Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)