Hannah Green Essay - Critical Essays

Green, Hannah

Ms. Green is the author of The Dead of the House, a novel.

[The Dead of the House] is one of the most important works of fiction I have read in quite a while. It is not "major," propounds no theories, participates in neither rear nor avant-garde maneuvers. Hannah Green's novel simply is, a family chronicle and a fictional memoir—always spontaneous, rich in atmosphere, its feelings specified, felt, projected. A beautiful book, nowhere bigger than itself, nowhere grander than its own scope or subject. It has been shaped with the caressing skill of a lover of people and words, but the words do not take over and perform a sideshow, and the people aren't always that lovable, and Hannah Green is aware of that, too….

I mean to say that I was not simply reading about childhood, or girlhood, or adolescence, about Ohio families and Indian forebears. I was also given a wonderful opportunity to get close to the imagination of another living person, an intelligence that was both gracious and funky, witty and charming. It was like falling in love. I was, for as long as it took, able to surrender my own callowness and smugness to the ecstacy that is fiction, is art.

Richard Elman, "Great Antidote for Self-Contempt," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 13, 1972 (Part I), p. 5.

The Dead of the House is less a novel than a kind of dream, a protracted prose poem of singular delicacy, filled with generosity, love, and wisdom, and steeped in lore…. [It] is a deeply felt, uniquely American fiction….

How strange it is to come upon a transcendental novel in the last third of the 20th century. Like most works of fiction, it is about life as it is lived on earth; unlike so many, it has something of importance to say on the subject, with a touch that is as light and dry as a blown leaf or the touch of an old man's hand. It is a book to make its readers feel fortunate.

L. J. Davis, "An Accumulation of Time Past," in Book World (© The Washington Post), February 27, 1972, p. 4.

The intimate mystery of memory is the source of … power [in Hannah Green's novel, The Dead of the House]. Green's episodes have the air of being recalled, not created, and they conquer the imagination as one's own memories do, true both to the consciousness that recalls them and to an imaginable world outside that consciousness. "Memory, record, and imagination," closely linked in experience, are often indistinguishable from one another. So it is in The Dead of the House, where the creative power of the imagination operates on fact to generate memory, which in turn makes imagination inseparable from fact…. Memory, creating character, generating truth, is the subject and technique of the book. Its benignity incorporates misunderstanding, hostility …, violence, death, without sentimentalizing them. When it avoids direct recollection of emotion, the avoidance is itself a statement…. The interstices of memory are as revealing as its densities. The Dead of the House offers remarkable variety of emotional texture within its prevailing atmosphere of nostalgia.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 500-01.

One begins reading The Dead of the House with the curiously refreshing sense that this is not going to be a fashionably "absurd" contemporary novel. The manner is realistic. Instead of caricature and fantasy, we are introduced to characters of full dimensions with roots lying deep in a recognizable version of American history…. It may be, as Wallace Stegner says on the book flap, that "this is a novel that is going to reassure many readers who have not lost faith in the family"; yet there is a mood which runs counter to the seemingly nostalgic presentation of the traditionally admired American character. The novel turns out in the end to be a chronicle of lost innocence—or, more accurately, of paradise lost through innocence.

Though there are frequent shifts in time and narrator, the novel does have something of a loose plot structure controlled by the narrator's quest to identify herself with her family's past. The first section, "In My Grandfather's House," introduces the narrator's Grandpa Nye, a representative American and the narrator's chief link to her ancestral past…. This is followed in the second section, "Summer Afternoon, Summer Afternoon," by an account of Vanessa's own awkward, dreamy, painful, and ecstatic girlhood, particularly the summers spent in Michigan….

The final third of the book deals with the condition of the Nye family during Grandpa Nye's declining years in the early 1950s. The younger Nyes are admirable, but lesser men than their forefathers. A breakdown in family structure has begun to show, but the author does not simply play off the present against the past, for the structure had developed a crack long ago….

Grandpa Nye's ninety years cover a rich variety of experience as Latinist, historian, Chautauqua lecturer, outdoorsman, storyteller, winemaker, and businessman…. Grandpa Nye's love of nature and his outlook in general are strikingly Emersonian: '… one can never be lonely when he has the fields and the forest, the rivers and the lakes for his companions. They never seemed to be inanimate things; rather they are living things." And it is here, perhaps, in Grandpa Nye's Emersonianism that his flaw is to be found: he lacks a sufficient of evil….

Grandpa Nye lives in a compartmentalized world. The most striking evidence of this is his mutual and uncritical admiration for both Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison who defeated the Indian forces under Tecumseh and later made use of his popularity as an Indian fighter in his campaign for president. Grandpa Nye is, in fact, an expert on Harrison, yet never once in the book does he indicate any sense of the social injustice which drove Tecumseh into organizing resistance. Grandpa Nye's blindness comes out in the unconscious tone of condescension in speaking of his Indian friend, Alfred: "not only a superior Indian, but a superior man,… with an appreciation of Nature that was unusual in an Indian. I verily believe that his delight in the beauty of the land and water was as great as mine." A further ironic discrepancy in this vein is his love of his annual Canadian canoe trips and his ownership of a company which sells pig iron, coke, and coal. Grandpa Nye welcomes the Canadian National Railroad which makes it possible to penetrate to the heart of the Canadian wilderness (and to leave comfortably in a Pullman car), unaware that the extension of technology is also deadly to the very thing he loves. The reader may discover further discrepancies for himself, though they are not as obvious as they seem to be here, for the author's method is not the traditional modern one, fostered by The Waste Land, of using immediately opposed juxtapositions; but the discrepancies are there and are available to reflection. Without an awareness of these ironies, the reader is likely to mistake the novel as a nostalgic celebration of a bygone America.

The novel does have its faults. Some of the historical accounts are insufficiently integrated into the fictional narration. The author too often relies on hints where important matters of motivation are concerned (was Joab Nye's death a suicide or accident? what is the significance of Grandmother Nye's madness? and did both of them have a perception of evil that was lacking in the other Nyes?)…. Yet The Dead of the House is an important book for its evocation and implicit judgment of the American past—the enduring values and virtues of some of its best men, as well as their ultimate moral failure.

Donald Markos, "Of Grandfathers: Hannah Green's The Dead of the House," in The Southern Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 713-16.