Marion Montgomery Essay - Critical Essays

Montgomery, Marion

Montgomery, Marion 1925–

Montgomery is a Southern American poet and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The Wandering of Desire … is a chronicle, a country epic, a first novel sprung forth whole and entire with full Faulknerian panoply of legends, yarns, family tales, and a command of country epithet unsurpassed since The Hamlet. Yet it is not derivative, owing no more to Faulkner than to Mark Twain and Ecclesiastes the Preacher….

Every Southern writer must come to some kind of terms with the Negro. He can no more avoid it than a Negro writer can avoid writing about the white man. Sometimes the coming to terms, for or against, wrenches the novel out of place. In … The Wandering of Desire the coming to terms does not get the better of the novel. (p. 182)

Walker Percy, in Commonweal (copyright © 1962 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 11, 1962.

Marion Montgomery's brief novel Darrell is … one of those flawless works of art being turned out by Southern writers as only they, apparently, can. The author's technical skill as an accomplished story-teller equips him to communicate his penetrating vision of the tragicomedy of man's life with rare effectiveness. It is one of the few completely satisfying books to come across my desk this year; yet I fear its very unpretentiousness (its simple title, for example), may cause it to be overlooked. While richly poetic, it avoids lush, self-conscious descriptions; while profound in its understanding of character, it is never pompous; while meticulously written, it does not employ those incomprehensible tricks of the anti-novelists that are so popular today among certain critics. (p. 75)

Brother Luke M. Grande, F.S.C., in Best Sellers (copyright 1964, by the University of Scranton), May 15, 1964.

With his clear voice, insight, and vision, Marion Montgomery is one of the most appealing spokesmen for the new South as well as the Old. Although the characters in this his second novel [Darrell] are not larger than life, the story that these characters tell is. Mr. Montgomery's attitude toward life can be summed up by Granny's comment on Mr. Montgomery's sensitive young protagonist who "when he gets something in his head that's all he studies about. He decides he likes chicken, he gets so wrapped up in it that he can't eat a drumstick without tasting the feather." (p. 94)

O. B. Emerson, "A New Voice from the South," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1965), Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1965, pp. 91-4.

John Crowe Ransom once wrote a letter to a friend of mine, in which he said, "you are a country poet, and I respect that." I recall thinking, in those distant days, that such a name must be at least a qualified insult. Because I knew them already, all the modern poets: Eliot, Rimbaud, Stevens, Cummings, and so many more. They were bright and tight. They used language, like Japanese lacquer, to raise the tone of ordinary life to its brilliant steely apothesis in twenty or thirty hard mindwrenching lines.

I know better now, and the best work of writers like Marion Montgomery serves as a text, exemplar of that better knowing. Surface palls. There are times when Hesiod or The Georgics are more satisfying than Mallarmé. Like my friend, Marion Montgomery is a "country poet," and anyone who understands the genesis and nature of poetry, its inseverable roots in earth and those who have known the earth, those who have lived out of the earth, will agree that this is indeed something to be respected.

I am not, of course, setting up some bastard distinction between "country" and "city" poetry; between an Hesiodic and a Hart Crane poetry. Rather I would suggest that the idea of "country" poetry, as Ransom used the term, is intended to denote the kind of poetry which deals with primary relationships, the irreducible interconnections between man and earth, man and man, man and the universe; the kind of poetry which leaves aside, mostly, the problems of "The Artist in Society," "The Totalitarian State," "The Racial Problem," "The Search for Identity."

Mr. Montgomery deals, for the most part, with plain things. With the love of a father for his son; the ambiguous feelings released as one leafs through an old photo album. He is very good indeed writing of The Fathers, of the old times: the memories of things seen merged unconsciously with things told and things only imagined (but imagined within the strait regula of the heart's certain knowledge of what must have been). He handles with sureness these plain things, and their lucid ramifications, the manifold figures and images which never slide into the slough of mere abstraction when retold lovingly…. (p. 135)

All this is not to enter an unqualified vote of praise on Stones from the Rubble. We all make mistakes. Or I reckon we all do. It seems to me, however, there are two kinds of "mistakes" when it comes to poetry (there are, of course, hundreds, but these two are basic, and in order to tell if a man's work is any good, they must be understood). The first class of mistake is revealed when, after careful reading, one is convinced that the writer is 1. writing in his own chosen territory, and 2. has written badly. The second kind of mistake is discovered when, after equally careful reading, one judges that the poet is on foreign ground, a place he has no business being for one reason or another. And has written badly.

I find Mr. Montgomery's mistakes, if I may make bold to use such a term in relation to another man's work, all of the second kind. When he is at home, it is obvious he is an owner, a proprietor; not a renter or a sublessee. When he slips, it appears obvious that he has been pulled off base, been gulled into playing someone else's—or perhaps no one's game. The specific poems I have reference to are "The Poet in Residence in Spite of Himself," "Lines in Stasis in the Form of a Sonnet That Didn't Get Written," and a few others of similar bent. The two named are, if you want to lend the dignity of a genre to them, "academic satires," the making of which is, I expect, absolutely impossible. (p. 136)

Thus we find ourselves accusing Mr. Montgomery of errors of judgement—as opposed to failure of talent. Such errors are not significant. They constitute the kind of slippage a writer is bound to suffer in the twentieth century; the more likely to, if his talent is considerable. Like the political poem, the engagée protest-poem, they are the product of anger or outrage misplaced, and if the misplacing is a shame, the outrage, extra-literarily, does the writer no discredit.

But when Mr. Montgomery is good, he is likely to be very good. (pp. 136-37)

Marion Montgomery's new book possesses several virtues, one of them cardinal: it represents a writer in motion. The things he has done well before, those "country poems," he is doing as well or better. His experiments (and the second half of the book contains a number of prose-poems, several of which are good—plus a fine enigmatic piece neatly teetering between comedy, tragedy and bathos called "Would You Like to Try for Infinity Years") are worth the effort, and what he does badly, by and large, is what no one does well. I expect such a balance is about as much as anyone can expect, and more than most writers deliver. In discovering that balance and its issues, a reader is likely to share some portion of the writer's pleasure. (p. 138)

John William Corrington, in The Georgia Review (copyright 1967, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1967.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the boisterous "A Cry of Angels," I was confused and alienated by "Fugitive." It is difficult, crabbed, full of half-disclosed meanings. This is its first sentence: "Certainty: the death of love, and so of poetry, since it is the death of the possible or probable." The whole novel reads more or less like that.

There is not much of a plot…. But plot is not important in this book. Deliberately so. "Fugitive" is a non-dramatic novel filled with ruminations on life and death, interleaved with aimless street corner conversations and bad locker-room jokes. There is, moreover, a great deal of thrashing about by the various characters—hunting scenes, the organization and training of a volunteer fire department, a music festival, even a shotgun murder. This latter is a fine example of Marion Montgomery's technique: Judge Weaver is fragmented by a charge of buckshot on his own front porch—as the chapter ends I turned the page hastily to find out who killed the kindly old man. But no. Not until six or eight aimless pages later did the subject of murder reappear. And then it was only a passing reference in a casual discussion. The effect of one of the most dramatic episodes in the book was deliberately ruined.

This is a calculated technique, no doubt. But it seems to me that this approach traps the writer into talking about and around events, with little if anything of worth being finally said.

To read this book is to sit and spin slowly in a small Southern town, absorbing in your turns a bit of local history, a bit of character, a bit of local custom. There is a constant shift in the point of view, which I find very distracting. There is also a heavy emphasis on the non-rational side of people's actions. A man names his hound for his long-dead girlfriend (who was killed by him in a car crash). A couple elope, although their interest in each other was barely indicated. Finally, the experimental structure of the novel makes unnecessary demands on the reader. Since there is no great profundity struggling to express itself, it leaves the impression of a simple story complicatedly told.

Still none of this detracts from the fact that "Fugitive" is a desperately serious literary venture. (p. 4)

Shirley Ann Grau, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 9, 1974.

Marion Montgomery is one of a handful of writers whose work belies the prophecies of sociological critics that the epoch of significant Southern fiction has come to an end. Poet, critic as well as novelist, his reputation has grown, if not vaster than empires, certainly more slow. The reasons for this pace are various; but among them I would cite Montgomery's lack of preoccupation with the problem of modern sexuality and his persistent opposition to political fashion. One ignores Freud and Marx at his own peril…. [His] third novel, Fugitive, [is] a work as ambitious in its own way as anything yet attempted by a Southerner of his generation.

Indeed Montgomery is here so bold in his aspirations that throughout the novel the reader spends much of his time wondering if the action, however skillfully rendered, can possibly bear the burden of the author's weighty thematic substance. For this action, despite a few stark incidents, contains little except the everyday activities which make up life in Weaverton, Georgia, a small town whose inhabitants are almost without exception ignorant of Nietzsche, Homer, Kierkegaard, the metaphysical poets, Joyce, and a host of other writers whose thoughts Montgomery pours into the texture of his narrative as one would pour gravel into concrete. Thus the reader may be switched almost in mid-paragraph from hunts and gardening to Fear and Trembling; and such quick movements of the artist's hand must necessarily excite suspicion as well as admiration.

The point of view is also tricky. At the outset the first-person narrator is one C. M. Haggard, a local "historian" who … like Conrad's Marlow, is a man of uncommon sensibilities; and his commentary is as authoritative as a first-person narrator's can be. Often, however, Haggard gives way to another voice; and Walt becomes a central intelligence, then a first-person narrator himself. So skillful is Montgomery's technical management in these instances that the reader is eased from one mode to another without so much as a nudge of the elbow.

However, in the light of these structural complications it is necessary to ask whether the elaborate machinery of the novel is necessary or merely overwrought chicanery.

The answer to this question has to be sought in the relationship of the central action to some larger archetypal movement which gathers in and transmutes the diverse allusory material. If such a relationship exists and if it is truly and convincingly rendered, then Fugitive is something more than a pretentious trick and deserves an admiration reserved for the finest literary achievements of the age.

First, the plot, the shape of the action, is as familiar as a fairy tale and as significant: the advent of the stranger and his gradual integration into the community. In Montgomery's version the stranger is Walter Mason, a young Southerner whose affinity for the metaphysical conceit has enabled him to amass a small fortune writing country-and-western songs for a Nashville entrepreneur. Steeped in the "Agrarianism" associated with the famous Vanderbilt group of an earlier era, Walt decides to flee from the Inferno of an impersonal urban world and immerse himself in a rural community of "plain folk" who, he believes, live unselfconsciously and therefore more fully. Like Dante with his foot on the first ascending step, Walt looks toward Paradiso, forgetting that Purgatorio always intervenes and that whatever glimpse of heaven we are allowed in this world is momentary and imperfect, far from that pinpoint of light that first intrigues, then disappoints the reader of The Divine Comedy.

Walt's guide during this journey into self is Hugh Akers—middle-aged yeoman, farmer, hunter, handyman, county burgher, extraordinary teller of tales, and an unlikely Beatrice. Akers is clearly the normative figure in the narrative, the man Walt would like to become and never quite can. For Akers lives without the dubious benefit of a formal education; and his wisdom, which derives from natural experience and an acute sensibility, cannot be summarized in theoretical discourse but only articulated in anecdotes and tales, some of which are original and some of which are borrowed from an oral tradition which is the common property of any true community…. Indeed he is one of the most believable men of virtue in modern fiction. (pp. 212-14)

[It] would be easy to arrange [Montgomery's] characters according to some neoplatonic or Aristotelian schema: Mort Thompson as sense, Harry Springer as reason, Hugh Akers as intuition; or Akers as the golden mean between the extremes of hyperrationality and sensual stupidity. But while Montgomery is clearly aware of such possibilities, he properly rejects them as inconsistent with the world he is presenting. Literary stereotypes, after all, are the product of the very abstractionism that the author rejects in rendering such a character as Hugh Akers, who, though virtuous, is complex, human, and fallible. (p. 215)

[In] the final analysis the action of the novel is comic rather than tragic in its movement, an affirmation of the truth that Walt finds, however impure, in a small town where people like Hugh Akers can still live and keep their equilibrium. (p. 216)

[It] is difficult to judge the success of this novel because of a technical complexity which at times seems to have been arbitrarily superimposed on a simple series of events. I will venture the opinion, however, that Montgomery was right in complicating his story with a variety of narrators and a quantity of digressions. For the very simplicity of Walt Mason's beginnings in the country is something of an illusion, the kind of grace achieved by an athlete only after severe discipline; and consequently the main action—Walt's story—can only be understood by a fully-developed contrast with the world at large, represented most concretely by … the Nashville sound.

The interior monologues remind us that Walt's odyssey is self-conscious and can only be understood in relation to I'll Take My Stand. After all, he is rationally attempting to follow a course he finds charted in the Agrarian symposium; and the lengthy philosophical glosses to the incidents which make up the narrative are by no means arbitrary or artificial but are logical, indeed inevitable, given the nature of the hero. Walt is always aware of his surd modernity and flees not to the past but to the concrete and permanent, to those experiences which are most intensely human in any age. (pp. 216-17)

Finally I must conclude that the work is extraordinarily successful, which is to say that it represents a substantial literary achievement. And in addition to its artistic merit (which derives from qualities which are timeless), I would point out that Montgomery has caught in his narrative the spirit of the present moment in history, that inevitable pull of gravity that has brought the pendulum swinging back from abstract certitude toward simple submission to what Ransom called "the world's body." For what Montgomery has written here is the American success story played backwards, a tale of a hero who leaves fame and fortune in the city to seek a humdrum life on the farm. On the road to contentment (if not happiness) Walt passes Eugene Gant, Sister Carrie, and a host of others going in the opposite direction. Yet more and more Walt is being joined by a contemporary generation which is rejecting the myths of Progress and Manifest Destiny in favor of more homely ones. For these and many other reasons his trip is well worth the time and trouble, however tortuous the turns in the road. I suspect that this is the first novel of a kind, and as such it deserves our most serious and respectful attention. (p. 217)

Thomas H. Landess, "Marion Montgomery's 'Fugitive'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by the University of Georgia), Summer, 1974, pp. 212-17.