Ernest Buckler Robert D. Chambers - Essay

Robert D. Chambers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The particular interest of Buckler's early sketches and stories is in following themes and characters which would appear in more serious and mature form in the later fiction. In this sense, all his early work was a dress rehearsal for The Mountain and the Valley.

Buckler's first published story was "One Quiet Afternoon," which appeared in the April, 1940 issue of Esquire magazine. Here one senses Buckler struggling to find an appropriate form for his materials. The story lacks a central narrative interest; there is simply too much going on. Any signs of such weakness had disappeared utterly with his next effort, a story called "The First Born Son," published by Esquire in July, 1941. This masterful story combined two themes which were to become central to Buckler's mature work: the tension between fathers and sons, and the city/country conflict. (pp. 55-6)

[For a beginner] the differences between city and country were a useful way to define characterization…. Buckler leaves us with a strong sense of the country as a creative force. By contrast, the city, with its disfiguring drives toward sophistication and materialism, cuts one off from a meaningful flow of experience. (pp. 56-7)

Perhaps more important than the city/country theme in Buckler's early stories is the depiction of family life…. Buckler's best achievements adopt [the narrative voice of a young country boy]. (p. 57)

"Penny in the Dust" might well stand as a kind of archetype of Buckler's achievements in the story form. To begin with, it uses a retrospective framework, a technique of thinking-back which unexpectedly creates a warm glow of memory upon events long buried in the past…. (p. 58)

[In "Penny in the Dust" the] combination of retrospective framework, realistic reconstruction of past emotion, and clear symbolic meaning became the unique imprint of Buckler's short stories. (p. 59)

The essential problem with "A Present for Miss Merriam" is Buckler's handling of Miss Merriam's narration. One feels his uneasiness in adopting the woman's narrative voice—a stiffness not found in his better work. It is therefore useful to contrast the relatively weak "A Present for Miss Merriam" with the superbly successful "Last Delivery Before Christmas." Here the story of Ronnie's gaining a second father, in the person of Syd Weston, and Syd's heroic effort to overcome Ronnie's hostility, is narrated by the very convincing voice of Ronnie himself…. We instinctively respond to the immediacy of Ronnie's narration…. (p. 62)

Taken together, Buckler's early sketches, short stories, and first draft of a novel [Excerpts from a Life] reveal a writer seeking through endless experiment the full and mature expression of his unique vision. All his early writing points unerringly toward his major work, The Mountain and the Valley (1952). (p. 65)

[The] span of perhaps three-quarters of a century [in The Mountain and the Valley] allows Buckler to pursue one of his favourite concerns: the fall-out from one generation to the next of both physical and psychological characteristics—the ways in which habits and mannerisms, oddities of speech and gesture will move down through a family.

The structural device Buckler employs to convey this sense of movement within the Canaan family is Ellen's rug. As she sits, throughout the novel, rummaging in the rag-bag for bits of cloth to weave into her growing rug, her associations in memory with each piece of cloth draw together, like the rug itself, into a kind of family history. This device for widening out the span of time adds both depth and density to the foreground narrative, the story of David Canaan's life. Ellen's rug, moreover, is being worked circle by circle. We thus seem to be watching the growth of a pattern which is closed ring after ring, like the generations of the family, and which, by the end of the novel, is finally complete. (pp. 66-7)

The depiction of David's character is the major concern of "Part One—The Play," but Buckler must also establish the minor characters and sketch in the life of the valley community. He combines these purposes by narrating the events of a single day, with a subtle shifting of focus from David's youthful dreams to the communal tragedy of a double death. In this section, too, he forges the basic symbolic tension of the whole book, the pull between mountain and valley, which will ultimately shape the narrative and open out the book's full significance. (pp. 67-8)

[David's] capacity to invest the future with a dream-like perfection, to impose upon poor mundane reality a splendour it simply cannot sustain—these reactions mark David as different, a difference which Buckler develops by way of contrast with the characters of Joseph and Chris. (p. 68)

David's sense of self is rooted in his difference from others. He exists by reason of a distinct apartness—in this case, a gift with words which marks him off from the rest of the community. One of the strategies of the novel is David's inability to find, literally, a soul mate. Buckler thus confronts us with two basic, and widely contrasting, personalities: one fulfils himself by doing; the other by naming, seeing, and describing what is done. In broader terms, the novel investigates the place of the artist or writer in a communal context which by tradition values arms and muscles more than insight and brains. (p. 69)

It is astonishing how much Buckler accomplishes in these opening chapters…. The major characters have been given unique personalities, and this effect is achieved not by block descriptions or set pieces which, in effect, say to the reader, "This is what this character is like." Buckler's narrative and descriptive process is a finer weave, in which patterns of meaning are established through concrete images. (p. 71)

In addition to the ten characters already established in these opening chapters, Buckler creates a structural pattern which will be sustained throughout. He works his materials into sharply contrasting forces, as the title of the book suggests…. [The] contrasts also exist at an abstract level: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters; youth and age; people who do and people who think; life and death. (p. 72)

By the end of Part Three, Buckler has fully orchestrated [a] powerful but fateful rhythm—David's every act of assertion, however motivated, ironically leading to failure, guilt, and isolation. In the first half of the book, however, this process has been worked mainly with David's external relationships…. The function of Parts Four and Five is to take this destructive rhythm into the heart of the Canaan family.

As Part Four opens, we are aware, from the progress on Ellen's rug, that some time has passed…. David and Joseph are clearing rocks from the field, and David has changed ominously…. [His] dull and resentful mood intensifies in David as together he and his father work the field for rocks. In perhaps the most brilliant writing in the book …, Buckler builds a terrible tension, using a structure of alternating viewpoints, placing one interior monologue over against the other, creating dramatic irony through the mutual misconceptions of David and Joseph. (p. 77)

Part Five, entitled "The Scar," is not only the most physical section of the book, but also the one which seals David's fate…. It is a deeply impressive piece of writing, in which Buckler slowly works David—no match for the other men in physical strength—into a mood of desperate recklessness. His attempt to prove equality ends in a feat of daring which nearly kills him in a fall from the barn beam, and the resultant wound and scar symbolize henceforth his physical difference, which is only aggravated in David's mind by his family's constant solicitude. (p. 79)

In the early pages of [Part Six], Buckler conveys a strong feeling of claustrophobia, partly achieved by a conscious shift in style. As Buckler approaches the final stage of David's story, his prose increasingly takes on an abstract quality, as though the time had arrived for the full meaning of the narrative to unfold…. Buckler thus transforms into empathy that earlier tendency of David to project his own desires into the external world. But it is a development which brings no sense of...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)