Critical Evaluation

Joseph’s Hergesheimer’s third novel, THE THREE BLACK PENNYS, was published two years after D. H. Lawrence’s THE RAINBOW. Lawrence’s novel, suppressed in England, was declared obscene by the Bow Street Magistrate, who ordered police to seize copies at the bookstores and at the press. Hergesheimer’s novel, on the other hand, was widely popular; together with JAVA HEAD (1919), it established for the author a major reputation during the early 1920’s. Apart from their different publication histories, THE THREE BLACK PENNYS and THE RAINBOW are similar in many ways. Both treat the theme of mating—successful or unsuccessful—of three generations of a family, the Brangwens for Lawrence and the Pennys for Hergesheimer; both examine, almost as a mystique, a special quality of “blood” that distinguishes members of the family; both begin with a marriage involving a “mixed” bloodline from a Polish widow—Lydia Lensky in THE RAINBOW and Ludowika Winscombe in THE THREE BLACK PENNYS—and show its effects upon the indigenous English or Welsh-American stock of the males of the family; both attempt, through symbolism concerning time, place, and character, to record the history of culture for their respective countries; both show, again through symbol and story, the diminishing vitality of the original family stock, from Ursula’s failure in love (she marries in WOMEN IN LOVE) to the last Howat Penny’s feeble bachelorhood that terminates his line; finally, both novels deal with the larger issues of vitality and degeneration, progress and decay.

Yet the novels, despite their remarkable similarities in theme, are markedly different in their effects. Lawrence’s symbols, whether used on a conscious or subconscious Freudian-Jungian level, are worked integrally into the structure of his book; Hergesheimer’s symbols—particularly those concerning the relationship between the men and the iron—are all quite obvious. They add substance to the narrative but do not provide additional levels of significance, nor do they turn the story into myth. Furthermore, Lawrence’s concept of “blood consciousness,” both a psychological and moral argument, is carefully elaborated in the lives of the Brangwens; Hergesheimer’s treatment of the “black” strain (that is, the Welsh ancestry) in the Penny family’s blood inheritance is superficial, a mere plot device with a psychological or moral frame of reference. Whether the “black” Welsh blood represents a behavioral atavism or is an odd coincidence of personality, its appearance over several generations is never fully explained. Finally, Lawrence’s novel treats the partial or complete failures in sexuality as symbols for the disintegration of modern culture; Hergesheimer, however, treats the failures as isolated examples, without moving from the specific instance to the general malaise of American culture. Thus Lawrence’s...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)