Harp of a Thousand Strings

by H. L. Davis
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2374

First published: 1947

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical-philosophical romance

Time of work: Late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Locale: The American prairie country, Tripoli, and Paris

Principal Characters:

Melancthon Crawford, ,

Commodore Robinette, and

Apeyahola (Jory), the founders of a prairie town

Jean-Lambert Tallien, a French revolutionist

Therese de Fontenay, the beloved of Tallien

Rene de Bercy, her fiance

Anne-Joseph Theroigne, de Bercy's beloved

Monsieur de Chimay, a wealthy aristocrat and merchant

The Story

Old Melancthon Crawford had been one of the founders of a prairie town in the Osage country. In his last years, his eccentricities became so marked that relatives had him sent back to his birthplace, a Pennsylvania village he had always hated, where they could keep an eye on him and the disposal of his property. After his departure on the eastbound stage, Commodore Robinette and Apeyahola, a Creek Indian whom the settlers called Jory, climbed to the prairie swell where Crawford's trading post had stood. Talking about the past, they thought back to a decisive night the three had in common, a night when Tripoli was being bombarded by American naval guns during the war with the Barbary pirates.

Under cover of the bombardment, the three Americans, prisoners escaped from the pasha's dungeons, had taken refuge in a warehouse belonging to Thurlow and Sons, Boston merchants. Young Crawford was all for carrying away some loot he found in a storeroom, but Apeyahola and Robinette, the wounded sailor, were against the idea. During the argument, Monsieur Tallien entered the warehouse. Onetime Citizen President of the French National Convention, now an obscure consular official under Napoleon, he was there to keep an appointment with a Paris associate of Thurlow and Sons. To pass the time while waiting, he told the tale of his rise and eventual ruin because of his love for the notorious Therese de Fontenay. Crawford, Robinette, and the Indian made a strange audience. Tallien told his story, however, because he saw each young American marked by one phase of his own career: vengeance, ambition, and love.

Jean-Lambert Tallien, protege of the old Marquis de Bercy, was intended for a career in law. During a visit to the de Bercy estate, he watched Anne-Joseph Theroigne being carried forcibly away because she had attracted the interest of Rene, the young marquis, soon to marry the lovely Countess Therese de Fontenay. While Tallien stood watching the disappearing cart that carried Anne-Joseph, Rene rode up with the Countess and haughtily ordered the student to open a gate. At Tallien's refusal, the young nobleman raised his whip. Tallien struck the Marquis' horse. The animal threw his rider and dragged him, unconscious and bleeding, by one stirrup.

Tallien hid in the woods while angry villagers hunted him with guns and pitchforks. Father Jarnatt, the parish priest, saved the fugitive and sent him off to Paris to seek his fortune in journalism. These things happened in the year the Bastille fell.

In Paris, Tallien again met Anne-Joseph Theroigne, by that time a rough-tongued, rabble-rousing virago, the friend of Robespierre and members of the Jacobin Club. It was she who helped Tallien to establish L'AMI DES CITOYENS, the revolutionary newspaper with which he placarded Paris. Because of her, he led the assault on the Tuilleries during the August riots. Later, he became a deputy to the National Convention and a commissioner to the provinces. Anne-Joseph helped his rise in public favor because she expected to find him useful. Still loving Rene de Bercy, she had secretly aided his escape to England. Through Tallien, she hoped eventually to locate Therese de Fontenay, whom she hated.

A man and a woman muffled in native costume entered the warehouse. The man was Monsieur de Chimay, who had come ashore from a French ship to arrange some trade business with Tallien. The woman was not introduced. Since they could not leave the warehouse before the bombardment ended, Tallien continued his story.

One day, he heard his name called from a cartload of prisoners. In the wagon was Therese de Fontenay, whom he had never forgotten. Hoping to protect her from Anne-Joseph's fury, he denounced the virago for her help to de Bercy and thrust her into a mob that stripped and beat her. The woman, never recovering from that brutal treatment, lived mad for many years.

Therese was imprisoned in the Carmes. Through spies, Tallien tried to take measures for her safety. At last, to save her life, he overthrew Robespierre and ended the Reign of Terror. Telling his story, he made it all sound simple; the others had to guess at the bribes, the promised reprisals, all the scheming of those three anxious days while he held captive the influential citizens of Paris and executed the coup d'etat of Thermidor. Although he knew that Therese was involved in a plot for an emigre invasion, he married her later that year.

Choices made for her sake led to other choices that he neither expected nor wanted. Jealous of Captain Belleval, an officer attentive to Therese while she was in prison, he arranged to have the Captain betrayed to the rebels of the Vendee. When the emigres finally landed at Quiberon, all were captured. At the same time, the peasant who had betrayed Belleval was taken prisoner. In his effort to save the peasant's life, Tallien quarreled with General Hoche over the disposition of the other prisoners, and, in the end, he was forced to declare them enemies of the state and order their execution. Among those who perished was Rene de Bercy, who chose death with honor rather than accept Tallien's offer of escape to England.

When Tallien returned to Paris and told Therese, haltingly, what had happened, she said only that she knew at last what a life was worth. Months later, Monsieur de Chimay arrived from London with some of de Bercy's keepsakes. De Chimay was in trade, an associate of the powerful Thurlow firm and a friend of Ouvrard, the influential banker who had become Therese's lover. Therese saw in the two men a power she could use to undermine that of her husband.

The shelling had ended; Tallien became silent. When he and de Chimay withdrew to transact their business, the woman gave the three Americans a case containing two pistols and a knife, each decorated with the crest of a hand holding a flower. For a moment, she drew aside her veil, and they saw the face of Therese de Fontenay. The Americans went out toward the harbor, each marked by a symbol of Tallien's defeat, but carrying with them also a memory of Therese's beauty.

Years later, Robinette and Apeyahola, ragged and gaunt, were traveling overland from the Mississippi. Wanted by the authorities (the Commodore because of an affair of gallantry in Spanish territory and for taking part in the Gutierrez insurrection, Apeyahola for a murder in Georgia), they found carved on a tree the design of a hand holding a flower. That crest marked their trail to Crawford's trading post in the Indian country. There they stayed, philanderer, murderer, and thief. When the time came for them to name the village growing up around the old trading post, each remembered the woman they had seen briefly by candlelight in a dingy warehouse. So, out of the turmoil and blood of the French Revolution, Therese de Fontenay gave her name to a new town on the American prairie.

Critical Evaluation:

HARP OF A THOUSAND STRINGS is a novel linking the personalities and events of the French Revolution to the development of the American West. Behind this story of the naming of a prairie town lies the author's theory that the incidents of history are never final and that, although they may change form or significance, they continue to move like a slow ground swell from country to country among people who have been affected by history's erosions and accretions. History itself is the thousand-stringed harp of the title, an instrument capable of endless vibrations and echoes.

In order to present his theme of the reverberations of history, H. L. Davis made his novel contrapuntal in design. The American frontier, the Barbary wars, and the French Revolution are introduced briefly for thematic effect, later to be alternated and recombined. The pattern is one of triads. The three settings, America, Tripoli, and France; the three Americans, each corresponding to one of the drives in Tallien's career; the three choices Tallien must make and their consequences—all are essential to the craftsmanship and design of this unusual and rewarding historical novel.

HARP OF A THOUSAND STRINGS is not easy to read. Characters are introduced abruptly, there are random digressions that seem to have little to do with the main narrative, and the writing makes no concessions to casual readers. Davis is not afraid to use coincidence in his plot as freely as Dickens did, occasionally straining the reader's patience. The novel, however, has many merits, including the prose which is of a schooled intelligence, contemplative and elegant, and subtle delineation of character. The reader comes to enjoy the play of the author's mind over the intricate—almost labyrinthine—situations and the equally scrupulous assessment of human motivation.

The style changes with the narrative. When Davis describes the three founding fathers in their dotage, he uses the garrulous, inventive ramblings of a frontier tale. As the scene shifts to France, the language takes on an epigrammatic, paradoxical elegance. He does not dwell on the tangible, surface impressions of the past found in most historical novels but, rather, creates a dreamlike past, filled with shadow and light. Goyaesque images pervade the book, grotesque, shadowy scenes of hideous people engaged in vile acts. Yet the book is often very funny. This juxtaposition of wit and anger gives the novel a unique resonance and power.

Davis casts a wry eye at men such as Robespierre and Fouche and the hero of the novel, Tallien. The implication is that all men are mortal and are played on by history as much as they play upon history. The story shows how personal motives—and not always of the highest order—can influence the actions that make history. Many of the characters look back over their lives with anger and regret. Jory and the Commodore both gaze back on frustrated hopes and years of humiliation and bitterness, but the Commodore tells his friend that, after a certain point, one no longer should compare one's life to one's early expectations and hopes. Survival should be sufficient.

Like his contemporaries A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Davis was a literary pioneer of the American West, rediscovering and reinterpreting the past with the eyes of an artist and poet. Davis' novels are loosely plotted, almost picaresque, and his style is quiet although at times complicated. What sets his work above the usual is his mood, what some critics have called "the magic qualities of place and emotion." He is a man who writes with the knowledge of the energies that make history and can present this awareness in tales that are lyrical, tragic, and sometimes comic.

Although an exact contemporary of the so-called Lost Generation which included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, Davis had little in common with them. He began fiction writing late and was never prolific. Almost twelve years elapsed between his first prize-winning novel, HONEY IN THE HORN, and his next, HARP OF A THOUSAND STRINGS. He was always a man and writer who followed his own vision, belonging to no coterie or school. First and foremost, he was a craftsman.

This craftsmanship is particularly evident in the complicated structure of HARP OF A THOUSAND STRINGS. The story is framed by the rugged grandeur and squalor of the American frontier. The tale moves the reader from the American West to Tripoli to the France of the Revolution, back to Tripoli in the time of Napoleon, and then back to the American frontier. The reader seems to view the story through a series of refracting lenses. By the time he has finished the book, it has taken on the character of a legend: larger than life, abstract, and rife with moral significance.

The theme of money and the craving for it runs through the novel beside the theme of lust for power. With the additional motifs of vengeance and thwarted love, these themes give the novel a bitter view of mankind. Only when he writes about nature does Davis attempt to paint a pretty picture. Men and man-created objects, whether cities or smaller creations, are treated harshly.

The author frequently makes comments about women. None of the female characters in the novel are very likable or admirable. Of the two principal women, one is passionately destructive, the other is cold and calculating. Both are self-centered. This last trait is shared by the male characters as well. With the possible exception of Father Jarnatt, the characters are all self-seeking, concerned primarily with their own survival. Few of them are presented as vivid, living beings.

Only Anne-Joseph Theroigne emerges as a physical, dynamic human force, lingering in the imagination long after the book is finished. The best realized scenes are those of Anne-Joseph haranguing Parisian mobs during the Reign of Terror. Her animal vitality and vulgarity give the novel a needed push, and the book suffers when she drops from the scene.

Davis, however, is obviously not interested in that physical, dynamic side of characterization. His gift is for the analytical consideration of motives and emotions. The reader may not be able to visualize a character, but the reasoning processes of that character are quite clearly presented. The reader understands why the characters in the novel double-cross one another, even if he does not always care.

HARP OF A THOUSAND STRINGS is an impressive achievement, a highly cerebral novel, which, although it does not greatly move the reader emotionally, provides rewarding moments of contemplation and fascinating views of contrasting worlds. An intellectual maze, a collection of Chinese boxes, one inside the other, the novel draws the reader ever in, farther and farther, gradually demonstrating that the cycles called history are all tightly fitted together. It is a book worth the effort of reading.

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