Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092
First published: 1940
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of work: Late nineteenth century
Locale: The Middle West
Parris Mitchell, a resident of Kings Row
Drake McHugh, Parris' friend
Randy Monaghan, McHugh's wife
Cassandra (Cassie) Tower, Parris' friend
Elise Sandor, a newcomer to Kings Row and Parris' friend
Parris Mitchell lived with his German-born grandmother. Speaking English with a decided accent, he seemed different from the other boys his own age, and he was, consequently, much alone. He had only a few friends. There was Jamie Wakefield, whom Parris liked but who made him feel uncomfortable. There was Renee, with whom he went swimming and experienced his first love affair. Renee suddenly moved away. Later, Cassandra Tower gave herself to him. Although he always remembered Renee, he was also in love with Cassie. His best friend was another orphan like himself, Drake McHugh, a young idler whose life was almost completely concerned with women.
Parris studied with Cassie's father, Dr. Tower, a mysterious figure in Kings Row, but a doctor who other physicians admitted was superior to them in knowledge. Parris' grandmother, Madame von Eln, saw to it, too, that he studied the piano with Dr. Perdorff. His grandmother arranged her affairs so that he could go to Vienna for his medical studies.
He knew that his grandmother was dying because Cassie Tower told him so. Shortly after her death, Cassie herself died, shot by Dr. Tower, who later committed suicide, leaving his money and property to Parris. Parris went to stay with Drake McHugh, who lived by himself following the deaths of his aunt and uncle. Drake told Parris not to mention to anyone his connection with the Towers. No one knew why Dr. Tower had killed himself and Cassie. While going through Dr. Tower's papers, Parris discovered that Dr. Tower had been having incestuous relations with his daughter.
While Parris was in Europe, Drake continued his life of pleasure. His romance with Louise Gordon, the daughter of a local doctor, was forbidden by her parents. Drake made plans to invest in a real-estate development. In the meantime, he became friendly with Randy Monaghan, daughter of a railroad employee. Then Drake's guardian absconded with his money, and he was left penniless. For weeks, he haunted the saloons and drank heavily. One morning, unkempt and weary, he went to Randy's home. Shortly afterward, Randy's father got him a job on the railroad. One day, he had an accident. Dr. Gordon was summoned, and he immediately amputated both of Drake's legs.
Meanwhile, Parris had known nothing of what had happened to his friend, for Drake asked Randy and Jamie Wakefield not to mention his misfortunes in their letters to Parris. After the accident, however, Randy wrote to Parris, who answered and gave instructions for taking care of Drake. A short time later, Randy and Drake were married. Parris cabled congratulations and turned over the Tower property to them.
With that money, Drake and Randy went into the real-estate business. Then Parris came back to Kings Row as a staff physician at the insane asylum. Louise Gordon suddenly accused her father of having been a butcher, of having performed needless operations and amputations. When Mrs. Gordon called in Dr. Mitchell to attend Louise, he was advised by his superior, Dr. Nolan, that Louise would fall in love with him. In fact, local gossip was already linking Dr. Mitchell's name with Louise.
Parris investigated Louise's charges and found them to be true. With that discovery, he realized that Drake's legs had been cut off perhaps needlessly. Parris told Randy that at the bottom of every tragedy in Kings Row the hand of Dr. Gordon could probably be found. Drake and Randy made Parris a silent partner in their business. While he was away on another trip to Europe, a local newspaper published a story charging that he had profited from the sale of land to the hospital. Following the advice of Dr. Nolan, Parris kept silent and nothing came of the charges.
Parris became friendly with Elise Sandor, whose father had bought his grandmother's house, and soon he was spending much of his time there. Then Drake McHugh became seriously ill, and it seemed clear that his illness resulted from the amputation. Parris knew that his friend had no chance to survive. Drake died several weeks later.
Randy, only thirty-two years old, was a widow. She decided to sell the business and look after her brother Tod, who was mentally incompetent. Those happenings were all matters of concern to Dr. Parris Mitchell on the night he walked toward the Sandor home where Elise was waiting for him.
Kings Row is long and uneven, but it provides the reader with an engrossing, somewhat more romantic and less satiric view of "Main Street" in the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. Some characters, such as Jamie Wakefield, the would-be poet, are unoriginal and insufficiently individualized to stand up, while others, notably Madame von Eln, are skillfully drawn and unique portraits. The characters and story possessed possibilities that Henry Bellamann did not always realize. He drew back at the point where Sherwood Anderson or William Faulkner would have penetrated more ruthlessly to the heart of small-town tragedy.
Bellamann did, however, attempt to show different levels of society, with the rise of some individuals and the fall of others, representing the interacting fears, hopes, and frustrations of these people. None of these individuals stands alone; the inherent dependence of human beings upon one another is a vital thread that weaves through the book from the beginning to the end.
Kings Row is presented as no idyllic country town. The scandal of the sadistic Dr. Gordon, the suppressed tragedy of Cassie Tower and her father, and the pathetic tale of Vera Lichinska, the brilliant young violinist who stops playing and comes home to Kings Row to stare at the asylum which terrified her as a child, are all skillfully woven into the dominant stories of Parris Mitchell and Drake McHugh. Some scenes, such as the peaceful death of fat, crazy old Lucy Carr, while young Parris plays the out-of-tune piano in her shanty, are perfectly handled and very moving, while other scenes do not quite succeed, but Bellamann is successful more often than not. Some human beings grow as they live, Bellamann seems to suggest, while others are incapable of growth. Yet, despite the tragedy inherent in the human condition, the town and its people endure.