Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
August (William) Derleth 1909–1971
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Stephen Grendon and Tally Mason) American novelist, short story writer, poet, nonfiction writer, biographer, critic, editor, and publisher.
Derleth wrote or edited more than 150 books, including poetry, fiction, biographies, histories, juvenile fiction, mysteries, and supernatural tales, during a career that spanned nearly fifty years. While he began his career as a mystery writer, Derleth gained his most serious critical attention for his semiautobiographical "Sac Prairie Saga." These works, which revolve around the people and events in the fictive town of Sac Prairie, Wisconsin, were praised for their attention to detail and their vivid descriptions of nature. Totalling thirty-eight volumes, including poetry, prose, and character sketches, the Sac Prairie Saga evinces Derleth's ability to depict both the peacefulness and the tension in small-town life.
The Sac Prairie series covers the time period from the early 1800s through the mid-1900s. While the works in this series are highly praised for Derleth's descriptions of natural beauty, some critics maintain that his preoccupation with the land indicates a lack of feeling for his characters and makes it difficult to sustain interest in them. Derleth's characters generally are loners who exhibit what he called "the night that is in each of us." Most of Derleth's stories are concerned with the themes of love, courage, and honor and are infused with a wistful, nostalgic tone that often includes gentle humor. Among the more highly praised Sac Prairie works are the novels Still Is the Summer Night (1937), Wind Over Wisconsin (1938), and Evening in Spring (1941), the short story collection Country Growth (1940), and two volumes of poetry, Hawk on the Wind (1938) and Man Track Here (1939).
While he was involved in writing the Sac Prairie works, Derleth began another series, the "Wisconsin Saga." The five novels in this series, Bright Journey (1940), The House on the Mound (1958), The Hills Stand Watch (1960), The Shadow in the Glass (1963), and The Wind Leans West (1969), often have as their subjects actual people and events in the history of Wisconsin. These volumes maintain the same subdued tone as the Sac Prairie Saga, for Derleth concentrated on similar themes and carefully detailed his settings. However, this series, like the later volumes of the Sac Prairie works, was not well received by critics; they considered his later works monotonous, repetitive, and crowded with superfluous characters and incidents.
Two other series for which Derleth is known are the Judge Peck stories and the Solar Pons mysteries. Also set in Sac Prairie, the Judge Peck works, which include Murder Stalks the Wakely Family (1934), The Seven Who Waited (1943), and Death by Design (1953), are cleverly plotted detective stories that have been well received by devotees of the genre. The Solar Pons mysteries, including In Re: Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Solar Pons (1945) and Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (1968), have been praised as among the best Sherlock Holmes imitations as well as being entertaining and intriguing in their own right.
Although Derleth was recognized as an important regional writer during the 1940s and 1950s, he became better known in subsequent years as the founder of Arkham House, which published a number of well-known writers in the supernatural and fantasy fields, including Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Robert Bloch, and Algernon Blackwood. Derleth also oversaw the publication of the first novels of science fiction writers Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and A. E. Van Vogt. His most famous literary association, however, was with H. P. Lovecraft, whose works he promoted for critical and public attention. Derleth also wrote numerous stories based on notes and fragments Lovecraft had left and published them under joint authorship. These works are collected in the volume The Watchers Out of Time and Others (1974). Derleth also tried his hand at writing science fiction, but his accomplishments in this field are considered slight in comparison to those in his Sac Prairie series.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538
Dear A. W.:—
Your novelette The Early Years [the initial draft of the novel which was to become Evening in Spring] duly came, and I have read it with the closest attention. Truly, it is a splendid piece of work…. I knew from your isolated fragments that you had the real stuff of literature at your command; but now that I see some of these arranged in a proper organic relationship, my opinion takes an additional upward soaring! There is profound and subtle beauty, splendidly modulated, in this sequence of dream-glamourous pictures. You have a keen and sensitively selective eye for details and sensations and images, as indeed I realised before. Now I see that you are equally felicitous in arranging these things in a significant, revelatory, and aesthetically satisfying form. It seems to me that you are coming to handle words and sentences more and more skilfully and adequately—you will recall my mentioning, in years past, that carelessness in this field … was one result of your over-voluminous writing which ought to be corrected a bit. Time, I imagine, is supplying this correction—for this novelette has passages of beautiful and musical language as well as of poignant imagery and convincing emotion. There is no mistaking the right of this piece to be considered as serious literary expression. (pp. 141-42)
[The] sketches all have the feel of genuine life and sincerity about them. They create a scene and atmosphere with solid reality in every part—even though it be that ethereal reality which depends on mood and subjective vision for its palpable outlines. You are obviously not trying to give a cross-section of the entire lives of the characters in all their complex humanity. What you are doing is to trace a certain line of emotional activity in them—and in this you succeed with admirable completeness. Most certainly I find all the characters clearly outlined—visible and psychologically realisable. Though each one represents a temperament and emotional life antipodally different from my own at their age, I can detect the earmarks of truthful portrayal throughout the story. There is an impression of authentic life—a feeling that some sort of key is furnished to the fumbling and ambivalent thoughts and motivations of a vast proportion of actual adolescents whom one has observed…. Certainly, this is a marvellously fine piece of delving into the obscure associative imagery and emotional overtones of a certain part of the stream of consciousness of a certain type of introverted and somewhat hyperaesthetic youth. I can see the differences in intention from the Proust and Joyce schools of fiction, and think on the whole that your attitude is somewhat more conservative than the latter's. You preserve a certain coherence and integration, and exercise a measurable degree of selectiveness despite your departure from the superficial and the conventional…. You have the real stuff, and with the progress of time it seems to me over-whelmingly probable that you will produce literature of a major calibre…. Yr. most obt. and Hble. servt. HP (p. 142)
H P [H. P. Lovecraft], in a letter to August Derleth on April 9, 1930, in his Selected Letters: 1929–1931, Vol. III, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, Arkham House: Publishers, 1971, pp. 141-42.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212
Dear A. W.:—
… Five Alone is such a magnificently balanced bit of atmosphere and inevitability that I don't see how any fully awake and sober editor could possibly reject it. The steady growth of your work is surely heartening to see, and I can easily imagine what your place in the literary field will be a decade hence. About the objection to the odd constructions typified by "she walking out" … or "she perfectly natural" …, I must say that I am inclined to agree with the pedagogical commentator. These constructions, whatever their abstract syntactical merits, are so conspicuously unidiomatic that they tend to attract attention to themselves and thus halt the imaginative progress of the reader. An author's object should be the art which conceals art, hence obtrusive singularity is always to be shunned…. This story is certainly a most remarkable piece of work—full of the horror (also to be noted in early New England) of exaggerated instincts in remote and lonely places. I can't think of anything that could be done to better it as a whole….
H P [H. P. Lovecraft], in a letter to August Derleth in February, 1932, in his Selected Letters: 1932–1934, Vol. IV, edited by August Derleth and James Turner, Arkham House: Publishers, Inc., 1976, p. 11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250
[In "Murder Stalks the Wakely Family," seven] persons living in the little town of Sac Prairie, Wis., receive invitations—they might almost be called commands—to call at midnight on Satterlee Wakely, a man who is hated by virtually everybody who knows him…. [The four who accept the invitations] arrive at Wakely's house so nearly at the same moment that they all go in together. They find Wakely dead with a knife stuck through his neck…. But this is only the beginning. Three more murders are to follow before Judge Peck … discovers the secret that is at the bottom of all the killings and finds the killer. Judge Peck is not a particularly brilliant detective, but he is patient and persistent, and those are the qualities that the case seems to call for.
For the most part the story is told from the viewpoint of Judge Peck and his fellow investigators, but in two places the author departs from this plan and puts himself in the place of the person about to be killed, thus marring the unity of the story for no other purpose, apparently, than to add a slight touch of horror. However, it is not likely that the average mystery fan is fussy about such things so long as he is provided with plenty of bloodshed, and there is no lack of that in this book. (pp. 12, 21)
Isaac Anderson, in a review of "Murder Stalks the Wakely Family," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1934, pp. 12, 21.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127
[In "The Man on All Fours"] we have some not unpleasant sleuthing by Judge Ephraim Peck, who appeared in "Murder Stalks the Wakely Family," ferreting out a coil of fatal violence at Senessen House, the seat of the strange clan of mentally deranged and otherwise suspicious folks near Sac Prairie, Wis. Who stabbed Ray Horrell, son-in-law of old Mrs. Gravisa Senessen, matriarch of the house, unless it was maybe the beldame herself? And what caused the rest of the lively doings in the murder mansion? There are sixteen people to watch…. Ye author succeeds in keeping his secret to the final chapter, which is as it should be.
Will Cuppy, in a review of "The Man on All Fours," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 18, 1934, p. 18.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206
The little Wisconsin village of Sac Prairie is the scene of ["Three Who Died"], as of the other stories about Judge Peck, who is Mr. Derleth's pet sleuth. The judge and his friend, Dr. Considine, have just returned from a fishing trip. They learn that during their absence two persons have died and a third is at the point of death.
There is, at first, no suspicion of foul play, but larger developments make both Judge Peck and Dr. Considine suspicious, and investigation shows that all three of these persons have been murdered. A puzzling feature of the case is that there is no apparent motive, nor is one discovered until the pasts of the persons concerned have been thoroughly raked over.
The solution at which Judge Peck finally arrives appears to be the only logical one, even though it is one which it would be difficult to prove to the satisfaction of a jury. Fortunately, that is not necessary. Mr. Derleth has pictured a series of rather improbable crimes in a community of people whom it is a pleasure to meet, but who are not particularly exciting.
Isaac Anderson, in a review of "Three Who Died," in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1935, p. 14.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
Whoever conceived the idea for "Place of Hawks" has, with the best intentions, done August Derleth a disservice…. [The] first sample of his [short stories] to appear in book form is a literary hybrid that misses both ways. Composed of four long stories which together attempt to constitute a unified pattern, it cannot by the most elastic definition of the term he called a novel; as a representative collection of short stories it is a singularly poor job of selection. I am afraid that readers encountering Mr. Derleth for the first time in these pages will notice his faults and overlook his talents, as they would not in a less tricky and arbitrary arrangement.
It is easy to understand the temptation to those responsible for assembling the volume's contents: Mr. Derleth has written an unusual story, a haunting and oddly poetic boyhood memoir of an old Wisconsin family, the last of the line, whose strain has become darkened with an obsession verging on madness and at times slipping over the border. He has written another with the same setting and a somewhat similar subject…. It sounds good. It sounds very good. But it just doesn't come off.
The author handicaps himself at the start by choosing to cast all four episodes in the first-person narrative form, and by making the narrator a very young child. This is a mechanism difficult enough to employ naturally in isolated stories; when used as it is here its artificial creakings cannot be disguised. One does not notice any technical strain in "Five Alone," the story with which the book opens; one accepts the little boy who drives around the countryside of Sac Prairie with his doctor-grandfather in the latter's gig, and one accepts his account of how he gradually pieced together the melancholy history of Linda Grell, who tried to escape from the prison of a semimad family relationship and found she could not live in her freedom. The overheard conversations, the confidences made to little Steve by people wandering in a world of their own devising, the accidental happening to be with grandfather at all the times when grandfather is summoned to assist the Grells or Linda through a crisis—these devices are woven so skillfully into the dark, dreamy mood of the story that they are hardly visible to the reader. It is when Mr. Derleth is forced to repeat them and to supplement them with clumsier means of revelation—grandfather talking in his sleep, at great length and most coherently, is one example—that he loses us as participants and believers in the strange lives he is depicting and we become observers of a craftsman whose performance seems a little tiresome, a little bungling.
Monotony and a labored attempt to cure it lie, in fact, rather heavily over the book as a whole. Mr. Derleth's variations on the same theme are not varied enough. His imbecile boys, his octogenarians confusing past with present, his fear-ridden descendants of an insane ancestor turning to suicide as they feel themselves drifting toward the madhouse, his normal folk crushed and bewildered by the burden of caring for an abnormal loved one, are all too much of a piece. It is hard to separate them in one's mind after finishing the book, and it also is hard to disentangle the plot-structure of one story from another because the development of each follows such a fixed pattern, inevitably ending in at least one unnatural death and generally in two or three.
My advice is to read "Five Alone" and the title story—which is confused and somewhat padded but contains some remarkably done atmosphere—and put the book aside.
Elizabeth Hart, "New and Old World in Recent Fiction: 'Place of Hawks'," in New York Herald Tribune Books, June 9, 1935, p. 8.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
In "Place of Hawks," a series of four novelettes so closely interrelated that they practically form a unit, Mr. Derleth deals with the kind of material which William Faulkner has copyrighted, though his point of view is essentially different. Horror and madness are his principal themes, but they are presented sanely, with pity and compassion.
Mr. Derleth has a highly developed sense of form. The pattern which he has chosen to bind his four tales together is so logical and apt that "Place of Hawks" resembles a novel rather than the usual collection of stories. His mouthpiece is a young boy, Steve Grendon, who is in the habit of driving round the countryside with his grandfather, a doctor….
Each of the four families whose stories Mr. Derleth tells is burdened with obsessions and clutching vainly at sanity. Linda Grell, knowing that her possessive family is close to madness, struggles without success to escape their hold. Rella Farway, driven over the borderline by her fanatic hatred of the land, involves the whole Farway clan in her mania for destruction. Mrs. Ortell, intelligent and self-sacrificing in her moments of lucidity, solves the problem of approaching madness with a fine dignity. The decline of the Pierneau family, upon whom lies the hidden curse of miscegenation, has a tragic beauty consonant with their past.
To deal credibly with such melodramatic material is not an easy feat. Mr. Derleth brings it off because he is so restrained and so coolly matter-of-fact. By choosing a child as observer he has, moreover, lessened his problem. Steve Grendon, to be sure, tells his stories in retrospect, but he tells only those things which were apprehended by his youthful eyes. Mr. Derleth is consequently under no necessity to trace back the roots of all these pitiful obsessions.
One grasps their essential outlines from Steve's observations supplemented by the comments of his parents and his grandfather, but there is no complex Freudian excavation into the seeds of tragedy. It exists—that is all—and one is convinced of its reality because Mr. Derleth obviously knows these Wisconsin derelicts so well….
Mr. Derleth does not impress one as a writer unduly attracted to the abnormal. He is merely giving a picture of a small prairie community where isolation and inbreeding have done their deadly work, and if the picture seems somewhat highly colored it is because he has chosen to stress the extraordinary rather than the commonplace. "Place of Hawks" is a grim but not a morbid book. It may not be realism in the strictest sense, but on its own terms it compels belief.
Edith H. Walton, "Family Skeletons," in The New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1935, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653
"Still Is the Summer Night," Mr. Derleth's second novel, again has Sac Prairie for a background. This time, however, the emphasis is different [from that in "Place of Hawks"]. Though his story ends in violence, though his three young Halders act out a stormy triangular drama, his characters this time are normal and subject to normal passions. They take an active, vigorous part in the life of Sac Prairie—a town which, in the early Eighties, still retained lingering features of a typical frontier settlement. (pp. 7, 18)
On the outskirts of the village, crouching at the edge of the prairie, lay the prosperous Halder farm. Here, in apparent amity, dwelt old Captain Halder, a Civil War veteran; his sons, Ratio and Alton, and Ratio's beautiful young wife, Julie. As the book opens, however, the seeds of disunion and disaster have already been sowed. Handsome, arrogant, fretted by domesticity, Ratio has turned from Julie and is carrying on a sordid intrigue with a village girl. Julie guesses what is happening, and though her first pain has been somewhat stilled, she is angry, wounded, and eager for certitude. Alton, who loves her deeply but silently, is a helpless spectator in this early stage of the drama….
From here on the course of the story is not hard to predict. Having learned to depend on Alton for comfort and sustenance, Julie soon responds to the gentle urgency of his passion. Secretly, they become lovers, and in a year or so, after the cruel death of her own and Ratio's baby, Julie realizes exultantly that she is bearing Alton's child. They must, however, be more discreet than ever, watchful particularly lest they hurt the old man. But Captain Halder, as it happens, has already guessed the situation. Town gossip has brought him word of Ratio's infidelity. His own slow, groping intuition has taught him the truth about Alton, Julie and the paternity of the child. There is nothing, however, for him to do but hold his tongue in sorrowful impotence—fearful that disaster may come, as it does, when Ratio is at last undeceived.
Such is the rather simple plot of Mr. Derleth's novel, uncomplicated by side issues, proceeding forward in an undeviating line. The texture of his tale is enriched, however, by the superb, sensitive descriptions which he gives of Wisconsin landscape and Wisconsin atmosphere. One watches the seasons roll in splendor over Sac Prairie, meaning much to the Halders because they are so close to the soil. He is adroit, also, at giving one the actual feel of a little prairie town in the Eighties. There are corn huskings, roof raisings, sleigh rides, country dances. State politics are discussed avidly by the graybeards. One is introduced, even, to the older La Follette, then the rising young District Attorney of Dane County. Single threaded as is the drama of the Halders, they do not play it out in a vacuum.
In many respects, "Still Is the Summer Night" is superior to its predecessor. It is unified instead of scattered. It has greater breadth of appeal. It avoids excessive, specialized emphasis on decadence and insanity. One would rather see Mr. Derleth develop in this direction than have him write another "Place of Hawks." Unfortunately, there is something a little static and monotonous about this new book of his. It is not as interesting as it should be. Its course is often clogged by super-fluous scenes and conversations; the three protagonists are not arresting enough people to carry the frail, familiar burden of his story. In a sense, one is more interested in the genre picture which he gives of a Wisconsin village in the Eighties than in the psychological tension within the Halder household. "Still Is the Summer Night" is an honest and well-written book, but it moves slowly and lacks lift. (p. 18)
Edith H. Walton, "A Prairie Triangle," in The New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1937, pp. 7, 18.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
"Still is the Summer Night," by August Derleth, is far more than a regional story with a vivid background. In the story of the lives of its prairie people, it traces, page by page, the invisible pattern, even though it never refers to pattern at all. Even though Julie does not see that she could have acted differently, even though Alton "was not concerned with moral aspects," still the old Greek emergence of cause and effect sets the book far beyond tale-telling.
And Mr. Derleth tells a tale, absorbing enough in itself, and knit with the land. He has Hardy's sense of the soil, the "roll and wheel" of stars, of the seasons, of live things and growing things. These are as vivid to him as are human emotions, and noble.
His special background, once considered so empty, is given its own shapes and colors—the little town on the long river, the raftsmen, the taverns, the show-boat, the talk in the homes, the flow of life in the fields. Political figures of the day move there, but only as bits of color, like the hawks and the hills; so that whatever it was that they did seems to matter not at all. But the four high characters, in their relations to one an other, matter much—as if relationship and attitude were all there is to be accounted for, in the end.
In a tale sordid enough in other hands, these three—Julie, her husband, Ratio, his brother whom Julie loves—are like blind, masked figures, moved by primal impulse, unaware of any other urge. There they are, in the Eighties, acting as they might have acted before mind arose, and there is immense reserve of comment upon them—no comments at all, in fact. It is the method of drama—you see them move, no one says anything about what they do, not even they themselves.
Save the father, old Captain Halder….
The old captain is no bondage to standards, but rather he is the universal consciousness, aware that fire burns, that ice melts, that water flows down-hill. He has observed these natural causes, he knows with certainty what to expect of human action; but he himself is intensely human, and far more alive, than the others in his agony at shiftiness, concealment, hypocrisy, violence done to values. His humor, his gusto, his enormous participation make him a really great figure. The confusion and self-irritation and fear of his visit to the cemetery moved by his own blind desire to the right is a chapter memorable, in 1884 or in any other time.
If one has a quarrel with the book, it is that a tangible modern psychology is imposed upon the Eighties. In the Eighties, among people as sensitive as Julie and Alton, there would have been struggle and misery in these decisions, not merely bright complacence. The only imitation of this is when, years after, in a preface and epilogue of power, the old Alton sits at dusk in the still summer night, in that same house at the prairie's edge, watching, and afterwards releasing, a beetle on the face of the old clock, "chased by time." Then he knows that some spectator opened her grave for Julie.
Mr. Derleth one will assess as a writer of power—and in this book he goes far and away beyond his earlier "Place of Hawks." He has form and direction and can tell his story admirably—and he has strong sensitivity to his materials.
Zona Gale, "Lives of the Prairie People," in New York Herald Tribune Books, March 14, 1937, p. 5.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244
To August Derleth the saga of Wisconsin is not a tale of heady conquest, but one of understanding of the suffering and betrayal experienced by two races which could not live together in peace and equality. And, giving meaning to the tragedy of a people doomed to extermination, is ["Wind Over Wisconsin"], the story of friendship between two men, Black Hawk and Chalfonte Pierneau, holding each other in high esteem and affection but powerless to stem the tide of affairs which separate them. Each suffered pain and disillusion, but at the end it was the conquering white who found it hardest to swallow the defeat and humiliation of the conquered….
Besides telling the story of Wisconsin of this era, Mr. Derleth tells the story of Chalfonte's courtship of his second wife, but so powerful is the drama and romance of the country that the personal drama is dwarfed by it. Mr. Derleth has recreated the scene with power and with tenderness and the men who walk through it carry their strength and their weakness with unerring direction. A vast amount of historical research has gone into this book, but beneath the scholarship one finds something deeper, a love for the land which is Wisconsin…. And because Mr. Derleth is a poet, this book takes on the stature of a singing epic concerned alike with white man and red.
Rose C. Feld, "Untamed Country of the 1830's," in New York Herald Tribune Books, April 24, 1938, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
[In "Wind Over Wisconsin"] August Derleth invites inspection of a significant moment in the history of his own state…. [He] wishes to throw a bridge across an obscure interval of history, linking the familiar country of the present to the terra incognita of the past. His impulse is honest and admirable; but his execution of the plan is ineffectively engineered.
The chief difficulty lies in Mr. Derleth's inability to bring his characters to life. Each of them wears a label around his neck and shows the strain of carrying it. Chalfonte, American-born son of a French settler of aristocratic birth, is the stout-hearted idealist. Hercules Dousman, fur tracer, is the realist with a clear-eyed view of destiny. Black Hawk is the "noble savage." Each of them bears an embarrassing resemblance to the Fourth of July orator, complete with soap-box. There is a flash of purple in every casual utterance.
More disastrous, still, is the fact that the narrative breaks in two. The only link between the part dealing with the Indian campaigns against the settlers and the part dealing with opening of the land is that the central character, Chalfonte, presides with amiable ineffectuality over both. The effect of climax persistently eludes Mr. Derleth's eager efforts. The book collapses into a series of scenes out of a pageant, played by characters all of whom are under-developed, some of whom have been created for the sole purpose of dying melodramatic deaths. Historical figures like Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis make irrelevant appearances, seeming to remark in pompous asides to the reader: "Surely, you know how important I am to become." Two perfunctory romances emphasize the anemic character of the whole narrative.
Mr. Derleth seems determined to impress the reader with the cultivation of the early Wisconsin settlers. They quote Pascal to one another. They sigh over the unfortunate demise of "M. Goethe." Their letters from abroad describe neatly the state of European culture. The wind over Wisconsin settles down into a caressing breeze. (pp. 20-1)
James Gray, in a review of "Wind Over Wisconsin," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XVIII. No. 8, June 18, 1938, pp. 20-1.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472
Although August Derleth, the author of several published novels, has been writing poetry for a decade or more,… ["Hawk on the Wind" marks] his first appearance in book form as a poet. A marked individuality is the striking characteristic of these pieces, individuality of form as well as of thought. August Derleth has an ear acutely tuned both for meter and rhyme. In respect to the latter he is most subtle. Not merely at first glance at the page but after reading for several lines one believes him to be writing vers libre. Then gradually there intrudes a teasingly pleasing doubt which presently gives way before the perception of the negligently carried rhyme scheme. And the reason the rhyme was not noticed earlier is because, on analysis, the usual sharpness of the effect is found to have been muted by the uneven length of Mr. Derleth's lines. That is to say, unconscious expectancy being thwarted, the mind of the reader has been pleased with the blend of sound without having been halted by it. The result is one of overtones one often misses in more formally rhymed poetry….
August Derleth is from Wisconsin, and the human strength and individuality of those whose lives went to the building of that State are the very soil of much of his verse and the source of his power. Yet here again is subtlety. Mr. Derleth is not writing history, he is writing poetry; and in poetry, as he perceives, it is the thought evoked, rather than the thought exploited, which is more effective. Marquette and Frontenac, Black Hawk and Yellow Thunder; he can use a name and pass on, but an image has been projected into the reader's imagination. Mr. Derleth can even make a railroad the basis of poetic concept.
Another characteristic of these poems is a very general preference for active rather than for what may be termed static subjects. A notable exception is a group of several fairly caustic short-length portraits, a minor Spoon River, called "Sac Prairie People." The hawk on the wing, deer in the snow, the latter, incidentally, an exceptionally fine poem; floating clouds, the loping fox—these and kindred themes offer undeniable attraction for this young Wisconsin poet. Yet, lest dwelling on this feature should lead to a conclusion that Mr. Derleth is less than human in his interests, we hasten to say that this is not so. On the contrary, August Derleth's interest in his fellows is very deep and warm. He is caustic only on occasion. "Perhaps Never" is an exceptional poem on love, to mention but one title on this theme.
We are convinced by "Hawk on the Wind" that here is a young poet with a brilliant future.
Percy Hutchison, "The Poems of August Derleth," in The New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1938, p. 2.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186
["Hawk on the Wind" is Derleth's] first volume of poetry. Chosen from hundreds of poems which he has written in the past decade, the selections in this book are an integral part of the story of Wisconsin which Derleth aims to tell in the "Saga."
He is a competent poet. His verse is smooth and pleasant to read, not too experimental in form, and never obscure. He expresses his love of nature and his knowledge of the Wisconsin countryside with delicacy and beauty. He is somewhat preoccupied with an awareness of the passing of time and the inevitable changes that time brings. He says, in effect, this sort of thing again and again…. (p. 52)
In his poetry Derleth does not reveal emotional, spiritual or intellectual depth of experience. He is always the observer who describes what he has observed in precise and lovely verse but he does not disclose what he thinks is the meaning of the beauty of nature, of life, of death or of time. (p. 53)
Ruth Byrns, in a review of "Hawk on the Wind," in Commonweal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, November 4, 1938, pp. 52-3.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389
Clinging still to Sac Prairie—the small Wisconsin town which has been the scene of all his stories—August Derleth has written a brief novelette whose mood is that of poetry and legend. Its patterned prose, its air of melancholy, its rueful echoes from a more idyllic past, all remind one of Willa Cather—and especially of the Willa Cather who wrote "Lucy Gayheart." Renna, however, the hauntingly lovely heroine of "Any Day Now" is made of more fiery stuff than Miss Cather's pitiful Lucy….
Of all the men who clustered around Renna, met her at the station when she came home on holiday, made her name a byword for glamour, it was Doctor Joe who was clearly her favorite. Every one, Joe included, expected him to be her choice. When the hour struck, however, one magic midsummer night, Renna could not bring herself to say yes to him…. [She] was thwarted by the memory of her big, wonderful mother, who had been so fiercely ambitious for her child. "No young doctor," that dead voice had said. So it was that Renna wantonly denied love—and found too late, when Joe was lost, was married, that she would give anything to retract that denial. So she came, after Joe's death, to live achingly and wholly in the past.
This, in essence, is the very simple plot of "Any Day Now." Being an old plot, though a good one, the book would amount to little if Mr. Derleth had not invested it with special graces of atmosphere and style. The glamour which he conjures up, his pictures of quiet pleasures and still, moon-drenched nights in the village of Renna's youth—all this has a kind of enchantment. His story, in a sense, is an elegy for lost beauty, a lament for the havoc wrought by time. As for his prose, though it is too measured, too metrical, and hence a little monotonous, it does have a distinction which is half the charm of the book. "Any Day Now" is a very minor threnody, but as an interlude between sturdier novels it shows that Mr. Derleth is continuing to perfect his art. He has gone a long way since "Place of Hawks."
Edith H. Walton, in a review of "Any Day Now," in The New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1939, p. 6.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231
The promise that was revealed and widely recognized in August Derleth's first book of poems, "Hawk on the Wind," is … richly realized [in "Man Track Here"] Mr. Derleth has matured amazingly in a year's time, and now stands well out from the ruck of young poets. He is no imitator, no follower of schools and trends, but displays an originality and independence which made Edgar Lee Masters and Sinclair Lewis single him out as an important figure. His debt, if he has one, is to Walt Whitman and the early Masters; he is the poet of Sac Prairie, a lyrical Lewis.
Mr. Derleth has evolved his own verse schemes, although they take their departure from those of Whitman and Masters. But there is none of the sprawling formlessness of Whitman, or the flatness of much of Masters. He is at all times musical, though as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, it is necessary to attune the ear to his music. Once it becomes familiar, the reader finds no lack of it. He writes largely of things and people, but more of the things of nature that he knows better now than of the people about whom he has much to learn. He is refreshingly free from added ideologies, and very much in the great tradition of English poetry.
Mason Wade, "August Derleth's Poems," in The New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1939, p. 9.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
Pioneer life in Wisconsin, as August Derleth writes of it, takes on the serenity of rural New England. The perils and heroism and general surcharge of drama that readers … have long associated with the winning of the West are oddly veiled by the bland scenes and situations of ["Restless Is the River"]. The whole surge and sound of immigrant life appear muffled, and in many pages there is no sound whatever. It may very well be argued that Mr. Derleth's naturalism is nearer to the truth than either the heady romance or the bleak realistic novel on the same subject, but his careful skirting of emotional conflicts and crises leaves a work of good intention with only a sheep-grazing excitement.
The central situation tells of the Hungarian Count Augustin Brogmar, whose liberal sentiments made it necessary for him to flee to America to escape Metternich, and Brogmar's wife, Eleanor, who fled with him and was never able to adjust herself to a new wilderness life. This is a situation familiar to fiction and interesting only in so far as some freshness and new insight are brought to bear upon it. The Countess Brogmar is created in a monotone pattern wherein we are told that the crude life of Wisconsin in the 1840's makes her yearn for the elegance of her past, but her homesickness is so evident from the beginning and continues with so much repetition of incident—it would be distressing to enumerate how many times she sits brooding before the portraits of her patrician relatives—that her death stands out as a somewhat welcome moment….
Most of the book is concerned with Brogmar's business failures…. He meets a host of other pioneers who appear and reappear from time to time without much intent or purpose—hazy characters who are not rooted in the story. Only young Ralsa. Brogmar's servant, has full dimension as a minor character.
August Derleth's descriptive powers save this writing from complete barrenness. He has a botanist's knowledge of the flowering land of Wisconsin and takes a lyrical delight in conveying the natural glories and panorama of a virgin country. If his characters and his situations had in them any of the brilliance and illumination of the sunsets he describes so well, this over-long and understated novel would demand anything but harsh criticism. (pp. 6-7)
Stanley Young, "Wisconsin Pioneers," in The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1939, pp. 6-7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 133
What is important and good in ["Restless Is the River"] lies in the interwoven background details, incidents not so much personal as communal. These facets of land development, with attendant intrigues and none too savory politics … are necessary to a full picture of the era. Pervasively beautiful, slower to change, are the turning seasons on the prairie itself. But because of the non-selective, diffuse, sometimes lush writing (half as long, the book might be more effective) the significant is often lost among the insignificant, the good color of reality robbed by the synthetically romantic. For the authenticity of its background material, however, and its truly epic score, "Restless Is the River" may well be commended.
Ruth Lechlitner, in a review of "Restless Is the River," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 15, 1939, p. 12.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414
August Derleth has staked out an unchallengeable literary claim upon a part of the state of Wisconsin. He calls his town Sac Prairie. The story of its settling and its development has supplied him with material for a series of historical novels of which there are more to come. And the contemporary life of the same community is reflected in the group of tales that make up ["Country Growth,"] his latest volume.
Around the theory of regionalism, Mr. Derleth has put a neat, tight fence, giving to its vague formality an effect of intimacy and coziness. The effect of a comfortable familiarity with the scene is heightened by the fact that many of his stories are told in the first person from the point of view of a boy, growing up in Sac Prairie and watching with humorous shrewdness the behavior of his Great Aunt Lou, his Great Uncle Joe, and a group of other villagers in all of whom he has the closest kind of neighborly interest.
Mr. Derleth strikes his happiest vein in these unpretentious but often deeply moving folk tales. What seems pretentious in his historical novels, what seems over-wrought in all his longer works of fiction seldom appears in this volume to plague the reader out of his wish to remain sympathetic with his talent. Here he is direct, simple, humorous, and hearty—all without the disquieting trace of self-consciousness that mars his more ambitious work.
Best of all these stories is "Buck in the Bottoms," an enormously appealing account of how the force of goodwill dramatically declared itself against the predatory impulse of village life by saving a handsome buck from destruction. The snowy serenity of the December night offers a picturesque background to a tale in which poetry and folk humor are skillfully blended. The anthologists will reprint this story many times….
Only one story, and that the most carefully and conscientiously wrought of all, betrays Mr. Derleth into some of his unfortunate ways. "Any Day Now" is the story of a girl who turns away from love and lives to regret it. The author chants mournfully, lovingly, repetitiously over his theme for seventy-five pages, succeeding only in underscoring its commonplaceness. But when he gives casually of his rich knowledge of village life, August Derleth reveals himself as one of the best equipped and most appealing of our American short story writers.
James Gray, "Wisconsin Local Color," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 13, July 20, 1940, p. 10.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
There are twenty stories in ["Country Growth"], and in each of them the most consistent character in all Derleth's serious writing appears—the Wisconsin landscape, which is conveniently varied … by prairie, hill country and cliff-edged river. The people in the stories are the people Derleth knows so thoroughly, the small towners and farmers of the region.
A few of the stories in this book are predominantly lyric in tone, but most of them are traditionally conceived sketches and fables of Sac Prairie inhabitants. "Goodbye Margery" and "Girl in Time Lost," which begin and end the book, are examples of the first method; they are subjective idylls about the same love affair, and they skillfully invoke the atmosphere of a small town of yesterday, the hushed heavy summer evenings with the boy and girl walking through the streets, hardly articulate even in quarrel. Many of the remaining stories are lightly comic, with town gossips and shrewd farmers figuring largely in their personnel. Several of these concern a single family, viewed from a boy's angle of vision. "A Holiday for Three" is the chronicle of a bicycle tour made by the boy and his great-uncle and another farmer, Gus Elker, who cover an amazing amount of Midwest territory on their odd trip. Although the story is partly spoiled by the forced humor of its ending, the middle parts of it contain some energetic contributions to American humorous literature. Occasionally, in some of the other short stories of these same characters, Derleth tends to create an elaborate story-structure for the sake of an anecdote: the result is barely worth the effort in the title story, but in some of the tales there is a rich center of humor which unites character and anecdote. This is particularly true in "The Alphabet Begins with AAA," the hilarious account of Gus Elker's experience with an AAA representative.
The two most interesting pieces in the book are the longer stories, "Any Day Now," and "The Intercessors." "Any Day Now" … is the story of a small-town girl growing into unhappy spinsterhood after failing to marry the young doctor she loved. Like almost all women in Derleth's stories, she is sentimentally presented….
The other longer story is also about a lonely woman broken by love; Celia Calden lives out her life in a single house, never going out after the wrenching experience of her first love affair, which turned bitter after she was betrayed. But in later life she emerges twice, on two dramatic occasions which give this story a suspense that is somewhat higher in story interest than "Any Day Now": there is even an old-fashioned sleigh-chase, though it is not melodrama. Both these stories present full pictures of life in an American small town, the hot, dusty summers, the harsh winters, the featureless houses, the surrounding farmlands, the social network in which the lives of the people are interlaced—lives that make good stories, as most of the sections of this book demonstrate.
Harry Thornton Moore, in a review of "Country Growth," in New York Herald Tribune Books, July 21, 1940, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282
[Because] of a curious quality of realism, of common experience, "Country Growth" touches the edge of that universality that is the province of the great books. Though Mr. Derleth's stories are not really memorable or major in their effects, they can be honestly recommended not only to good readers but even to … book-throwers….
Mr. Derleth takes Sac Prairie, Wis., as his setting, writes of a Main Street as viciously gossipy, false-fronted and backward as Gopher Prairie ever was, but he sees it from the inside, not judging, understanding the necessities behind the seemingly senseless taboos, and not impatient with these necessities….
He writes good stories, and one good thing about them is that they show no trace of manner; they are not, apparently, even self-conscious. It is evident that he is a writer who is in little danger of writing himself out.
Mr. Derleth handles a variety of situations well, but is at his best with humor. He writes humor as it should be written, with natural characters, believable situations, and no straining for effect. The humor is robust, but not with the false heartiness that too many of the regional writers assume….
It should be added that Mr. Derleth does not edit himself any too well. He writes, it is evident, by ear rather than by plan, and has a tendency to waste effects in unnecessary verbiage. But as the fault of so many of his contemporaries is that of straining and cutting until finally the precious quality of their own work scares them, probably Derleth is right in going the other way.
Robert Van Gelder, in a review of "Country Growth," in The New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1940, p. 6.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289
Though [Derleth's] novels have won for him wider recognition, it is probably true that his short-story techniques is the better. The novels, for all their sincerity and the high quality of their style lack something of drama and sharp emotion. The short stories possess either keener emotional urgency or as a substitute have humor or sympathetic insight. As narratives or as character studies they are interesting, and always they are written with beauty, precision, and a canny selection of details.
Some readers may accuse Mr. Derleth of being sentimental. In his stories of romance and emotion he shows a pronounced taste for the nostalgic and wistful and in the novelette called "The Intercessors" a disposition to stress lacrimae rerum—as he says, "time lost, time past, time gone."
This is well enough when it is done with a spontaneity that convinces. But, once in a while, there creeps in a faint suggestion of bookishness and too studied effect. Not often. It certainly does not happen in the lovely little tale of adolescent love which opens ["Country Growth"]—"Good-Bye, Margery."
Mr. Derleth is not only a novelist and a storyteller, but a poet. This would be evident if "Hawk on the Wind," "Man Track Here," and "Here on a Darkling Plain" had never been published. In his prose as well as in his verse he shows the poet's eye. This is especially true when he write, in words bathed in cool color, about the Wisconsin scene, most of all in innumerable descriptions of the heavens—of sunsets, evening clouds, the afterglow, and the stars. This kind of thing gives perspective to his little tales of little folk.
W.K.R., "Sac Prairie Stories," in The Christian Science Monitor, July 27, 1940, p. 11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213
Like the other books in the Sac Prairie Saga, ["Bright Journey"] stands by itself as a separate story. But it does not differ essentially from Derleth's previous novels of man vs. wilderness, and, despite some temperamental variations, [the principal character] Dousman strongly resembles Baron Pierneau, American-born scion of French aristocrats ("Wind Over Wisconsin") and Pierneau's cousin, Count Brogmar, Hungarian patriot exile ("Restless Is the River"). There is, indeed, a disturbing sameness, at more than one level, in Derleth's historical novels, and though he can present the background material of his stories vividly—the wilderness, the fresh lakes, the Indians with their dignified poetry of speech, the brave little frontier towns, the "voyageurs" or trappers—the background material comes to give the effect of presenting again and again the same moonrise or forest-clearing or the same conversation between repeated characters. The reader of the entire series begins to wish that August Derleth would concentrate his talent on fewer volumes and strive a little more for depth, a little less for breadth. These restrictions do not apply to the novels when read singly: like the others, "Bright Journey" is an excellent and sometimes beautiful presentation of frontier Wisconsin.
Harry Thornton Moore, in a review of "Bright Journey," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 27, 1940, p. 20.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323
The hero [of "Bright Journey"] Hercules Dousman, is a historical character. He was a 12-year-old boy in Mackinac when the British took Fort Michilimackinac in one of the early campaigns of the War of 1812. Later, when he grows up, he paddles up the Fox and down the Wisconsin River to assume charge of the Prairie du Chien post of Astor's American Fur Company…. Mr. Derleth's Dousman is almost Sir Galahad on the frontier. He marries the half-breed girl who dies in giving birth to his daughter; always he is the Indian's friend; when the woman he loves leaves [her husband] because of his drinking, he urges her to return to her husband. Realizing that the fur trade is bound to decline, he buys land the value of which went up with every new settler. He foresees that Prairie du Chien will some day become an important grain shipping center….
Mr. Derleth tells his story simply and directly in the calm pace and timeless manner of the old historical novel. He describes with convincing detail the growth of the small trading village into a river town, the retirement of the animals and Indians and the great brigades of French-Canadian trappers before the steady advance of hordes of tree-felling, land-hungry settlers. When he remembers what the greed of men has destroyed, the carrier pigeons and the buffalo, for instance, he regrets that the Dousmans are so few and the slaughterers so many. The sense of place and the sweep of historical events are here better realized than the collision of character with character. As is so often the case with contemporary historical novels, the love story seems a little mechanical and contrived: the private fortunes of Dousman and the woman he eventually marries seem much less real than the public history of the old Michigan Territory. That is well set forth.
Horace Reynolds, "The Fur Trade," in The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1940, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501
What Mr. Derleth has done [in "Village Year"] is simply to set down the observations that personally interested him day to day or month to month [in and about Sac Prairie]; and his book thus has the distinction and personal appeal of an entirely unforced chronicle from a little American town and a loved American countryside. "Village Year" is not a memory of pioneers nor a picture either of revenants seeking rural simplicity or survivors still enisled in it, but an actual evocation of a fairly typical community in its ordinary life today. And because Mr. Derleth has a poetic love for Nature and awareness of Nature's richly varied minutiae, there is often a haunting beauty in these journal entries as the seasons move across the Wisconsin scene….
Most of these country details … are of concrete observation rather than mood or symbol.
There are plenty of people to be met, and met again, in this flow of a few village years. And introduction to village neighbors will no doubt give many readers their liveliest interest in August Derleth's book—especially when the characters are odd, like the gentle old man who has taken on the tremendous task of snaring infinities in evangelistic words, or the delightful garden-lover who keeps bees and weaves rugs for sale. These people are sketched with a few lines for the most part and with a proper casualness. But the very slightness of the portraits is a token of the naturalness which gives the journal its charm and value….
In all this, again, the charm and vitality alike seem to grow from the author's absence of intention. He has had no purpose to be idyllic or grim or dramatic or even complete, but merely to set things down as they come. He is always at his best when he is most at one with his subject—when he seems to stand aside and find his neighbors amusing his readers are least likely to be amused. But happily his journal as a whole is rooted in real oneness with the life it reflects. It is thus that "Village Year" is marred by very little of the self-consciousness which can so completely spoil a country record, and at its best it glows with the real mellowness that can only come from the genuineness of effortless sympathy. A number of August Derleth's poems are set down here under the circumstances of their composition…. The rhythm of such a journal as this becomes almost inevitably monotonous; inevitably, too, its notes are of very uneven excellence; to be most thoroughly enjoyed it should be read a few pages at a time. A book of instant sensitive responsiveness, "Village Year" recreates its scene with acuteness and beauty, and makes an unusual contribution to the Americana of the present day. Its life and its landscape have yielded to change as they must, but their character has kept its persistence.
Katherine Woods, "Mr. Derleth's Village Chronicle," in The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1941, p. 4.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353
In many ways "Village Year" is the most satisfactory part of the [Sac Prairie] series yet to appear, for it has the virtues of the others without their weaknesses, and adds a definite quality of its own. It is not intended to be a record of the bridge parties and local visits which are duly reported in the local press but, rather, it is meant to preserve the little things, the daily between-the-lines life of a village….
[Derleth] deepens the value of his village setting by presenting in full the enduring natural background; with the people projected against this the writing comes to have the quality of an old Flemish picture, humanity lively and amusing and lovable in the foreground and nature magnificent beyond. This book is filled with accounts of the author's travels through the Sac Prairie region and his nightly walks to the marshes by the river, where he notes the different bird calls and compares them with the findings of other naturalists. The progress of flowers in the spring is carefully watched, and when the geese go honking south in October, their departure is reported.
All the human figures in these journals are not seen in the humorous light that bathes most of them—there are relatives and friends, young and old, who died as the years pass, and the significance of their lives and deaths is thoughtfully (though not sentimentally) noted. Within such a small concentrated circle of humanity, birth and mortality are emphasized, human values are seen in a different perspective than in a larger group, a personality is more apt to be respected for its own sake than it might be in a huge city. These are among the implications of the book: Zona Gale (whose biography Derleth recently wrote) seems to have given August Derleth a motto for his work when, on a visit to Sauk City, recorded in this portion of his journals, she said: "It seems to me that to be really creative one must live in a small place."
Harry Thornton Moore, "Sauk City, Wisconsin," in New York Herald Tribune Books, April 6, 1941, p. 20.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271
"Evening in Spring" is a light lyric story, half comic, half tender, which has to do with the ardors and the sorrows of first love. It is the story of how Steve lost his heart to Margery Estabrook while they were both still in high school and of how their young touching idyl—so innocent and so poignant—was thwarted by the meddling and the opposition of their elders. Because Steve was a Catholic while Margery was not, both their families did everything in their power to keep the two apart, hounding them with commands, reproaches, accusations and tears….
As one can gather, this simple, artless story is almost unimaginably old, and it would be difficult to freshen it into vivid life. Mr. Derleth, frankly, has not done so, and where his young lovers and their transports are concerned his book, though gently lyric, is insipid and monotonous. What distinguishes "Evening in Spring," what saves it from plain dullness, is first the author's evocative picture of a Wisconsin country town and second his humorous appreciation of character. Such color as there is in this novel is largely provided by Steve's eccentric relatives—from astringent Grandfather Adams, an old love of a man, to that appalling religious zealot, Aunt May. Here Mr. Derleth is in his element, and very funny indeed—but for the rest I cannot hand him so much. Perhaps it is time that he turned his eyes from Sac Prairie and from wistful memories of his boyhood and found something more galvanizing to write about.
Edith H. Walton, "First Love," in The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1941, p. 7.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408
[In "Evening in Spring" the] idyl of Steve and Margery is full of wistful beauty, enhanced by the author's unfailing consciousness of the poetic qualities of the background. The poet in August Derleth is always near the surface, whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or biography. Skies, hills, trees, marsh, rivers, and wild life make clear images on his sensitive intelligence and affections. The fragrance of corn and clover, of mint and oak leaf are in his nostrils. Hawks riding the wind, owls softly sobbing in the dark, hills surging upward to the sky, trees pressing close upon small houses are constantly in his memory. Through this book winds are ever stirring, a west wind touching Steve's eyes and lips, small breezes scuttering the dry leaves and growing into a wind that tears at the autumn foliage, "a wind that blows over all the earth, a wanderer, too, alone." Loneliness is the motif of this book, the essential loneliness of Steve, despite his love, his boy companions, his myriad kinsfolk and his responsiveness to village life.
Contrasted with a delicate lament for the shattered crystal of first love and with the poetic background is a full gallery of comedy characters, even of burlesques. The people of Sac Prairie are a collection of oddities, not all of them malign but many of them eccentric even in their good nature. In Steve's own family his grandparents and possibly his father are exceptions. Altogether the village characters give proof that August Derleth is humorist as well as poet. His book is both ethereal and, frankly, without abashment, earthy.
The total effect of the book, it must be confessed, is that of patchwork. Here and there it contains bits, already published in various magazines, and the final chapter, "Goodbye, Margery," has previously appeared thrice. Though these repeated portions are all, in their various ways, of high quality, and "Goodbye, Margery" is exquisite enough for three times three readings, nevertheless it is impossible not to feel that the book is a complication more than a growth. It is by way of being a sampler to show what the author can do in different moods and materials, admirable for readers who have not heretofore become acquainted with his work, but a source of faint uneasiness to others who would prefer to see him going on to fresh heights.
W.K.R., "Capulets and Montagues in Sac Prairie," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 1941, p. 11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408
The Oliver Mackenzie, carrying a show boat troupe, plied its way up the Mississippi River each Spring from St. Louis to New Orleans and back again in the Fall. In November, 1916, the season was mild and the old boat traveled up the Wisconsin as far as Sac Prairie, where the captain docked to give a performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They had been nursing the leading lady through an attack of appendicitis and when they reached Sac Prairie she was too ill to play. But a young amateur actress in town who knew the part of Little Eva was recruited for the performance, and when the Oliver Mackenzie steamed away that night Jennie Breen was aboard eager to take the first step toward a great theatrical career. She had no regret about leaving home because she had been badly treated by her parents and she hated little towns, but she was sorry to desert Davey, her childhood sweetheart, who could not leave his mother to follow her.
There are several vivid descriptions of river life and of the Sac Prairie atmosphere, but ["Sweet Genevieve"] is a series of predictable incidents taken from the yellow pages of stock…. You know that ultimately young love will conquer all obstacles; but if the author makes you believe it, it is because he has drawn a skillful picture of Davey, the boy who waits back home, the only credible character of them all.
The author is at his best when he gives us the flavor of the seasons, the life in the river towns and the refreshing spirit of young love. Many of his observations about the actions of his characters, however, suffer from overamplification. If he's in doubt about your missing the point at any time, he all but draws a picture for you. His style also suffers from top-heavy modifying clauses, the kind that imprison a thought instead of releasing it.
In spite of all that, it is a pleasant story. The easy motion of the river runs through it. You get the small town feeling, and understand not only why Jennie wanted to leave it but also why she wanted to come back. If you like them slow and sweet and sentimental and if you don't mind being able to guess what's going to happen twenty pages ahead of time, then "Sweet Genevieve" is for you.
Margaret Donaldson, "Show Boat," in The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1942, p. 16.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136
The poetry of August Derleth, a versatile and voluminous poet from Sac Prairie, often reminds of improvisation upon the piano…. ["Rind of Earth"] is thoroughly American in grain. The poem about the young men in "Yesterday, Tomorrow, Always," the train in "Transcontinental," "River Going By," the American myths in "Raftsman, Lumberjack," the poem about the radio, such things as these not only have flowing theme-molded rhythm, but close observation and the pulse of life. Sometimes I think Mr. Derleth may be too musical for his own good, but, in a day when so few poets seem to give the actual movement of a poem any attention, he restores an element that was badly needed.
William Rose Benét, in a review of "Rind of Earth," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 34, August 21, 1943, p. 11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477
There are valuable elements in August Derleth's diligent loyalty to the Sac Prairie region with which his voluminous writings have become identified: He is intimate with the cultural and social history which made that area one of the strongholds of a free-thinking, slavery-abhorring liberalism in the middle decades of the last century. He has a kind of nostalgic ancestor-worship for the resourceful, colorful French and German pioneer stock, who, as refugees from their native lands, combined to give Sac Prairie a moral climate as exhilarating and liberating as the air of the lovely Wisconsin country in which it lay. And, lastly, he has a feeling for the Sac Prairie terrain which is both affectionate and knowledgeable.
Yet, with all this, Mr. Derleth does not make credible his novel of Hasso, a hunchback German émigré, and his search for vengeance. Hasso seeks the murderer of his dearly beloved younger brother, Josef, who had been brutally shot down by a mercenary who fled Germany and who is thought to be living in the Sac Prairie region.
"Shadow of Night" is the slow-moving, discursive account of the psychological conflict that is set up in Hasso, a cultured and naturally gentle man, when he comes face to face with his intended victim, Odo Gebhardt, and finds him to be a hardworking, respected and liberal farmer. But Hasso's internal conflict is unconvincing. The initial premise on which it must rest is never adequately established: namely, Hasso's need to dedicate his life to the pursuit of his brother's slayer. Eventually, one suspects that Hasso's constant vacillation about when and how to achieve retribution is merely a convenient device to enable Mr. Derleth to keep his record of Sac Prairie history going.
And his cunning takes this pattern: there are alternate and recurrent pictures of (a) aspects of the Sac Prairie countryside; (b) Hasso up in his room in the Mellman's house, where he is employed as tutor, pulling out his picture of Josef and swearing eternal, implacable vengeance, and (c) Hasso's various encounters with Odo Gebhardt, each of which alternately weaken and reinforce his determination to kill him. So predictable is the novel's structure that one exclaims, "Now Hasso's going up to his room again to look at Josef's picture!" And that is exactly what he does unless, perchance, he saunters through the fields where insects are eternally "stridulating" and the wind makes an interminable "susurrus" (two of Mr. Derleth's favorite words and imported in wholesale quantities from his verse-writing vocabulary).
Because "Shadow of Night" is liveliest in the journalistic passages describing historical events …, one feels that Mr. Derleth's material would have responded more tellingly to straight reportorial treatment. As it now stands, the slender, uninventive, narrative structure fails to carry adequately the double responsibility of history and fiction.
Vivienne C. Koch, "Prairie Symbols," in The New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1943, p. 20.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115
So long identified in poetry with the Wisconsin scene, with his sagas of Sac Prairie told in quiet, conventional, repetitious patterns, August Derleth surprisingly ventures beyond the regional viewpoint and into new forms with ["And You, Thoreau!"]. The love scenes in the second grouping, both erotic and symbolic,… might be taken, unsigned, as the work of almost any poet published by New Directions except Derleth. The first grouping, "Homage to Thoreau," with its Mid-Western nature images, is more characteristic. But the poems show much more skill and technical variety than Derleth's earlier work. The tribute to Thoreau, too, seems strongly, sincerely felt….
"In New Forms," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, August 5, 1945, p. 8.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279
This latest in the long series of Sac Prairie stories ["The Shield of the Valiant"] will add little to the reputation of Wisconsin's most noted regional novelist. The book needs tightening and pruning; the many narrative threads, each interesting in itself, are not skilfully woven into a fabric and pattern of meaning and general interest. The episodic form of the novel lures the author into verbose byways of almost irrelevant anecdote and frequent paragraphs of tedious moralizing. Many tried-and-safe ingredients of popular fiction are here: the banker's son falls in love with a brash but pure girl on the other side of the tracks; the liberal son is at odds with his stuffy, reactionary father; malicious village gossip is the motive power that turns the wheels of the plot; the tolerant, tobacco-loving, Going-My-Way sort of priest is contrasted with the bigoted cleric more Catholic than Christian; there are fights, adultery, and suicides, and brave deeds of the few men of good will in the community. The Gordian knot of indecisions and confusions is cut sharply by Pearl Harbor, a useful deus ex machina to end more than one recent novel.
Derleth's faithful readers will find his good things here, too: his keen knowledge of village and country life, his affectionate descriptions of the Wisconsin River and Valley, the pleasant reappearance of such old friends as Steve Grendon. Many will find, however, the over-all impression of the novel depressing; there is a triviality about Sac Prairie in our time that contrasts with the vigorous and heady life of the community in earlier days.
Richard A. Cordell, "Sac Prairie Again," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 45, November 10, 1945, p. 43.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 177
["The Shield of the Valiant"] proves once again that one must live in a small town most of his life really to know its overall pattern, and that Derleth himself is no outsider as far as Sac Prairie is concerned. There is a tie-up between the different lives he describes and the petty intrigues, the malicious gossip and the often desperate attempts to escape loneliness even in a place where there are no real strangers, which is almost always authentic.
Unfortunately the novel also proves again that authenticity isn't the only component of good writing and reading. There are things of authentic importance and others of authentic unimportance; in his frenetic attempt to record every last dance tune that Rena Janney ever sings, and conversation with a dictaphone accuracy, Derleth hasn't taken the time to distinguish between the two. When he does, he will be a far more competent writer, and his books … much more widely read.
William Kehoe, in a review of "The Shield of the Valiant," in The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1945, p. 13.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115
[The twelve stories in "In Re: Sherlock Holmes"] are all in the pastiche vein and all written by Derleth himself…. The resulting book inevitably lacks variety, although some of the individual selections are not without a certain charm and an engaging fidelity in form and spirit to the originals they imitate. A few, like "The Adventure of the Norcross Riddle" … and "The Adventure of the Late Mr. Faversham" … are good enough detective stories in their own right; most of the other episodes are over-long and, it must be confessed, a little tedious, even to the confirmed Sherlockian, when read in close sequence.
Howard Haycraft, "Holmesian Pastiches," in The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 1945, p. 32.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280
"Village Daybook" consists of selections over a period from Derleth's diary. If mediocrity and brilliance are marks of authenticity in a diary, this is thoroughly authentic. On May 16, Sac Prairie produced the phenomenon of dogs barking at a car: "Quite evidently the dogs, for lack perhaps of anything better to do, enjoy the chase after cars that pass during the night." I believe it…. On the other hand Mr. Derleth records with rare skill the beauty and movement of nature. He never fails to please as he describes the weather, the birds, flowers, fish and animals. One who loves the outdoors will be fully rewarded with his nature passages.
Mr. Derleth has affection for his townsmen and they, evidently, for him. The items of daily gossip and reminiscences add up to a comfortable completeness of village life. Unfortunately, it is largely a surface description. He has not learned to analyze and handle people as effectively as he does Mother Nature. Commenting on an exchange of conversation about the weather on Christmas Day, he reflects, "that the essential pulse of village life beats in just such trivial exchanges, which occur constantly and forever: the talk of weather, of sun and rain, of fog and cloud, of storm and wind throughout every season …" That may be the pulse, but it is a long way from the heart of village life. Weather and other trivia are universal symbols of communication, but each village has its unique secret in the intimate knowledge of the life and background of every citizen, of this we get too little in "Village Daybook."
Emerson Hynes, in a review of "Village Daybook," in Commonweal, Vol. XLVI, No. 6, May 23, 1947, p. 146.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212
Solar Pons is not precisely either an imitation or a parody of Sherlock Holmes. One might almost call him an understudy, and a triumphant one—a necessary replacement filling the abhorrent vacuum created by The Master's retirement….
The first book collection of Pons adventures, oddly entitled "In Re: Sherlock Holmes," appeared in 1945, to the deep gratification of all who have read and reread the sixty tales of the Holmesian canon and hungered for something new and yet the same. Now at last we have the long-awaited sequel…. "The Memoirs of Solar Pons" …; and once again the habitués of Holmes' 221B Baker Street can move to Pons' Praed Street with happy confidence.
The title is misleading; no equivalent of the seemingly tragic Reichenbach disaster befalls Pons. But the eleven stories … are all in the grand tradition of magnificently sinister plotting and spectacularly logical deduction. Each devotee will have his favorite; this department elects "The Adventure of Ricoletti of the Clubfoot." A passing Watsonian reference to this gentleman and his abominable wife has long titillated readers. The story as Mr. Derleth reveals it could not have been conceived along more nobly classical lines.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "The Memoirs of Solar Pons," in The New York Times Book Review, August 26, 1951, p. 20.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221
[August Derleth] has made a new collection of his poems ["Rendezvous in a Landscape"] in four groups, "Homage to Thoreau," "Homage to Robert Frost," "Homage to Psyche," and "Homage to Edgar Lee Masters." The first is the longest and the best poem in the book. The poet uses brief prose passages from Thoreau's "Walden," and plays poetic variations on each one, expanding that severe economy into the wealth of its implications. This is done with genuine love and admiration, and with genuine creation. Twenty-eight poems are offered to Frost, also with sincerity, as homage.
They are Derleth poems on the sort of themes Frost might have written, and thus to gather them is to run the risk of sounding like a lesser Frost, and Mr. Derleth unfortunately does. They are beyond question his own experience, but the sound of Frost creeps in….
The Psyche group consists of four love poems, and the poem for Masters is an elegy, which, though it brings Masters to the graveyard in Spoon River to lie among the familiar names from the "Anthology," is a perfectly fitting tribute. The whole design of the book is an interesting lesson in the dangers and possibilities of writing to or about writers.
John Holmes. "Of Time and Place and Versifiers," in The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 1952, p. 6.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 82
There's nothing unconventional about August Derleth's "Fell Purpose" …, the first Judge Peck novel in many years. It's a pure old-fashioned whodunit of the bludgeoning of the social arbiters of a small Wisconsin town—quite, plodding, mildly agreeable, rather like an American equivalent of John Rhode, with little to suggest the originality of the author in other fields or in his noble Solar Pons detective stories.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "Fell Purpose," in The New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1953, p. 31.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153
"All things of live adventuring are kin" is the theme of ["Country Poems"], 30 poems about the birds and animals, cornfields and country church yards of his Wisconsin demesne. He is so much a part of it that he can "look about and see what beauty lies in simple things" and voice what he has seen and felt in lyrics that have the grace to be as simple and direct as the west wind and the chipmunk that he understands alike.
"Sirius: Midnight," with its clear sense of man's "kinship to eternity," is the most original and powerful poem of the book. "Scent of Camomile" is steeped in country living, and both "Mushrooms," with its bold figure of speech, and "The Moon on the Water" are good examples of Derleth's skill in drawing a deep meaning from the small incident.
Russell MacFall, "Skillful Odes to Country Life in Wisconsin," in Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1957, p. 9.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 165
[Mr. Derleth has written "The House on the Mound" as a sequel to "Bright Journey"] and if it lacks much of the dramatic impact of "Bright Journey," it still is worth the long wait. Indeed, one understands why Mr. Derleth waited so long to write it, for it posed an exceedingly difficult problem: How to give middle-aged, generally eventless love and living the substance of drama.
He has solved the problem, in a measure at least, by telling it "plain." The simple truth is that not much does happen in this novel, and yet it is given stature by the goodness of the people involved. Dousman and his charming wife are persons you can love and respect….
Mr. Derleth writes with deep love of his home state, from its admission to the Union in 1848 to Dousman's death twenty years later. His is a regional novel of a high order of excellence.
Victor P. Hass, "Midwest Millionaire," in The New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1958, p. 19.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 94
["The Return of Solar Pons"] is an assembly of thirteen short stories about Sherlock Holmes, set forth with all his customary equipment (Watson, room, housekeeper) and in very much the mood and mode of Conan Doyle. Edgar W. Smith, "Buttons" of the Holmesian devotees (or addicts) in this country, finds Mr. Derleth the most consistently successful imitator in Holmesian history. One cannot after all quarrel with the judgment. But imitation is the operative word.
James Sandoe, in a review of "The Return of Solar Pons," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 12, 1959, p. 11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221
Few writers at work in America today have been able to register the heartbeat of a place with the fidelity, skill and warmth that August Derleth has brought to his beloved "Sac Prairie."…
With the exception of a small handful, mostly juveniles, I have read all of [Derleth's books], and I have never failed to find enjoyment in them. But much as I have admired his novels and his essays, "Wisconsin in Their Bones" … convinces me that his primary talent lies in the short story.
This, believe me, is a striking collection. Whether Derleth is telling a story of unrequited love, as in "The Christmas Virgin," of savage father love, as in "April Kinney," or of the distressing effects of indecision, as in "The Telescope," he plays a penetrating light on the forces that often make a little town a serene pool one moment and a jungle the next.
Many of the stories here are very thin slices of life, it is true, but all make a point and make it wonderfully well. They make the point also, I think, that Derleth is a far more important writer than is generally granted. In him, regional writing has come to something very close to full flower.
Victor P. Hass, "A Writer at Home," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, January 8, 1961, p. 3.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371
Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey is the first Solar Pons novel, and one is driven to conclude (a view in which the author concurs) that the novel is not the best form for a Solar Pons adventure—any more than, with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, it was the best form for a Sherlock Holmes adventure. (p. 758)
A Praed Street Dossier is an out-of-the-way sort of work, not a collection of adventures (except for the last 24 pages of the book, which contain two collaborative science-fiction detective stories, comprising what is surely one of the few attempts at this genre and even more surely one of the few successful attempts), but the raw material for a collection. Along with the section on the creation of Solar Pons, and the sciencefiction detection, about half the book … is devoted to the journal of Dr. Lyndon Parker—the Pontine Watson—in the first year … of his association with Pons. Apart from the fact that it makes pleasant reading, the journal is worth noting for Mr. Derleth's strong defense of capital punishment.
The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians … is by way of being a double pastiche—a pastiche of Vincent Starrett's pastiche, "The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet." It is excellent fun. Nevertheless, one looks forward to the promised Chronicles of Solar Pons. The Memoirs are now out of print, but the other seven books are still available, and they are unquestionably the best substitute for Sherlock Holmes. That they may contain mistakes, inconsistencies, Americanisms, is no real weakness. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes devotes half its bulk to discussing the mistakes and inconsistencies in the original canon. Whether there will be Praed Street Irregulars along with Baker Street Irregulars at some future date I do not know: perhaps even now Pontine societies are meeting. The important thing is that as long as August Derleth is alive and writing in Sauk City, we need not unduly regret the death of Dr. Watson's literary agent in Sussex four decades ago. If not cut entirely from Holmesian cloth, Solar Pons is more than a patch on the old master. (pp. 758-59)
Jared C. Lobdell, "Addenda to the Canon," in National Review, Vol. XXI, No. 29, July 29, 1969, pp. 758-59.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 130
The Adventures of Solar Pons is utterly different, not only from the works of spoof scholarship, but also from most other works to do with Holmes, for it consists of short stories which candidly confess the intention to copy Doyle as closely as possible. Holmes and Watson in Baker Street become Pons and Parker of Praed Street, and, as Vincent Starrett says in his preface, it is a clear case of impersonation rather than of parody. The stories are mildly amusing, but as the power of the originals rests in their literary style, and as the creator of Pons doesn't have much of it, the appeal of the anthology rather depends on the degree of fanaticism of the collector.
Benny Green, "Rounding Up," in The Spectator, Vol. 235, No. 7697, January 3, 1976, p. 14.∗
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support