Alvah Bessie Howard Mumford Jones - Essay

Howard Mumford Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Dwell in the Wilderness"] chronicles the fortunes of a middle-class family in Michigan from 1876 to 1925. Both time and scene have special significance for the theme of the tale. For the parents are representatives of that sterile emotional moralism which, though it had healthy roots in New England, grew both impotent and hysterical as successive generations moved across central New York, upper Ohio, and southern Michigan. The mother, Amelia, the most imposing figure in the book, unscrupulously uses the selfish sentimentality and meaningless piety which this tradition offered its women, to destroy her husband's vitality and to dominate the lives of her children….

Mr. Bessie is shrewdest in picturing the smothered ambivalent relationships of parents and children…. [Although] this relationship is central to the book, Mr. Bessie has also interested himself in depicting the flowing panorama of the American scene through the lapse of years.

The novel is thoughtfully planned and thoughtfully executed. It leaves an impression of weight, due in part to the care which has gone into its creation and in part to the slow tempo of the narrative. The tempo is a source of strength and of weakness. Mr. Bessie capably holds the situation at important points, wringing from it the last ounce of psychological richness which it can give. But the problem of carrying forward the inner life of six or seven lives simultaneously inevitably results in a sort of falsity of perspective, with the result that Amelia, who begins almost as a caricature of a period, ends by looming as a monstrous destructive force….

The only other important defect is that Mr. Bessie underlines his intentions. Again and again there is a touch too many, a step too far….

But the novel must be seriously considered. Scene after scene is presented with loving fidelity and great vividness. If none of the characters is masterly, the theme is important, and the family group is worth the patience lavished upon them. And the book represents an important fusion of two fictional techniques—the interior monologue, and the heaping up by the author of happily observed external detail.

Howard Mumford Jones, "Portrait of a Family," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1935 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XII, No. 18, August 31, 1935, p. 10.