Hamner, Earl, Jr. John Cook Wylie - Essay

John Cook Wylie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the apt phrase of the publisher, this Southern novel ["Spencer's Mountain"] is a "happy" one. Advance-reader Harper Lee colloquially called it "splendid," and Jesse Stuart spoke of the sheer beauty of its simple writing…. In short, the book shows every promise of realizing at least a brief sojourn on the cenotablets of best-sellerdom. Or, to put it another way, with his second novel Mr. Hamner has become unmistakably the full-fledged William Makepeace Thackeray of Nelson County, Virginia…. [Mr. Hamner] remembers the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood with clarity. He reports them sometimes with brilliance and always with affection. His plot is simplicity itself: Country boy grows up, meets city girl, runs up against Latin syntax, sinks same.

Two things about the work (besides its obviously wide appeal to the vast public of happy-novel readers) call for comment. One is the messing around with symbols. There is an early intrusion of a white deer as a non-symbol, and there is a delicately unjelled use of the myth of Sisyphus in a father image. Neither of these, of course, will bother anyone except reviewers.

The other thing is more important, because it unobtrusively makes the work something of a social document in the history of the passing of the Old South. The author has his philosopher's stone resting at the sectarian University of Richmond, and he makes the object of his youth the breaking free from rural chains. Nothing of this sort could possibly have been written by members of an older generation. They wanted only to keep their children down on a farm, which in most cases was no longer a farm.

That Mr. Hamner belongs to a vibrant, new guiltless generation striving for the metropolis and the liberal arts, is clear everywhere in his book….

Apparently the Civil War at long last is over and the old shibboleths no longer work. The past is suddenly dead, even if it is still lovely. The young, in their freedom, can now remember the days of their youth with happiness and tranquillity.

John Cook Wylie, "A Boy Grows Up in Nelson County, Virginia," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 14, 1962, p. 48.