Mary Ellen Chase Essay - Critical Essays

Chase, Mary Ellen (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chase, Mary Ellen 1887–

An American regional novelist of the Maine coast, Miss Chase also writes fiction for children. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

A Goodly Heritage belongs to a prolific genre of New England and, especially, of Maine writing—a combination of local color and reminiscence—which includes works by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Celia Thaxter, Robert Tristam Coffin, Sarah Orne Jewett. Miss Chase admits a large debt to Sarah Orne Jewett, whom she had met during childhood and to whom she confided her own desire to write books, receiving the author's encouragement. (p. 24)

In writing A Goodly Heritage, as well as most of her other books, Mary Ellen Chase has associated herself with that impressive, though critically somewhat spurned, group of writers who insist on seeking and even finding positive values in our national culture in a period when it has become intellectually unfashionable to find anything but negative values. Undoubtedly the negative—the lost dreams, the despair, the crassness of spirit—exist; but perhaps the positive exist also, and have existed far back into American history. At least Mary Ellen Chase thinks so, as did so many of our authors of the past—Howells, Henry James, Hawthorne, Whitman. In our own century three or four women novelists other than Miss Chase have recorded a confidence in the moral and spiritual resources of the American character. These writers, among whom should be included Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, may be called Humanists in that they regard humanity as possessing potentials of soul and mind not found in the rest of organic or inorganic nature. They are distinct from the Naturalists—Zola, Dreiser, Frank Norris—who regard man as part of, and not in any way outside of, the material universe. (p. 25)

Aside from being a valuable and interesting piece of autobiography, A Goodly Fellowship has been received, even by the "educators" whom she disowns, as a sort of classic statement of the ideals and practices of American education. (p. 35)

The twenty-two years between the publication of The Edge of Darkness and the second of the Maine novels, Silas Crockett, correspond roughly with the lapse of time between The White Gate and A Goodly Heritage and the parts of A Goodly Fellowship which deal with Maine. The White Gate is briefer, psychologically profounder, and more lyrical than its predecessors. The same may be said of The Edge of Darkness, which was published within three years of The White Gate. Miss Chase's perceptions had sharpened, and her control of her material had tightened. But the intervening period had been rich in productivity—three novels, two biographies, two books on the Bible, not to mention lesser works—nor did the output fall off after The Edge of Darkness. (p. 94)

Mary Ellen Chase's first literary success was in fiction, and her reputation today rests, and will continue to rest, on her novels. Yet, among her own enthusiasms both as a writer and a reader, the essay takes a place second to none. The great essayists—Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey—first awakened her to the infinite potential of the English sentence. The grandeur and subtleties of their style, discovered … during her convalescence in Montana, decided her to devote her life to the teaching—and, if possible, the writing—of great prose. Sentences that particularly thrilled her, she committed to memory, so that she could recite them on her walks or while lying in bed. Like many writers before her, she imitated her favorites: Hazlitt for his monosyllabic honesty, Pater for his skill in participles, De Quincey for his loftiness. She plunged herself into the great tradition of English prose, and the effects of that baptism are evident to the present day in the roll and the sweep and, on occasion, the conciseness of her own sentences. Like so many American authors of the past and present, she is fascinated with style, with rhetoric; but she does not permit her enchantment to betray her into bombast, as was the case sometimes with Melville and with Thomas Wolfe; or into excessive complexity, as happens on certain pages of Faulkner and Henry James. Good sense and the restraint imposed on her by her models have kept her style always well within the limits of moderation and understandability. Never does her style stand between her meaning and the reader. (p. 129)

Miss Chase's attachment to the Maine coast of her girlhood is, of course, deep and abiding. She loves its people, its villages, its forests, coves, inlets, and mountains, and above all its history. Had she not loved Maine so deeply, she could not have written so poetically about it. But she could not have written so well about Maine had she overlooked its spiritual failings. Some of her novels—Mary Christmas, Windswept, and The Lovely Ambition—have been attempts to confer on the Maine setting a spiritual tradition, whether Catholic or humanistically Protestant, worthy of the physical beauty of the land and the proud heritage of its people. Like Emerson, she attempted to spiritualize the old religion that had forgotten soul for formalism and abstraction. Like Emerson, she chose the path pointed out by Plato, for her Christianity is strong in the Platonic strain that can be found in the Gospels themselves. To her, beauty is the incarnation of spirit, the outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace. Beautiful lives, the beauty of nature and art, are but the visible forms of that which is eternal and indestructible in us and in the universe. Life in itself becomes a sacrament, a unity, instead of a ceaseless conflict between irreconcilabilities. Unlike Emerson, however, Miss Chase does not deny the very existence of evil; nor does she minimize our need to struggle against evil in ourselves and in the world. But she doesn't Calvinistically equate evil with joy, or beauty, or the senses. All of these have their place in the harmony of things. To reject them categorically as bad or as suspect is to reject all chance of attaining the good life, which is one of harmony between body and soul, the material and the ideal. (p. 133)

Miss Chase's own writing does not resemble that of the Bible so much as does, for example, Hemingway's in both diction and sentence structure. Yet her pages are full of Biblical allusions and phrases. The reader should think twice before ascribing these echoings solely to conscious effort. New England villagers, like those of Blue Hill, unconsciously used scriptural language and images. (p. 148)

Novels that rest firmly on a foundation of social history, as do Miss Chase's Maine novels, have an advantage in retaining readership. Students or casual readers interested in Maine, New England, or maritime America will turn to Miss Chase's novels for a long time to come, just as they will turn to her autobiographical writing. The fact that they will be reading literature as well as social history may be of secondary concern to them. (p. 157)

Perry D. Westbrook, in his Mary Ellen Chase, Twayne, 1965.