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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506

First published: 1898

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Upstate New York

Principal Characters:

David Harum, a banker and horse trader

John Lenox, Harum's assistant

Mary Blake, John's sweetheart

Polly Bixbee, Harum's widowed sister

The Story

John Lenox was the son of a well-to-do businessman in New York. After college, he lived for several years in Europe at his father's expense. He was twenty-six years old when he returned to America, without having done anything which fitted him to earn a living.

John returned to find that his father's business was failing rapidly and that he would soon have to make a living for himself. His father found a place for him with a New York law firm, but reading law proved uncongenial. When his father died, John left the firm. Then, through an old friend of his father, John became assistant to the owner of a small bank in Homeville, New York.

David Harum, the owner of the bank, was a crusty old man who enjoyed his reputation as a skinflint. What most of the townspeople did not know was that he was quite a philanthropist in his own way but preferred to cover up his charity and good deeds with gruff words. Harum's one vice was horse trading. His sister, who kept house for him, firmly believed that he would rather trade horses than eat or sleep. Moreover, he usually came out ahead in any swapping deal.

David Harum was well pleased with the appearance of his new assistant, John Lenox; and when John took hold of his duties better than any other clerk in the bank had ever done, David Harum began to think seriously of looking after the young man's future. Harum felt that John should have an opportunity to better himself, but he wanted first to be certain that he was not mistaken in judging the young man's character. He set out to discover what he wanted to know in a peculiar way. He let John live uncomfortably in a broken-down hotel for several months to ascertain his fortitude. He also gave John several chances to be dishonest by practices that a sharp trader like Harum might be expected to approve. John's straightforward dealings won Harum's respect and approval. He casually gave John five ten-dollar gold pieces and asked him to move into a room in Harum's own large house with him and his sister, Polly.

John had begun to discover that Harum was not the selfish and crusty old man that he appeared. He knew that Harum had called in a widow whose mortgage was overdue and had torn up the paper because the woman's husband had at one time taken Harum to the circus when the banker was a little boy without a cent to his name. Even Harum's horse trading was different when one came to know him. As John Lenox discovered, Harum only let people cheat themselves. If someone professed to know all about horses, Harum used the trade to teach him a lesson, but if a tyro professed his ignorance of the animals, Harum was sure to give him a fair exchange. He was a living example of the proverb that propounds shrewdly that it is impossible to cheat an honest man and, the corollary, that it is almost impossible not to cheat a dishonest one.

John Lenox's life in Homeville was restricted, and he was thrown much on his own resources. He secured a piano for himself and played in the evenings or read from a small collection of books that he had saved from his father's library. His only real friends were David Harum and Harum's sister, Polly, both old enough to be John's parents. He spent many pleasant hours in Harum's company. They would often take Harum's horses out for a drive, during which the loquacious banker would regale the young man with stories of horse trading, of the foibles of the people in the community, or of Harum's early life when he had run away from home to work along the Erie Canal. On one of these rides, Harum learned that John was in love with an heiress he had met in Europe. John felt that he could not ask her to marry him until he had proved himself a success.

Soon afterward, Harum gave John an opportunity to make a large amount of money. Harum had a tip on a corner in pork on the Chicago market. Harum and John bought several thousand barrels of pork and sold them at a huge profit. This deal was the first step Harum took to make John financially independent.

John's second year in Homeville was more eventful. By that time, he had been accepted as a member of the community and had made friends both in the town and among the wealthy people who came to Homeville during the summer months. Meanwhile, Harum revealed to his sister his plan to retire from active work in the bank and to make John his partner. He also revealed to her that John had a tract of land in Pennsylvania that everyone had considered worthless but that was likely to produce oil. Harum, in his younger days, had spent some time in the Pennsylvania oil fields, and like most small-town bankers of the time, he knew something about a great many financial activities. What he did not reveal to his sister was that he also planned to leave his estate to John, for, excepting Polly, he had no relatives.

By the end of his third year in Harum's bank, John had made enough money through market operations to make himself independent, and he could have left the bank and the town for New York City if he had cared to do so. When the banker broached the subject to him, John admitted that two years before, the prospect of returning to the city would have been welcome. Now he had come to like Homeville and had no desire to leave the home of David Harum and his sister. That was exactly what Harum wanted to hear. He told John that he was to become a partner in the bank. Harum also told him that a company wanted to lease his Pennsylvania land for the purpose of drilling for oil.

Then John fell ill, and his doctor sent him on a Mediterranean cruise. While aboard ship, John met Mary Blake, the young heiress with whom he had fallen in love several years before. At first John thought, because of an error in the ship's passenger list, that Mary Blake was already married. One moonlit night, on a mountain overlooking the bay at Naples, Mary informed John of his mistake and promised to marry him, and a few days later, Harum was overjoyed to receive a cable announcing John's marriage. Harum wired back the good news that drilling had begun on the property in Pennsylvania.

John and Mary returned to the United States several months later. They settled in Homeville, and John took over the bank. Then David Harum was free to spend the rest of his days driving about the countryside and swapping horses.

Critical Evaluation:

David Harum grew directly from Edward Noyes Westcott's experiences both with the people and the customs of Upstate New York and with a type of small-town American banker. David Harum is so convincingly rooted in northeastern rural America that it stands as a good example of American "local color" fiction that developed and flourished in the United States during the last half of the nineteenth century. Although local color as a literary movement contains diverse and often contradictory elements, the main energies of its writers were devoted to sketching regional geography, customs, and dialects; it developed partly as a counter to the "American novel" or attempted to capture the whole "American" experience in one work.

What is especially interesting in David Harum is Harum himself. Westcott has succeeded in uncovering, with generous detail, the moral and psychological forces, and the central impulses as well as the crotchets, of a small-town banker in Upstate New York. Harum's incessant horse trading, his Yankee sense, and above all, his pragmatism form the central interest of the novel. On the one hand, Harum looks out for himself and so embodies that shrewd, self-interested outlook so characteristic of his type; on the other hand, Westcott has been careful to modify this selfishness with Harum's quiet charity and rough-hewn sense of economic justice. Thus, David Harum stands as both a regional type and as an example of a certain economic morality. He is a banker, but he is also a good man.

The weakness in the novel is the plot concerning Lenox and his sweetheart. This plot, which takes the story too far from its central interest, both geographically and morally, seems both sentimental and contrived. Actually, the difficulty Westcott experienced in sustaining a purely regional narrative, as well as his sentimentality, are weaknesses common among the local colorists.

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