Walter Mencken 1:04 p.m., Sept. 4
- Community Blog
THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF GABRIEL CONROY (V)
One contemplates with wonder what the anonymous reviewer of the Saturday Review considers “ruffianly” about the fundamentally sympathetic qualities of Gabriel Conroy’s title character, Jack Hamlin, and to a lesser degree, Arthur Poinsett. Moreover, the nefarious attribution of Gabriel Conroy as “below the author’s usual mark,” below Harte’s capability, rhetorically reinforcing a vaguely defined deficiency, could be construed as an attempt to dismantle the high literary status Harte had achieved by 1871, which was steadily, but not comprehensively erased, even by the efforts of Mark Twain. It is ironic that Twain observes in the essay “What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us” that “Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious absorption…” while in the same essay Twain argues that “the native novelist” is the only one “qualified to examine the souls and life of a people and make a valuable report” (Essays 168-9). Does Mark Twain believe Harte’s seventeen years in California, less than the “twenty-five” Twain demands, diminish his claim to nativity (Essays 168)? Nor is the reviewer’s notion that “landslides functioning as a deus ex machina” are unusual concerning California’s well-known propensity for having natural disasters. Landslides and other natural floods of the kind are, in point of fact, a real occurrence in California. Obviously not throughout the state, but especially in the Sierras where the melting of the winter snowpack creates seasonal torrents, entire mining camps, themselves transitory in nature, could have been wiped out, as in the case of “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Flash floods like the one Gabriel Conroy saves Madame Devarges from still occur in California. The sympathetic use of pathos, dating back to the classical antiquity of Aristotle that Harte characteristically used as part of his idiosyncratic writing style was influenced by Charles Dickens, the literary idol of Harte’s youth, but one hardly recalls Dickens writing in so American a manner as Bret Harte when he describes his miners, outcasts, and impostors. Harte’s early influence by Dickens is no different from any young writer having an artistic model or imago. Interestingly, William W. Ellsworth, a New York publisher during the late nineteenth century, wrote that Andrew Lang from The Academy, a particularly unenthusiastic reviewer of Harte, conceded in a separate article that: “Of all the pupils of Dickens [Harte] is perhaps the only one who has continued to be himself… He is almost the only American humorist with sentiment” (qtd. 55). It is with no little befuddlement that O’Brien argues that “For non-literary reasons Harte’s novel fared better in America” (27). While this thesis agrees that Harte “should last,” Nadal’s comment in the North American Review that “…it is characterization… which presents the difficulty” is a baffling reversal of Harte’s most persistent accusation: that it is plot that presents him difficulty (O’Brien 27). Such varying, non-specific criticisms of Harte, as a whole, the literary observer is urged to dismiss. Harte’s actual texts, the most important of which is Gabriel Conroy, allow one to eschew the handful of anthology-worn stories for which Harte has already been credited. Harte’s own feeling about the novel was that it was a failure of publication, not artistry. O’Brien is more specific about what he considers the artistic flaws in Harte’s novel, most of which focus on the narrator, who “never lets the reader forget that there is quite a difference… In the first few pages, one finds words like flocculent, scorbutic, and inanition, while all the less educated characters speak a level of English that is barely literate” (28-9). Each writer reserves the right to be erudite and esoteric, to decorate a text with appropriate approbations. In fact, it is a common trait in storytelling for the narrator to be more educated than his or her subjects. O’Brien argues that “It is this contrast between some of the characters in the novel and the narrator, and between the cultivated characters and the uncultivated, that perhaps accounts for the English appreciation of the novel, tepid though it was” (29). Unlike associations of class and prestige in the vocabulary the narrator uses, his occasional flowery verbosity fulfills the objective of constructing authorial credibility, or ethos. The reader should trust the narrator as an educated and civilizing conveyer of a mythic, archetypal representation of California. The division stemming from the education of the narrator actually enhances the novel by mediating between the higher and lower classes represented, generally along the continuum of city versus rural dwellers. O’Brien is mistaken that “In his attempt to draw the contrast between the upper and lower classes in his work, Harte not only shows the latter as less educated, but as less human” (30). The reverse is true. Peter Dumphy, the cannibal, and Arthur Poinsett, the egotist, compared to the virtuous Gabriel Conroy, are more highly educated and in fact more suspect of criminality than the most virtuous, uneducated miner, Gabriel, or in the case of Jack Hamlin, the gentleman gambler. Harte shows that the wealthy are more likely to get away with their crimes, as opposed to their less wealthy criminal counterparts. Harte also shows that evil has a hierarchy. “The Three Voices,” a band of vigilantes hired by Peter Dumphy to lynch Gabriel Conroy, are, in fact, Peter Dumphy’s pawns. In one of the novel’s most important scenes, these druj are vanquished by Gabriel when he tosses a statue of Justice upon them with insightful and humorous results. Peter Dumphy, who stole the secrets of Dr. Devarges from a cairn hidden near Starvation Camp, who falsely advertised California to tourists, whose fictions about California have over time been accepted as truth, who bankrupted Doña Maria Sepulvida when shares of the Conroy Mining Company became worthless, is vilified by the same learned narrator whom O’Brien accuses of representing the lower classes as less human. In actuality, Harte depicts the wealthy as more callous and unsympathetic, nor does the narrator look down upon the small town culture of One Horse Gulch, as O’Brien argues. The same narrator is not critical of wealth in the hands of others. Honorable and wealthy female characters, Doña Maria Sepulvida and Doña Dolores Salvatierra (Grace Conroy), show that wealth does not have to be the basis of evil, although it is often the basis of power. Gabriel accumulates great wealth, but his soul is not destroyed in the process of attaining it. By Gabriel’s moral and physical excellence, Harte suggests that it is one’s actions, not assets, which define a hero. These reasons argue against O’Brien’s unilateral assertion that in the novel “the narrator patronizes lower class language, manners, and attitudes” (30-1).