Critique (Masterplots, Definitive Revised Edition)
William Henry Hudson wrote his autobiography while in bed during a six-weeks’ illness. On the second day of his illness, beginning to have a clear and vivid vision of his childhood, he decided to write out the picture. The vision stayed with him, and, between bouts of fever and sleep, he continued to record the impressions he had of his early life on the pampas of Argentina. The result was aptly named FAR AWAY AND LONG AGO, for he was an old man writing of his life between the years of three and sixteen. This book, revealing Hudson as a naturalist, a poet, and a mystic, is written in the beautiful and limpid prose of which he was a master.
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Except for two brief excursions to Buenos Aires, the setting is the expanse of the gently rolling Argentine pampas during the mid-nineteenth century. The influence of this exotic setting is vital to the author's development. Hudson provides ample description to give the reader a sense of place. He describes the terrain, buildings, seasonal changes, climate, and storms.
As far as the eye can see, the land appears flat, heavily overgrown with thistles and native grasses, too dry for crops but suitable for horses, cattle, sheep, and goats. Trees can be discerned along widely dispersed water-ways and near human dwellings; the nearest to Hudson's home is more than a mile away. For Hudson and his five siblings there is no school and no church. The nearest village is eight miles away, and contact with people outside the family occurs infrequently. The families of the remote ranches occasionally visit each other, and their houses attract traveling salesmen, fugitives, desperadoes, and beggars.
Yet for children growing up, the remote region proves congenial. The house has a good library, and indulgent parents give them liberty to explore their surroundings to their hearts' desire. The dangers of accidents, attacks by animals such as wild pigs, and bites by poisonous serpents, though genuine, do not exceed those inherent in developed areas. Left to their own resources, the children expand their imaginative powers. The wide open expanse leaves its mark...
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As an autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago, like Winston Churchill's My Early Life, is limited to the author's youth. Hudson explains that upon contracting a six-week fever in old age, he discovered on the second day that memories of childhood came thronging back to him, and he wrote them down over the duration of his illness. The narrative covers his life until about age seventeen, but Hudson acknowledges that the chronology is not exact. His earliest memories begin at age four, and the book highlights ages six, ten, and fifteen, ignoring entirely the years from twelve through fourteen. He first learns to ride a pony at age six and to shoot a gun at ten. He suffers his first serious illness, typhus, at fifteen. The result of Hudson's narrative technique is a kind of loose collection of episodes.
Each chapter focuses on the author's experiences with people or nature. The characterization often resembles that of tall tales or brief vignettes. One memorable but brief encounter involves an unnamed young man whom Hudson finds tied up in a barn. The man's dejected expression suggests trouble, and Hudson later learns that the young man has murdered someone and is awaiting punishment. On another occasion, a beggar, dressed grotesquely like Don Quixote and accompanied by a servant, arrives on horseback and presents a list of his needs. Once these have been granted, he provides an additional list, accepting the gifts as his due. This done, he rides...
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Hudson's theme of death, a major motif of the autobiography, may at times trouble readers because the descriptions include violence, especially in the deaths of animals. Occasionally, the book describes deliberate cruelty among the gauchos. On the other hand, while the narrator is compelled to come to terms with the thought of his own death, he has little fear of it.
This tragic possibility leads to the introduction of the author's religious views, absent from most of the autobiography. It is clear that in the end Hudson is skeptical about immortality, but the expression of his skepticism is guarded. He reports the religious attitudes of several other characters—his mother, who has strong faith; an old gaucho who has none; and his two brothers, one on either side. In brief passages, the book deals frankly with the theory of evolution's effects on nineteenth-century thought.
A further, minor point in the novel involves racism. Modern readers will recognize an undercurrent of European attitudes of superiority commonly seen in writings of the time. There is not a trace of the kind of racism that implies conflict or hostility, but rather a trace of the patronizing attitudes that occur prominently in authors such as Rudyard Kipling.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Violence, cruelty, and killing are viewed with disapproval in Hudson's work, yet some forms of killing animals are accepted. Discuss the distinctions, centering on the episodes of the owl and the pigeons, the gauchos' slaughtering of cattle, the death of the young officer, Hudson's own hunting, and the killing of the frogs.
2. The gauchos live by a code of conduct foreign to Hudson and his family. Explain their code and Hudson's reaction to it.
3. Hudson's account of his visit to Buenos Aires reflects his tendency to recall the unusual. Discuss his unusual observations and experiences there.
4. How are the dangers of the city contrasted to those of the country?
5. Hudson occasionally formulates theories to account for animal appearance or behavior. Discuss his theory about the strange black snake and the short-eared owl.
6. Outside events seemingly have little influence on the Hudsons' ranch life. As an exception to this, discuss the account of the revolution.
7. Hudson lived during a time when a naturalist could achieve distinction through original discoveries of species or observations of animal behavior. Can you find evidence of systematic, scientific method in his observation of plants and animals?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Compare Hudson's animism with the attitudes toward nature in Thomas Traherne's "Shadows in the Water" or Henry Vaughan's "The Retreat."
2. Hudson's responses to nature are complex and multifaceted. Compare his reactions to nature with the ones Wordsworth describes in "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey."
3. Compare Hudson's father and mother, and clarify their influences on his life.
4. Read selected passages from Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selbome that record White's observations of birds. How do his observations resemble Hudson's? In what ways do they differ?
5. Study a source that explains Wordsworth's concept of "spots of time," as it is recorded in his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude. Compare these experiences with several from Hudson's early childhood.
6. Hudson admits that he did very little reading that influenced him. Identify the few influential works he lists and give a brief account of the better known ones.
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Those who find Hudson's autobiography appealing will likely enjoy his two best known novels. The Purple Land shares the South American pampas setting, and the descriptions of nature are comparable. While Hudson introduces the same character types who reside in the area, the novel includes romance, suspense, and adventure involving its hero, an Englishman named Richard Lamb. Green Mansions, set in the Venezuelan jungle, poignantly conveys Hudson's childlike sense of wonder in response to nature. The novel recounts the idealistic romantic love of Abel and Rima, an unspoiled girl of the forest.
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For Further Reference
Frederick, John T. W. H. Hudson. New York: Twayne, 1971. A balanced scholarly introduction to the entire range of the author's works.
Nicholson, Mervin. "'What We See We Feel': The Imaginative World of W. H. Hudson." University of Toronto Quarterly 47 (1978): 304-322. In an extended analysis of Hudson's Nature in Downland, Nicholson clarifies Hudson's perspectives on nature and assesses his relevance to modern ecology.
Ronner, Amy D. W. H. Hudson: The Man, the Novelist, the Naturalist. New York: AMS Press, 1986. Provides a reevaluation of Hudson, centering on his experiences in England, his relationships with contemporaries, and his approach to natural science.
Tomalin, Ruth. W. H. Hudson. New York: Philosophical Library, 1954. Tomalin gives an account of Hudson's life and literary career, quoting extensively from his works.
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