James De Mille Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

James De Mille 1833-1880

Canadian novelist.

While an esteemed scholar and rhetorician at two Canadian universities, James De Mille sustained a second career as a prolific writer of popular Victorian novels. He was regarded as an extremely learned professor of rhetoric, history, English literature, and classics and possessed a thorough knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. He also commanded a working knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic. In addition to these academic and linguistic pursuits, he composed novels, publishing more than twenty “potboilers”—as the author himself called them—before his sudden death in 1880. Churning out boys' adventure stories, historical novels, and satirical romances, De Mille was, by and large, ignored by the nineteenth-century critical community, whose collective opinion was strongly swayed by the odd dichotomy between De Mille as an esteemed professor and De Mille as a writer of sensational novels. His literary reputation primarily rests on only one novel, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), published anonymously eight years after his death. Structured as a story-within-a-story, the satirical novel has only been accepted as a minor classic of Canadian fiction since the 1960s, with critical debate centering on the question of genre and the novel's date of composition, literary influences, organization, object of satire, and biblical undertones.

Biographical Information

De Mille was born on August 23, 1833, in Saint John, New Brunswick, the third child of Elizabeth and Nathan Smith De Mill (James added the “e” to his surname sometime after 1865). A shipowner and prosperous lumber merchant, Nathan De Mill was a respected member of the community and a strict, evangelical Christian. Though Nathan De Mill was born an Anglican, he joined the Baptist church in 1842. Therefore, from the age of nine, James was raised a Baptist. He attended Baptist schools, including Horton Academy, which his father helped to found, and later Acadia College (now Acadia University). From 1850 to 1852, James toured Europe with his brother, gathering facts and tidbits of information that would inform his fiction for the next thirty years. He enrolled at Brown University in Rhode Island in 1852, graduating two years later with a master's degree. While at Brown, James, an avid reader, began writing fiction and essays for such publications as Putnam's Monthly. A few years later he started a bookstore in Saint John to help his father, whose lumber business was failing. By 1859 the bookshop had closed, having amassed over twenty thousand dollars in debt that James was not able to repay until the early 1870s. That same year he married Elizabeth Anne Pryor, with whom he had three sons and one daughter.

In 1860 James began contributing serial fiction to the Christian Watchman, a publication edited by his brother, Elisha, an Anglican minister. The following year he was named professor of classics at Acadia College. By that time James had already published one novel, the anonymous Andy O'Hara (1861), and there were indications that he was turning from the strict piety of the Baptist church. Colleagues remembered that he referred to himself as a sincere Christian yet delighted in satirizing evangelical piety. By 1865 he decided to leave Acadia for Dalhousie College in Halifax, where he accepted the chair of history and rhetoric. At this time he also left the Baptist church in order to join the Anglican church, a decision not made official until a year after his father's death. There are indications, too, that during this time De Mille had already begun work on A Strange Manuscript. For the next fifteen years he supplied popular novels for New York and Boston publishers. By 1870, when he had five manuscripts published, critics claimed that De Mille's feverish writing pace was an attempt to ease his financial burdens. De Mille died suddenly in 1880.

Major Works

The bulk of De Mille's output consists of sensational novels, historical novels, and satirical romances. He especially enjoyed writing self-parodies involving the act of writing itself—like The Dodge Club (1869) and Cord and Creese (1869). Religion, too, plays a major role in his work. Two early works—The Martyr of the Catacombs (1865) and Helena's Household (1867)—examine the plight of the Roman Christians. The latter, consisting of a theological discussion dramatized through the use of characters, features a montage of ancient Roman religious and political personality types. Both Helena and Marcus, her son, are Christians, while Helena's husband, Labeo, a favorite of Nero's court, represents Roman authority and corruption. The novel incorporates such major writers of the New Testament as St. Paul and St. Luke and considers issues involving the sinful nature of man, the redemptive aspect of the crucifixion, the literal truth of biblical scriptures, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. De Mille experienced some difficulty finding a publisher for Helena's Household, and even after he secured a publisher he was forced to make radical revisions to the novel in order to make it agreeable to the popular market. He apparently found this whole process so distasteful that he determined not to repeat it; thereafter, according to biographers, he simply produced exactly what publishers wanted.

None of his De Mille's “potboilers” garnered critical attention, although they were extremely successful. Ironically, his most famous novel was never published during his lifetime, and some critics question whether De Mille actually ever finished the manuscript. The satiric and fantastical A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was found among the author's papers after his death and has been compared favorably with the semi-scientific adventure stories of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The story is framed by the 1850 discovery of a manuscript found encased in a copper cylinder floating in the ocean. Read by four wealthy English gentlemen on a leisure cruise, the manuscript reveals that its author, Adam More, has been stranded since 1843 among a cannibalistic, macabre people residing in the deepest reaches of Antarctica. More, an English seaman, was separated from his ship after conveying convicts to Van Dieman's Land in Australia. The Kosekins, with whom More (or Atam-or, his Kosekin name) resides, have inverted the traditional values of the Western world, revering darkness, poverty, and death over their counterparts light, wealth, and life. Their highest-ranking citizen, for example, is the materially destitute Chief Pauper, who lives within the lowliest of means. As the four English yachtsmen continue reading, they learn that the Kosekins wish to “honor” More by performing his execution and enjoying a cannibalistic feast. More, however, kills his would-be executioners. This act elevates him and his new bride to regal status, a position they manipulate into untold wealth and power. Nonetheless, More wishes to escape his fate, and it is for this reason that he has written his narrative and placed it in the sea, in the hopes that the finder will contact More's father. A Strange Manuscript ends quite abruptly when the gentlemen readers decide to stop for tea.

Critical Reception

Most critical assessments of De Mille's work focus on A Strange Manuscript, although for almost an entire century after its publication the novel was virtually ignored by critics, who viewed it as confused and unintelligible. Interest was raised, however, following its 1969 publication in the New Canadian Library series. This brief but intense scrutiny of the novel focused in large part on its composition date. Those who proposed that the novel was written in the late 1870s accused De Mille of plagiarism, citing similarities between A Strange Manuscript and the novels of Jules Verne and English satirist Samuel Butler. Most critics guessed De Mille wrote the narrative in the mid to late 1860s, pointing to an 1880 letter written by De Mille's brother, who claimed that A Strange Manuscript was one of the first stories written by James and, though complete, did not contain an ending satisfactory to its author.

Other commentary considers the question of genre, with critics debating the novel's merits as a piece of utopian fiction, a sensational novel, or a fantastic adventure story. Critics discuss its value as a satire, questioning whether its target is Christianity, the aristocracy, Western values, British imperialism, or Victorian society in general. This analysis escalated after the 1986 release of an authoritative edition of the text published by the Carleton University Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts. Critics point out an apparent ironic sameness between the Kosekin and Victorian societies, emphasizing the intense self-interest shared by both groups. In her essay centering on cannibalism in the novel, Maggie Kilgour, for instance, sees the Kosekins's intense desire to achieve a perfect altruism—their powerful wish for self-annihilation and longing to become food for others—as a horrendous version of Western capitalism, a competitive system driven by egoism and a quest for power. Looking at the novel as a colonialist text, Stephen Milnes argues that A Strange Manuscript represents the triumph of Western technology and materialism over the primitive and barbaric. Others point out echoes of Christianity in the novel, suggesting that De Mille satirized the Beatitudes—part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount—to parody Christian extremism.

The ending of A Strange Manuscript is another source of debate. Some who assess it as incomplete, inconclusive, and clumsy have suggested that the novel was hastily pieced together for publication after the death of its author. Others, citing De Mille's sudden death, contend that he simply ran out of time to finish the work. Still others, pointing out the sheer number of potboilers De Mille wrote, question whether De Mille was capable of finishing a “legitimate” novel. Structural deficiencies are frequently cited as reasons for calling the novel unfinished. Other critics, however, find the abrupt ending a deliberate literary artifice. Camille R. La Bossiere, for example, asserts that De Mille's comedic use of repetition in the novel simply leads to the story running itself out. La Bossiere further argues that the novel is De Mille's deliberate attempt to demonstrate the absurdity of following one's beliefs and principles to the extreme—a motif that is stressed repeatedly throughout the novel. The literary technique of framing within the story has also roused critical attention. The four yachtsmen are often seen as the novel's internal English literary critics who take it upon themselves to comment on and criticize More's story. In this way the men mirror the outside reader's role as critic, a point Gwendolyn Guth emphasizes. According to Guth, De Mille used this technique to mock and parody the very act of literary analysis itself, with one reader literally reading another reader's insights into a peculiar and bizarre society.