Harriette Arnow Arnow, Harriette (Vol. 7) - Essay

Arnow, Harriette (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arnow, Harriette 1908–

Mrs Arnow, an American author of novels and nonfiction, is best known for The Dollmaker, the final work of her Kentucky trilogy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The truest feat of the imagination in fiction is to create and people a private world, which is what the good novel always does. To accomplish this with no apparent effort, so that the reader simply loses sight of how the thing is done in his enjoyment of what it is, may very well be called the supreme test of the maker of fiction.

It is a test Mrs. Arnow passes with flying colors. She writes, or seems to write, as effortlessly as a bird sings, and the warmth, the beauty, the sadness and the ache of life itself are not even once absent from her pages….

"Hunter's Horn," like her first novel, "Mountain Paths," is a story of Kentucky hill people. It is the story of Nunn Ballew's private war with a fox he called King Devil, and it does not seem foolish or careless to say that the conflict recalls Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale Moby Dick. But in recording this feud between man and beast Mrs. Arnow has written principally of the lot of women in the simpler societies, and revealed through their lives the ambivalence of love and hatred….

One may be very sure that all who ever have loved hounds and heard them run the fox, their voices making music to live a lifetime in the mind, will read this novel with unalloyed pleasure. But the truth is it should appeal to people everywhere, because its foundation is the relationships between men and women.

It is a rich piece of fiction, with all its riches integrated into a work of art by a hand that seems to know instinctively what is right and fitting to do. This reviewer laid it aside a little sad that it was finished but deeply grateful for the experience of reading something that has the feeling of a classic about it.

Herschel Brickell, "The Kentucky Man and King Devil," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 29, 1949, p. 4.

Although Harriette Simpson Arnow says that Flowering of the Cumberland … "has in it even less of great events and famous men" than did her successful Seedtime on the Cumberland, published in 1960, it is the result of the same intensive "rummagings" into wills, inventories, court records, early newspapers, unpublished manuscripts, and store accounts, and forms a companion piece rather than a sequel to Seedtime. No one can read it without being more than certain that Mrs. Arnow has done a vast amount of research on the Cumberland Valley.

The book is actually a tremendous grabbag of information, a welter of facts, figures, anecdotes, and opinions—the opinions, however, clearly separated from the facts….

The time is chiefly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it leaps forwards and backwards. Open the book anywhere and you may get a list of pioneer families, a quotation from Dr. Johnson (how did he get in here?), a picture of Andrew Jackson chasing a neighbor with a fence rail, a discussion of livestock, or an explanation of how to make peach brandy. The triumph of the book is that, grabbag though it is, this information is nearly always fascinating, no matter where you find it.

Throughout, Mrs. Arnow has liberally spread her own opinions and interpretations. She is not a member of the Noble Savage school, after the manner of, say, William Bartram, and it is her opinion the frontiersmen treated the Indians better than the Indians treated them. The fact that it was the Indians who originally had the land, and the pioneers were occupying it by force, troubles her not. Indeed, she might be said to belong to the Noble Pioneer school, finding almost everything, especially their methods of raising babies, better than they are now. A large percentage of the book, by the way, is devoted to the daily life of the female on the frontier….

[The] text, though scrambled, is never confusing. Mrs. Arnow just had too much information, and all of it interesting. (p. 42)

Wyatt Blassingame, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1963 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 23, 1963.

Harriette Simpson Arnow's The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution is no blithesome account of the wintering at Valley Forge or the frolic at the Boston Tea Party. From this book emerges a sense that all was not right even then, and that it was fast on its way to becoming very wrong.

Arnow's dark view of American history is not untypical of her work. She holds a depressing vision of what history has done to the people who live through it, people who make up her novels, not her historical studies. In those studies she is objective and enthusiastic about the story of her native region, the Cumberland River Valley. But her novel Hunter's Horn gave us the Kentucky mountain folk during the Depression, forlornly struggling to survive and to preserve their traditional life-styles in the face of modern times. In The Dollmaker similar people were uprooted and grafted onto the turmoil of wartime Detroit, losing their land, their dignity and their faith in themselves in the process. An America vilified by violent prejudice against communism, foreignness or nonconformity shaped the background for The Weedkiller's Daughter, where the nouveau-riche of a Detroit suburb were rapidly succeeding in destroying the world of nature and their children's personalities. According to Arnow America hasn't worked; it foundered at the beginning and has been dragging its people down with it in its death throes. (p. 29)

In Arnow's eyes Americans themselves have ruined their country, from the first seaboard industrialists to the urban fools of the 20th century….

The so-called civilized world is that of wars and growing industry. But the wilderness, if not corrupt, is being corrupted. Leslie [the protagonist of The Kentucky Trace] makes his way through a vanishing Eden, whispering prayers "for the safety of the buffalo; so few were left in these parts"; dreaming of one day reaching the Western sea but knowing that in his wake will come settlers, towns, factories; witnessing not only the passing of the wilderness or of nature itself, but the betrayal of ancient values, a simpler way of life. This is above all an ecological novel set in the American Revolution.

Arnow does understand and convey the romance and the reality of her American landscape with love, and a luster to her words. With the sensibility of the 19th-century landscape painter, and amidst the sweep of nature, stand her tiny figures dwarfed by their surroundings, painted in perspective to show the immenseness of the American landscape. (p. 30)

Celia Betsky, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 31, 1974.

Harriette Simpson Arnow's Kentucky trilogy began with Mountain Path (1936), continued with Hunter's Horn (1949) and was completed with her finest novel, The Dollmaker (1954). Whether the books are read today as regional, or realistic or even feminist writing, they are first of all a coherent vision, in the best tradition of American fiction, of Americans coming of age on the edge of the shrinking frontier; they tell the stories of men and women who see their dreams of self-sufficiency shrink and their personal freedoms foreclosed by a rapacious industrial society….

Rarely in American fiction has the leading character of a Bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—been a woman [Louisa, in Mountain Path,] who, like Huck Finn, makes her way through physical as well as emotional trials and emerges whole as an adult….

While Mountain Path clearly stands on its own as fiction, it is also a woman's book, particularly a young woman's book, and should be reissued for a new generation of readers. (p. 117)

In a very particular way, the naturalistic outlook is ever present in Harriette Arnow's fiction. Man, even a good man, is always on the verge of violating nature and suffering nature's repayment in misfortunes. Nature tempts man to use it badly, to kill one of its messengers, and when the violent and acquisitive instinct has prevailed, the transgression must be paid for. The dynamic of temptation and retribution must go back deeply in Mrs. Arnow's memory, back to seeing animals killed, to witnessing her countryside despoiled and stripped; this dynamic almost allows her best writing to plot itself….

Harriette Arnow was not a one-book writer, and yet the only novel that has survived and been reprinted a number of times in paperback, and taught in college courses, is The Dollmaker. A runner-up for the 1955 National Book Award (won by Faulkner with The Fable), The Dollmaker is Mrs. Arnow's finest work and deserves its growing reputation. (p. 118)

During the long hiatus between The Dollmaker and her next novel, Harriette Arnow published two personal and social histories of her home country, the Cumberland basin, Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering on the Cumberland (1963).

Then came The Weedkiller's Daughter (… 1970), a radical departure in subject matter and locale from the Kentucky trilogy. The novel is set in suburban Detroit in the mid-1960s. Its characters are affluent Americans, two generations of a politically and emotionally alienated family named Schnitzler. The family is split down the middle over race, the Vietnamese War, communism and how to "treat" nature. Mrs. Arnow was trying to extend her persistent vision of man's destruction of place from the Kentucky hills to the poisoned urban society where the obsession with clearing away nature—symbolized by the weed-killing father of the title—has left man bereft of his reason.

Mrs. Arnow herself gave me two reasons for shifting her focus from her own culture and locale to new material. First, she had never wanted to be a writer with a label, whether regional, realist, transcendentalist, Marxist (she's been called all those things) or, as is happening now, feminist. Second, she believed she had something to write about Middle America. (pp. 119-20)

The second reason for writing The Weedkiller's Daughter was to depict the contrast the author felt existed between Americans of the pioneer period—she had finished researching her Cumberland histories in 1959—and Americans of the 1950s and 1960s….

Harriette Arnow herself was aware that The Weedkiller's Daughter had not been a success even with her "own" readers. Where the book fails to convince is not in its vision of uprooted people further destroying everything that has roots around them but in the characters of the children and parents, cut out of pasteboard models of good and evil. In the Kentucky novels, Mrs. Arnow succeeded so well in placing her characters in their setting, and giving them individuality, that one forgot one was reading about strange and unfamiliar people. The realism of the Kentucky trilogy resides not only in its exceptionally well done details of speech and daily life but in the central truths about the characters' souls. The intimacy and the perspective of the earlier books are lacking in this more recent novel. Which is not to say that the writer should stick to her Kentucky material. Mrs. Arnow's latest novel, The Kentucky Trace,… is a return to the Cumberland during the Revolutionary War. But neither it nor The Weedkiller's Daughter takes the vision of the Kentucky trilogy any further. That vision, at once historical and creative, may not be transplantable. One kind of rural past is gone. Destruction of another kind continues within the city. I would like to see Harriette Arnow tell us what she knows about rootlessness, whether that of the "hillbillies" or her own, in the present time. (p. 120)

Barbara L. Baer, "Harriette Arnow's Chronicles of Destruction," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 31, 1976, pp. 117-20.