots and heritage, and giving a jaundiced view of the British and French. He does a good job, even though it is racist and naive, of establishing the presence and importance of blacks and slavery in the region and during the era, and even mixes this into his climax and central characters. But Frederic’s approach to and treatment of American Indians is dismissive and cruel. Early in the text he makes a distasteful broad statement favoring blacks over Indians, rejecting what his memoirist Douw calls “current inclinations to romanticize the savages.” In the case of the conflict he seeks to celebrate, however, this dismissal and ignorance is untenable, as the presence of a substantial Oneida force at Oriskany fighting on the American side against the Mohawk and Seneca, Loyalist ambush engineered by Joseph Brant was as decisive as the militia effort. Brant and the Iroquois threat are a shadowy presence in ITV. Frederic’s view is that of the prevailing late-19th century Anglo culture, which was in the midst of its post-Civil War industrialization and expansion as he was writing. Perhaps he was taking a stab at what he thought was realism, in reaction to Fenimore Cooper’s views of Native Americans. It’s valuable and interesting to compare Walter Edmonds’ more balanced views of race and its role in the conflict writing 50 years later, which are still incomplete, but they’re also more subtle and sophisticated. Edmonds seems pretty bad at first, but his approach is much less offensive than Frederic, who goes out of his way to defame and disparage American Indians in broad, racist terms. ITV has enough flaws aside from its racism, and this additional glaring failure deserves to prevent it from gaining additional readers and critical esteem. Frederic’s error is contextual to his era, but it does seem egregious. Still, he remains a worthy writer, and this book holds great interest for the specialist.

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