Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 21, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

America’s Winston Churchill—not to be confused with Great Britain’s Winston Churchill—was one of the most popular novelists in the early twentieth century. Descended from one of the earliest families of New England, Churchill was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1871 and raised there. He received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy; although he did well at Annapolis, and in spite of his lack of personal wealth, he chose a literary career. His first novel, The Celebrity, was published in 1898, but it was his second, Richard Carvel (1899), a historical novel set during the American Revolution, that made Churchill a household name and brought him both popular and critical praise.

The Crisis is something of a sequel to Richard Carvel, with Richard’s descendants, Virginia Carvel and her father, among the major characters. Churchill initially envisioned The Crisis (originally titled The Third Generation) as a saga covering the period from the Civil War to the time of its writing, but then restricted the time to the Civil War era alone. The story is set largely in St. Louis, a simple choice since it was Churchill’s home until he moved to New Hampshire in 1900. It also gave the author certain advantages in structuring the novel. Missouri was both a slave state and a border state, and Churchill’s St. Louis was populated not only by Southerners but also by emigrants from New England who were unsympathetic to the Southern way of life, to its aristocratic values, and to slavery. Churchill explicitly postulates in The Crisis that the Civil War was, in many ways, a direct continuation of the struggle between the aristocratic Cavaliers who supported King Charles II during the English Civil War of the 1640’s and their opponents, the Parliamentary Puritans. The Puritans migrated to New England, the Cavaliers to Southern states, and in the mid-nineteenth century their descendants met, uneasily, in St. Louis.

Churchill’s historical interpretation is not accurate. The Southern aristocracy—and most Southerners were not aristocrats—was a U.S. development with no direct connection to England’s Cavaliers, but his reading of the past gives The Crisis a dramatic structural conflict of opposites. A more historically accurate choice is Churchill’s including as a third community in St. Louis the recent emigrants from Germany, whom he made symbolic representatives of the values of liberty and union.

What made The Crisis vastly popular was its Civil War setting. The greatest U.S. tragedy was the stuff of drama. In the early twentieth century, the war’s memories, real and imagined, were still fresh and relevant to Churchill’s readers. North and South were only recently reconciled, in part because of the recent Spanish-American War of 1898. Feelings were still strong, but enough time had passed that both sides could better understand the position of their opponents.

It is apparent that Churchill agrees with history’s verdict: The North’s cause was the better cause and deserved to be victorious. Early in the novel, Stephen Brice, a recently arrived upper-class New Englander, views a slave auction and buys a young woman to save her from a worse fate. The South was destined to lose because of its defense of slavery and for its attempt to destroy the Union. Churchill was a man of his times, for whom freedom and liberty for the slaves was necessary and inevitable. Also reflecting his times, Churchill depicts African Americans as free, but not necessarily equal to white Europeans. African Americans in The Crisis, as in a later and even more popular novel, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), are generally presented as being inferior. The recent German emigrants from northern Europe, on the other hand, play an important role in the preservation of the Union. In the early twentieth century, slavery belonged to the past but racism was still deeply entrenched in American society.

The Civil War setting gives The Crisis its continuing popularity; it is the only one of Churchill’s novels that remained in print after his death in 1947. Fast-paced, full of dramatic incidents and confrontations, and driven by profound moral and philosophical issues that have continued to affect Americans, The Crisis seems destined to maintain a broad and lasting readership.

For all of its virtues, The Crisis cannot compare with the best American novels of its generation. Churchill’s novels were popular among American readers—Theodore Roosevelt wrote words of praise to the author from the White House—but Churchill did not receive the lasting critical recognition accorded to his contemporaries, such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris. Churchill’s greatest failure as a novelist is that his major characters are types rather than individuals: Their actions and responses are largely predictable. Stephen and his mother represent the staunch and upright traditional New England Puritans. Virginia and her father, the Colonel, exemplify the Southern aristocracy at its best, while Virginia’s admirer and Stephen’s rival, Clarence Colfax, epitomizes the Southerner as the cavalier warrior. Eliphalet Hopper is also from New England, but symbolizes the corrupted Puritan: materialistic, opportunistic, and amoral. Judge Whipple is the uncompromising abolitionist who is willing to sunder even old friendships for the cause. Churchill’s characters never transcend their two-dimensional construction.

Paradoxically, the best-realized character in The Crisis is not one of Churchill’s fictional creations but Abraham Lincoln. Churchill took his historical responsibility seriously and did considerable research before writing The Crisis, and he successfully captures many of Lincoln’s qualities. He is equally successful in his portrayal of William T. Sherman and, to a lesser degree, Ulysses S. Grant, both prominent Civil War generals. The portrayal of Virginia, Stephen, and the other fictional figures, and their resulting predictable actions, however, limit and date The Crisis. Still, Churchill tells an exciting and fast-moving story, with the Civil War as the stage, that became and has remained popular.

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