Walter Mencken 10:06 a.m., Feb. 6
- Community Blog
THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF GABRIEL CONROY (III)
Unfortunately, most critics of Gabriel Conroy dismissed the novel outright, as O’Brien indicates while paraphrasing some. It should be noted, however, that timed with the novel’s appearance, in December, 1875, in Scribner’s Miscellany, a supplement to Scribner’s Monthly, there appeared “excerpts from seventeen newspapers around the country praising the first installment” to arouse interest in the novel’s serialization (Barnett, Reference 32). As Gary Scharnhorst notes, Gabriel Conroy was attacked in hostile reviews from such influential media sources as the Boston Daily Globe, Illustrated London News, Saturday Review [London], Springfield Republican [usually favorable of Harte], and the Atlantic Monthly (Opening 116). The Times in London concluded that “This work must be regarded as a failure” (Barnett, Reference 34). These influential bad reviews, reviews that were so inconsistent and non-specific regarding their disapproval, were never properly disproved for their spotty credibility, and, as a result, they have been credulously accepted as truth, sometimes even by Harte’s biographers. For example, as George Stewart, Jr. informs, though not altogether unflatteringly, “With an author’s usual preference for a weakly brain-child, Harte cherished Gabriel as his favorite among his writings” (Stewart 228). Clearly, not many critics have shared Harte’s love for “a weakly brain-child.” As O’Brien explains, “An English critic [in the Athenaeum] was among the first to recognize Harte’s inadequacy to the task of novelist. Others had noted the ‘sameness’ of recent stories… because he knows of no others” (O’Brien 25-6). As this quotation representatively indicates, the most widespread fallacy reviewers noted was that Harte was no good at writing a novel. Of course this English critic lacks specificity that can be verified by objective examination. Yet such opinions have been erroneously echoed by almost every secondary source regarding Gabriel Conroy, including those who more generally laud Harte. Harte wrote a different kind of novel with Gabriel Conroy than one that focuses on only one or two characters, developing them throughout. The latter kind Harte later achieved, likely to show for posterity that he could, with his trilogy beginning with A Waif of the Plains. What Gabriel Conroy lacks in terms of an in-depth attention to one character, it makes up for with large scale. There have been many great Californian authors, but none as seriously vied in the nineteenth century with Harte for the pantheon of places and identities he invented and preserved in his fiction. He helped instill the mythos of California’s romantic identity. Stylistically, as Harte noted in a significant rejection notice to Joaquin Miller in August, 1869, he preferred to “learn how much strength as well as beauty lies in repose” and not “…develop a certain theatrical tendency and feverish exaltation” (Scharnhorst, Letters 30-1). Reposeful exposition therefore can be argued as a literary style Harte used to guide the reader into his settings through sensual and slight description, to catch hold of the tiny fibers of images and archetypal intuitiveness. One particularly negative review by A. Lang in the London journal, The Academy (later partially reprinted in the New York Tribune), actually misspells Harte’s name thrice (“Hart”), complaining he is “…only to be trusted over a short distance” (235). The critic, A. Lang, also describes the novel’s plot as “…falling to pieces, as if it had outgrown its strength, and recovering itself by a spasmodic jerk” (235). These assertions regarding the plot this thesis disproves by providing demonstrative examples of Harte’s success with a complex plot. It should be noted that while segments of The Academy review were reprinted in the New York Tribune, none of the praise at the end of the article for Gabriel Conroy’s readability is mentioned. It reprints, in fact, only Lang’s attacks, mentions no praise, and corrects Harte’s name in the reprinting without mention of the reviewer’s spelling error (“Hart”) (New York Tribune 4:5).