Harriette Arnow Arnow, Harriette (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arnow, Harriette 1908–

Arnow is an American novelist, short story writer, and social historian. A regional writer, she is best known for The Dollmaker, the final work of her Kentucky trilogy. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Wilton Eckley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mountain Path does not fall into the sentimental tradition of most mountain fiction up to that time…. Mountain Path is the story of an outsider who comes into the mountains with little or no background for understanding the people and their ways….

[The plot] is interesting enough; but it is not really the crux of the novel. On the contrary, the plot exists primarily to provide continuity for the presentation of a gallery of mountain people and, indeed, of a whole way of life. (p. 45)

[It] is not plot that makes Mountain Path a successful novel—for, from that standpoint, the narrative is no more nor no less than those of the host of mountain novels that preceded and accompanied it. Indeed, if Path has weaknesses, they lie in the area of plot. Events are melodramatic and often contrived; characters are occasionally incorporated into the story with little or no relevance to the story line; and foreshadowing is often too obvious. But these flaws are diminished when viewed against the total fabric of the novel.

In Mountain Path Mrs. Arnow has successfully juxtaposed two life views—that of the inhabitants of Cal Valley and that of the world of "civilization" (Louisa). They bring each other into sharp relief and, indeed, are the raison d'être of the novel. In this sense, the plot is merely a vehicle and not an end in itself. Only occasionally does it impinge upon the theme in any obtrusive way. For Mrs. Arnow had the artistic sensitivity and ability to underwrite the story, thus allowing the characters themselves—and the setting—greater exposure. She does not take a moral or ethical stand; she merely presents. But she does not present in a coldly objective fashion as many Realists might.

On the contrary, her sympathy for her characters is clearly discernible. It does not, however, manifest itself in the sentimental fashion that marks so many other mountain novels. Louisa and the Cals all have their faults as well as their virtues. (p. 54)

Mountain Path was received with considerable plaudits by reviewers—and rightly so. It represents in Southern-mountain fiction a break with the sentimentalism that marked that genre for so long. A clearly written and neatly structured novel,… it indicates [Arnow's] ability to identify with her characters while at the same time maintaining an artistic distance that lets them tell their own story—an ability she sharpened in later fictional efforts. (pp. 54-5)

Products of a young talent, [her short stories] are interesting primarily in the hints they provide for work later to come. Both "Marigolds and Mules" and "Washerwoman's Day" dwell simply on themes that Mrs. Arnow works out in more detail and with more artistry in her novels—ones dealing with the struggle of an individual to find meaning and self-identity in a world of condition. These stories, along with "The Hunters," show Mrs. Arnow's ability to remain detached from her material—to permit character and scene to carry the burden. Moreover, they reflect a precision of conception and development that gives them a certain degree of artistic stature in their own right. (p. 56)

The artistic promise apparent in Mountain Path reached fruition in Hunter's Horn, a novel in which Mrs. Arnow once more turned to the Kentucky hills for a setting. If the former work is somewhat encumbered by a melodramatic plot, the latter most certainly is not. In Horn, plot, setting, and characterization are woven together in such a way that they reinforce one another. The result is a highly unified and carefully structured story that, coupled with the artistic simplicity with which it is presented, makes Horn a novel of considerable distinction. (p. 63)

A simple plot summary may leave one with the impression that Horn is not much more than a hunting story, a story of men and hounds and the ritual of the hunt. To be sure, the novel is a hunting story; and, as such, it is interesting enough. But that is only the surface of the novel, the threshold, as it were, of a deeper and more poignant story that derives not only from the effects of Nunn's obsession on the characters in the book and indeed on himself but also from the forces that impinge upon the lives of all who live in Little Smokey Creek country.

Just as in Path, the setting is a vital element in Horn—even more so because of the increased sharpness with which Mrs. Arnow presents it. Viewed as a series of incidents occurring in Little Smokey Creek country, the novel exhibits many of the characteristics of local color. But Horn goes far beyond local color, for Mrs. Arnow is not the kind of Realist who produces merely a photographic and phonographic copy of real life. On the contrary, her Realism exposes the minds of the characters—their fears, their desires, their hates, and their loves. In this process, Mrs. Arnow, as she did in Path, reflects a sympathy for the hill people that emerges not from a sentimental point of view but from an honest emotional detachment and an unyielding artistic integrity. (pp. 64-5)

[Through] descriptive passages, Mrs. Arnow establishes a fundamental relationship between her characters and their environment. On this level, the characters know and understand their world. In short, they are at home in it. Moreover, they appreciate the natural world—not in any romantic or mystical sense, but in a very realistic and practical way…. (p. 66)

Harsh environment, superstition, and fundamental religion—all have their effects on the individual characters of Horn. These effects give the novel its deeper significance. (p. 69)

Through Nunn, Milly, Suse, and Sue Annie, Mrs. Arnow provides four contrasting points of view regarding life on Little Smokey Creek. (p. 82)

[Horn] is essentially a novel of people; for it is through its people that the reader comes to a realization and understanding of the novel's theme. To be sure, one could have a time for himself in analyzing the symbolic implications of King Devil, but the fox is not what really holds the book together thematically. Significant, yes, but as a symbol, he is inadequately and only intermittently developed. What does hold Horn together is the harmonious blend of plot, setting, and character; and, together, they make the novel a fresh and true picture of Kentucky hill life and of life in general.

Isolated in the backwash of time, Horn's people live out their existence with little hope of bettering their lot or of providing their children with much of a chance to better theirs. The relentless conditions of their world, social and physical, dull their sensitivities and prevent them from experiencing almost any emotion except that drummed up by a ranting fundamental preacher or fired up by moonshine whiskey. As a result, they are driven into a self-centeredness which feeds upon itself, breeding distrust, fear, and occasional violence where there is a desperate need for compassion and sympathy.

In providing this rather devastating view of life, Mrs. Arnow does not resort to involved psychological analysis of character nor to the sentimental or moral pleading of social criticism—though certainly the potential for both is abundantly present in the novel. She presents no heroes, no heroines, no great tragedy. Her people are human, with strengths and weaknesses inextricably bound up in their being profoundly affected by their environment. (p. 83)

Thus, while Horn is a novel of the soil, it is something more than that. Beginning in the fall and ending in the spring (two and one-half years later), the story is...

(The entire section is 3205 words.)

Dorothy H. Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Usually categorized as naturalistic fiction, Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker (1954) may be considered more fruitfully within the context of heightened realism. Beneath the deceptively simple surface of its narrative lies a selectivity and shaping that transcends the reportorial naturalistic method. The journey which the novel describes of Gertie Nevels and her family from the Kentucky mountains to Detroit is an archetypal one: from pastoral to urban setting and specifically a literal and metaphorical descent from an almost Edenic environment to the city of Hell. Both physical milieux and the characters' psychological responses re-enforce the perception. To consider Gertie's experience in such terms is to...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)

Glenda Hobbs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Dollmaker's] depiction of family life—the entangled bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters—is unparalleled in modern American fiction. Especially affecting is the loving relationship between mother and daughter shared by Arnow's heroine, Gertie, and five-year-old Cassie. Skillfully and movingly the novel depicts fictional children as original and as realistic as any child the reader has known. It also makes the joys and the pains of motherhood as heartbreakingly palpable as any vicarious account can suggest.

More than just employing fresh subject matter, The Dollmaker dramatizes the frequently skirted conflict between a mother's attempt to be both true to her...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)

Glenda Hobbs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

… Dramatizing her primary theme of Kentucky hill people struggling to maintain their integrity amid family and community pressures, Hunter's Horn equals The Dollmaker in its distinctive characters and its forceful scenes. Hunter's Horn is unusual for juxtaposing raucous, pungent humor with uncompromising depictions of the prejudices and cruelties that constrict lives.

The hero, Nunn Ballew, husband, father of five, and owner of a dilapidated farm, neglects his family responsibilities to hunt the elusive red fox, King Devil. His maniacal pursuit recalls Ahab's search for Moby Dick, but Arnow's novel discloses the family consequences of the obsession as well as the thrill and challenge of an encounter with an enigmatic natural force. A loving though undemonstrative man, Nunn suffers shame and guilt when, for example, he spends all the family's money on two pedigreed foxhounds he hopes will catch King Devil….

But however much we may resent Nunn's improvidence …, it is a testament to Arnow's extraordinary skill at characterization that almost against our will we share his anguish and cheer him on after his four-legged red whale. Hunter's Horn manifests Arnow's ability to create male characters as palpable and as complex as her best women. Nunn can't be written off as another hateful man.

Hunter's Horn will help to defuse the charge that women writers produce only what are denigratingly called "women's books." Arnow's territory is Faulkner's—"the human heart in conflict with itself"—a region broader than sexual politics or the Appalachian hills. She has the Jamesian ability to enter the consciousness of all her characters, Nunn's no less than Gertie's in The Dollmaker.

In Arnow's thickly populated world, many characters are enchantingly or painfully tangible: Suse's impassioned attempt to escape the hill woman's (then) biological determination scorches the novel's last hundred pages…. The novel's childbirth scenes are unrivaled in American fiction. They dramatize unflinchingly the pain and wonder of drugless deliveries….

The heart of the novel is its authentic record of an original, earthy brand of speaking whose appeal goes beyond dialect. The characters' love of talk, demonstrated in their outlandish exaggerations of local occurrences, reflects their exuberance, their wit, and their sympathy with the natural world. With Arnow's talent, King Devil becomes as compelling an adversary as Moby Dick, and Little Smokey Creek as vast a territory as the Pacific Ocean. (p. 134)

Glenda Hobbs, "Harriette Arnow's 'Moby Dick'," in Ms. (© 1979 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VIII, No. 6, December, 1979, pp. 50, 134.