Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The fact that the most important characters of the Beulah Quintet are the rebels points to the dominant theme of the novels: that throughout history freedom must be won again and again from varying kinds of enslavement. There is, first, enslavement by authority. In Prisons, Gideon MacKarkle is pressed into military service first by one side, then by the other, and Robbie Lokyar, who joined the Parliament forces to fight for freedom, is executed because he agitated for freedom of speech, which was more freedom than Cromwell and his subordinates wished to permit. In O Beulah Land, the transported criminals are sold as servants, and Jeremiah Catlett kills a blackmailer who threatens to put him and his wife Hannah once more into that bondage from which they have escaped. In Know Nothing, the emphasis is on the slavery of the blacks, and there, as throughout the other novels, those who have power over others are oblivious to the resentment which that power engenders. Because of the lack of knowledge which seems to accompany power, those in authority are vulnerable to the loss of their power. A second kind of enslavement arises from an accepted social hierarchy. Although often the men and women of the upper classes are well-intentioned, like Sir Valentine Lacy in Prisons or slave-owning Johnny Catlett in Know Nothing, those of lesser rank harbor a bitterness, spawned by injustice and nourished by pride, which often erupts in violence. Sometimes the upper classes realize the menace of those for whom they have contempt; thus, the Catletts in Know Nothing retreat from the anger of “Black Irish” Big Dan O’Neill. Often, however, the anger is unrecognized. Yet in The Killing Ground, Jake Catlett, member of a family now low in the social scale, strikes out at Johnny McKarkle because Johnny has been acting superior all of his life. On the frontier, the less-educated, the unpolished, strike out at the educated and the polished; yet as the frontier recedes and established society moves westward, the hierarchical system follows, and the inevitable anger of those who are treated as inferiors is suppressed until an explosion occurs. The biblical epigraph to Know Nothing suggests that the powerful are themselves victims of their power. Sometimes enslavement is rooted in the social and economic system. In Know Nothing, Brandon Lacey, who...

(The entire section is 982 words.)