Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Louis Bromfield’s first novel, THE GREEN BAY TREE, along with POSSESSION (1925), which continues the subplot of Ellen Tolliver, established for the author a popular reputation while he was still in his twenties. Critics at the time compared the novel with Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO (1919) and Sinclair Lewis’ MAIN STREET (1920) in its harsh treatment of small-town America. Yet the comparison is forced. Although Bromfield’s Town—given no other name but certainly based upon the writer’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio—is described as vulgar, gossip-ridden, and provincial, it is treated, ambivalently, also as the heartland of people of strong, defiant character. Although Lily Shane is in “revolt” against the roots of her past, she occasionally returns from France to her home at Cypress Hill, always carrying with her the conviction that the rest of the world suffers from the same destructive forces that she has left behind in America. THE GREEN BAY TREE, then, is not wholly a satire upon the sterility of American culture; it reaches outward in an attempt to understand the malaise that thrust many nations into the barbarism of World War I. At the same time, the book is a psychological study concerning the disintegration of people of violent, fixed temperament: John Shane, his wife Julia, and above all his strong-willed daughters, Irene and Lily.

As a novel of psychological realism, indeed, THE GREEN BAY TREE resembles Arnold Bennett’s THE OLD WIVES’ TALE (1908). As in Bennett’s novel, the main protagonists are two sisters, one conventional minded and the other adventurous, whose lives are detailed from youth to old age or beyond, to death. Lily Shane, like Sophia Baines in Bennett’s novel, leaves her provincial hometown to live most of her life in France. Although both...

(The entire section is 764 words.)